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AFCON feat only dawned on me when I returned to Enugu – Ifeanyi Ahidjo Onyedika

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….Says wearing Rangers jersey was fulfilling

….Recalls his brace against Viking of Norway for Eagles as special

Ifeanyi Onyedika as coach of one of the national team

Ifeanyi Onyedika , fondly called Ahidjo, was one of those gifted players who made Rangers tick during the reign of Brazilian coach Roberto Diaz. He was a striker of note who banged in memorable goals for both club and country. Onyedika comes from a football family and was a member of the 1980 AFCON-winning Green Eagles squad.

He tells his story on how he made it to the national team, his AFCON memories and his unforgettable moments at Rangers of Enugu. He spoke with Weekend Editor Onochie Anibeze and Deputy Sports Editor, Jacob Ajom.

Read on

We start with the 1980 Cup of Nations. The story of Ifeanyi Onyedika making the 1980 Nations Cup squad was that of determination and providence. I remember we were training then with NEPA at Enugu campus and you said after one session that , “this Nations Cup coming up next year, I want to be part of that squad.” And you made it happen. Tell us your story

There were things that went on behind the scene that some of you didn’t know about. When I was in CIC, from my Class 2 , I was playing for Vasco da Gama. But because my father didn’t want me to waste time playing football at the expense of my academics, I was only playing away matches. From my Class 2, I was being paid salary.

It was from there that I moved to NEPA. So playing at Da Gama with men gave me a lot of experience. So I could easily take on defenders and all. So scoring goals wasn’t that difficult for me because at Da Gama you had men who could kick the hell out of you and you still played on. A lot of people didn’t know.

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Basically, I started from Christ Church to CIC and from there to Rangers. We were all playing in campus then, like kids playing around. Then I had team players like my elder brother, Emeka and the rest of them. These guys were bundles of talent and I learned one or two things from them; they didn’t fear competition and they carried on with determination. They were never intimidated by any opposition and once they entered the pitch, their resolve was to win. So I had that belief and determination in me too. And it paid off.

The story about the 1980 Cup of Nations was a different story altogether. They had called me earlier to camp in 1979 but I didn’t know what it meant going to the national camp. Sincerely, I didn’t travel anywhere. You knew how Enugu was; very friendly and easy-going. You wouldn’t want to leave Coal City to anywhere. I was wondering, what was the meaning of this camp? And who were these Green Eagles by the way? So I ignored the first invitation.

It then happened that in that same year, Rangers were preparing for a WAFU game against Stella FC of Ivory Coast and we played a friendly match against the national team. We beat them 2-0, Best Ogedegbe was in goal for the national team because Chukwu, Okala and other members of Rangers who were in the national team played for us(Rangers) in that match which we won 2-0. I scored the two goals. Coach Otto Gloria then said, this guy, we will trap him this time. Even at that, I still returned to Enugu with Rangers.

As we returned from Ivory Coast, coach Otto Gloria insisted, ‘this man (me) must not be allowed to return with the rest of Rangers team to Enugu. He made sure I was stopped from going. I didn’t stop there because I still went back to Enugu. It was later that I said okay, and decided to go to the national camp.

When I got to Lagos, the Eagles had a friendly against one German team. Okala had a bad day as two bad goals were scored against him and Best was brought in. I must say that marked the beginning of Best Ogedegbe’s dominance, as he was used throughout in the tournament proper. That singular match spoiled a lot of things for Okala. I came for that match but sat out throughout. That was the first time I was meeting them (Eagles).

After the match, they said we should go to camp, then at Trade Fair Complex, off Lagos-Badagry Expressway. As I was about to enter the bus, the team manager then, I don’t know if you recall him, asked me, ‘where are you going to? Common get out of this bus.’

He asked again, ‘who are you?’ I didn’t know what to say and Madam Rangers who was standing by didn’t help matters. She could have simply explained to the man who I was and that would have been it. But as I alighted from the bus and began to walk away, Otto Gloria was coming from the opposite direction. He welcomed me warmly and said where are you going? Go back and enter the bus. I went back and we all drove to the camp. The rest is history.

In the national camp, I realised there were so many strikers or people who wanted to be strikers and bent on impressing the coach. There was so much struggle as some defied injuries to remain in camp instead of going home. I said to myself, what is all this? If you are injured, why not leave the team. For some it was a matter of life and death. They would pretend and remain in camp despite their injuries. Anyway, I got to work.

There was this friendly match you played before the Nations Cup

He cuts in:

About three of them (friendly games). That particular one was against Viking of Norway, I scored two goals and played very well. The NTA, the only television station then carried the match report, alluding to the fact that Otto Gloria had found what he had been looking for.

What was life like in camp?

It was tough. You just had to break into the main team for you to be accepted. The big guys were there but they were eager to put you where you belonged. They expected something different from young boys like us before they would look at you twice. You had to work hard to be accepted. After doing one or two things. Gradually, I was gaining acceptance because they saw something new in me.

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That opening day of the 1980 AFCON, what was the feeling like as you filed out for Nigeria? Before then, Nigeria had not won the Nations Cup. Tell us what the feeling was like being part of that team considering your almost fairy tale?

To be frank with you, even at that time, I didn’t know the importance of the occasion. To me, it was like I was going to play a match. I barely knew the significance of the tournament or what it meant to Nigeria as a country. It was when I got into the field that I saw the crowd and I asked, what kind of crowd is this? It took me a while to really know what to do, sincerely. I hadn’t played in that kind of setting before. I kept asking myself, ‘what is this?’

Green Eagles filing out in the opening match of 1980 AFCON

It was then that I started seeing something different from what I was used to. It was when we got to the final that I started realising the importance or significance of the whole thing. At that initial stage, the crowd was intimidating. However, I still felt it was not war but football, so I told myself, go in there and do your stuff. But, like I said, it was difficult for me to understand. We played for Rangers and who are you to intimidate us? But this was different.

You were in camp with the likes of Sylvanus Okpala, Muda Lawal, Christian Chukwu, Odegbami, Adokie Amiesimaka among others. What was the relationship between the senior players and the upcoming youngsters like?

It was too much. Playing with the likes of great Muda Lawal, Emmanuel Okala, Segun Odegbami at that point was something out of this world. They had a way of encouraging you on the field of play. They would tell you the exact things to do that would help you. Imagine after the tournament and when we were given cars, there was this thing you hang inside the car (a souvenir). Segun Odegbami went to Ibadan to bring one for me. The atmosphere was friendly.

For the younger ones like me, once you were able to break into the ranks, they would accept you as a younger brother by teaching you everything. Somebody like Muda Lawal never ceased to amuse me. There were things they did that you, a junior player would not dare. They were all great, Amiesimaka, Chukwu was like the grandfather. He was always behind you to clean up all the mess.

How did Otto Gloria execute each match up to the final?

Otto was too much. He just provided what each match required. He had a different plan for each match. Like in the final, although I was playing 9 in the course of the tournament, Otto said because I was not aggressive and he reckoned that the Algerians were skilful and he needed forceful players to break them down. That was why Felix Owolabi(Owo Blow) was deployed as top attacker with Muda behind him. On match day, the Algerians couldn’t handle the situation. So each match had a different plan, depending on how the opposition played. The man was too much.

When you won the AFCON and you were given cars and houses, how did you feel?

I felt on top of the world, but I felt more than that when I got to Enugu. When I arrived in Enugu, it was like I was in a dream land. It was still like a dream to me. When I got to Enugu all my friends, colleagues and relatives were all over me appreciating what I had achieved. They kept asking, do you know what you have done? It was then that I started understanding what happened. I then began to respect myself more.

You are from a family of footballers. Your elder brother Chukwuemeka Onyedika played for Rangers and Nigeria, then you followed suit. Your younger brother too was a great footballer but didn’t make it to the national level even though he had all the talent.

He didn’t pursue it further. It was as if he had a different mentality from Emeka’s and mine. He was a wonderful player but he never took it seriously. Till date, my friends would say you were good but your younger brother was better. I think he saw it differently.

There was this match between Rangers International and Water Corporation of Ibadan, your hosts and you scored all the goals in your 4-0 victory over them. Do a recap and tell us how it all happened?

It was funny. At that time we had double headed mid-season fixtures, you would play a team at home, then you would travel with them to play them away to start the second phase. Here in Enugu, we held them to a 1-1 draw. I could remember how they were boasting that they would deal with us in the return leg in Ibadan.

I didn’t travel to Ibadan with the team. I was in IMT and I had exams. The team travelled on Friday without me. Then on Saturday, one of our fans saw me and he asked what I was doing in Enugu when our team had a very important match in Ibadan. I told him I was just coming out of the exams hall. He then proposed that if he got me a ticket to Lagos would I go for the match? I said yes, I would.

Very early on Saturday, the day the match was supposed to be played, I was given a ticket and driven to the airport, boarded a flight to Lagos. I got to Lagos at about 8.30 a.m and from there I went to Ibadan and joined the team that had been there a day or so earlier. I was not part of the plan, as a matter of fact. Emmanuel Osigwe was supposed to play 9, but somehow, when I got there, it appeared Osigwe had fallen out with the coach. The coach felt Osigwe was holding him to ransom and lamented my absence.

So when I arrived, you needed to see how relieved the man was. He held me by the hand and called me Ahidjo, and in smattering English he said, ‘I know you can make for me; just go there and make for me. Please make it for me. That guy over there (talking of Emma) is full of s..t in the head’. So I went in there, and as God would have it, I scored two in the first half and another two in the second half.

Our opponents couldn’t believe what hit them. They were all beautiful goals and we ran away with the three points.

Remind us who your coach was then?

Coach Roberto Diaz, Brazilian.

(To be continued next week)

Vanguard

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