By Emeka Obasi
Africa never won anything in global soccer until Chukwuma Obiora Nwankwo Igweonu led Christ the King College [CKC] Onitsha to glory at the International Schools Sports Federation [ISSF] championships, Dublin ’77.
This only son was once thrown out of the house by his father for choosing football above academics. The rejected stone became dad’s boy once again and was even celebrated by Highlife maestro Rex Lawson.
Igweonu had a lot going for him. A Valentine boy, born on February 14, 1938, laurels followed every move he made. As soccer captain, St. Paul’s College (Kufena College) Zaria won the Davis Cup for secondary Schools in Northern Nigeria in 1958. At Plateau XI, the club won the Northern Nigeria championships. In 1963, his team Port Harcourt Red Devils, grabbed the Challenge Cup.
That Port Harcourt squad, captained by John Onyeador had as coach, Dan Anyiam, the first Nigerian to manage the national team. The Pitakwa All Stars also paraded Albert Onyeanwuna, Keneth Igboanugo, Dan Maduka and UK Tourists 1949 goal keeper, Sam ‘Magnet’ Ibiam, who had returned from Accra Hearts of Oaks where he relegated Black Star’s number one Fred Dodoo Ankrah to the reserve bench.
The Civil War sent Igweonu and many of his colleagues to the battle field as Biafran Army officers. At the end of the crisis, the ex-fighters became pioneers of Enugu Rangers. Among them were Godwin Achebe, Dominic Nwobodo, Nwabueze ‘Bulldozer’ Nwankwo, Teddy ‘Ajiobi’ Anikputa, Johnny’Wheeler’ Nwosu, Goddy ‘General Garcon’ Okeke, Shedrack Ajaero and Mathias ‘Wonder Boy’ Obianika.
In March 1971, Rangers became Nigerian ad hoc league champions after winning the Amachree Cup. In one of the matches against WNDC Shooting Stars, Igweonu scored a brace and Obianika got one as the Flying Antelopes ran away with a 3-2 victory at the Onikan Stadium, Lagos. In 1973, both players won gold with the East Central State Spartans at the First National Sports Festival, Lagos ’73.
Rex Lawson turned Igweonu to ‘Chukwuma it’s a goal’. That was the nickname that stuck. ‘Chukwuma, shoot am oo, it’s a goal oo’ was a hit in the 1960s. Other names came and did not sound as sweet as the Adaure crooner’s. At Igbo Union School, Gusau, his friends called him ‘Chuma Soccer’. In Jos, they knew him as ‘Bonsue’ or ‘Tiger’. Rangers called their pal ‘Should in case’. because when things got pretty hard, Chukwuma would score. Another nickname was ‘Derick’ which was shortened to ‘DIdi’ and ‘Did it’.
Igweonu’s zenith in international soccer came in 1963 when he made the first Nigerian team to take part in the African Nations Cup. That was the squad of captain Asuquo Ekpe, Isaac Nnado, Emmanuel Omiunu, Niyi Omowon, Lati Gomez, Jide Johnson, Achebe, Onyeanawuna and Ajaero. Although the team was battered by Egypt and Sudan in Kumasi, Ghana, it was the beginning of a journey that earned cup victory in 1980.
Rangers did not let their star go. Even in retirement, he would be called upon to play just because the name scared opponents. Officially, Igweonu hung his cleats in 1973 but continued to feature until 1977 when he travelled to Britain to bag a British coaching diploma. In England, the Port Harcourt Red Devil was attached to Red Devils, Manchester United. He had also played for Nigeria’s Red Devils before the national team changed to Green Eagles in October 1960.
Igweonu also excelled as a coach. He led CKC, Onitsha to Manuwa/Adebajo Cup victory in 1976 which came with the Dublin’77 ticket. That feat in Dublin was the first time Africa would take part in the tournament. On the way to victory, the Nigerians defeated hosts Ireland , Denmark and Holland before subduing Turkey 6-5 penalties after a 2-2 draw in full and overtime. Some stars of that tourney were Nnamdi’ Camel’ Nowkocha, Arthur Ebunam, Sam Igwenagu, Patrick Ikeagu, Okey Ozo and Paul Obiakor.
His first attempt at coaching was not bad. At the Lagos ’73 Sports Festival where he won gold with Spartans , Igweonu also led the East Central State juniors to bronze. Later, he was moved to Owerri as zonal coach. From Owerri the journey continued to Onitsha, Abakaliki, Nnewi and Idemili. The former player went into administration and retired in 2000 as Assistant Director.
I met Igweonu in Owerri in 1975. I was a student and one of my mates, Samuel Okoye, from Enugwu-Agidi took me to the superstar’s home. Owerri at that time was a glorified village. Igweonu and the Okoyes lived in Jos in the First Republic. This my Sam Okoye friend is different from Sam ‘Garba’ Okoye, the footballer who hailed from Enugu and played for Mighty Jets.
Igweonu was fluent in Hausa having being born, bred and ‘buttered’ in the North. He lived in Gusau, schooled in Zaria, played in Jos and worked with United African Company [UAC] in the same town. Some of his friends there were Mathew Atuegbu, Joe Onuora and Tony Ibeabuchi whose father, known as ‘Papa Jos’, hosted the young men regularly.
Many of us could have forgotten this man until he passed on recently. Emma Okala did not forget his senior. I remember the legendary goalkeeper reminding us on Channels television during a live show with Mani Onumonu that Igweonu was still alive. That was around when the old man turned 80. Ndubuisi Isima had to remind me with a photograph that Okala and Igweonu sat together at Okey Isima’s funeral seven years ago in Nsugbe.
Igweonu played for Nigeria from 1958 to 1970. He was at the African Nations Cup , Ghana ’63, won the Challenge Cup with Port Harcourt Red Devils in 1963, Amachree Cup with Rangers in 1971 and gold with Spartans in 1973. As coach, he won the Manuwa/Adebajo Cup in 1976 and to crown it all, became the first African to lead a team to a global trophy in football, in 1977.
As an only son, Igweonu’s dad disowned him because of football. Chukwuma did not stop his own children from playing the game but none of them took it beyond their father. The only one that would have taken the baton, Chinedu, died in 1999. However, ‘It’s a goal’ was blessed with eight more children: Obioma, Afamefuna,, twins Chidebe and Chukwuka, Uchenna, Okwuchukwu, Adaeze and Chiedozie. He had two wives, Nkem and Chinwe.
The good thing is that ex-Enugu Rangers players have a strong union. From Okala to Sam Onyeaka to Charles Okonkwo, they are following the burial plans which will come to a close on September 18. One of the CKC keepers in 1977, Paul Obiako, who also joined the Flying Antelopes, underwent surgery recently and will be strong enough to bid his coach bye.
Sports minister, Sunday Dare, has been doing a good job remembering former heroes, dead and alive. During the nationwide lockdown, he was in Anambra to celebrate with Okala who was a year older. Remarkably, Dare is also a Jos Boy, like Igweonwu.
Igweonu also played for the Eastern Nigerian team, Rovers and Enugu Black Rocks. Leventis, the Iddo Tigers also enjoyed his services. In dressing, Igweonu made a bold statement. For a star who was highest scorer in Northern Nigeria and later in the Garden City, I expect not just Governor Willie Obiano to be working, his South-East colleagues should join hands. Action man, Nyesom Wike, will not be missing in action and our good friend on the Plateau too.