By Jacob Ajom
Nigeria’s checkered history is dotted with some bright spots made possible by unyielding youths that are still fighting for relevance, sixty years after independence. Perhaps, only the literary arts and entertainment, have come close to achieving what the country has attained through sports.
With no adequate funding, sub-standard training facilities and inconsistent policy regimes Nigerian youths have, on several occasions, competed favourably with their better-placed counterparts from other climes.
Apart from the exploits of the likes of boxers Hogan Kid Bassey and Richard Ihetu, a.k.a Dick Tiger and High Jumper Emmanuel Ifeajuna in pre-independence Nigeria, the country’s football teams have, albeit sparingly, raised Nigeria’s profile to unimaginable heights in the international arena. Nigerian teams have made nonsense of some more accomplished teams by churning out very famous victories.
In 1989, for instance, all-mighty Russia, then the Soviet Union(USSR), crumbled under the mesmerising talents that made up the Flying Eagles, Nigeria’s representatives at the FIFA U20 World Cup in Saudi Arabia. From four goals down, midway into the second half and with 28 minutes left of the match, the Nigerian lads staged an uncommon come-back to draw level 4-4 with the Russians before the final whistle of regulation time. That match showcased the famed never-say-die Nigerian spirit to the world, It was a match that rubbished all permutations by pundits. Gifted with an inexhaustible lexicon for acronyms, Nigerians named that match ‘The Dammam Miracle’.
One of the key actors in that game, Mutiu Adepoju said, “after the match, I was still asking myself in the dressing room, whether what had happened was real.” He gave us a vivid account of how it all happened.
“After winning the Tessema Cup and qualifying for the Saudi ’89 FIFA U20 World Cup, we arrived the tournament as African champions. Our first game was against the host country, Saudi Arabia. We beat them 2-1. I scored the opening goal, after that we drew our second match 1-1 with Czechoslovakia and lost the last group match to Portugal.
“We qualified for the quarter-final against Russia. They scored two goals against us in the first half. When we came back for the second half, they scored another two goals and we were four goals down with 28 minutes left of the match. We then talked to ourselves to score at least one goal to reduce the tally, so that we did not end the game in disgrace. Our intention was to reduce the tally to a respectable scoreline. Remember, we were African champions.
“We had a Dimeji Lawal who could dribble anything in sight, a Chris Ohenhen who had bullet shots in his boots and he was a free kick specialist. As for myself, apart from being good in the air, I was also good at holding the ball and difficult to beat in the midfield. Our first goal came through a free kick.
Indeed, we scored two goals through free kicks. I initiated the two fouls on me which were converted by Ohenhen.
“Sam Elijah was a defender who loved to push forward. I didn’t know how he found himself within the box of our opponents and he got the ball and the next thing he did was that he shot at goal and scored. That was the third goal. After that goal and with a few minutes left, we thought we could do it. The Russian defence had collapsed irredeemably. Nduka Ugbade was known for his speed. I had a pass from him and when I returned the pass he had moved to an advanced position. He beat one or two defenders before firing home a shot for the equaliser. It was an indescribable moment for us on the pitch as the referee signaled the end of regulation time. The match went into extra time and we won the ensuing penalty shootout 5-3. We, the players were in a frenzy on the pitch.
“After the match, we went back to camp, had our dinner and kept talking about our feat. I couldn’t sleep as I found it hard to believe what we achieved that night. It was a wonderful feeling”
He said the team, which had been in camp for up to a year, prior to the tournament, put in everything they had to overcome the Russians.
The Flying Eagles went ahead to meet USA in the semi-finals, They won 2-1. Victory over the Americans made Nigeria the first African side to reach a FIFA U20 World Cup (then World Youth Championship) Final. Christopher Ohenhen, Mutiu Adepoju, and Christopher Nwosu were all key elements in a physically imposing and technically gifted outfit.
It was another outing Mutiu, who is fondly called ‘Headmaster’ by his teeming fans, because of his aerial prowess, would not forget easily. He recalled, “I scored the two goals against the USA. The match also stretched into extra time.”
The Flying Eagles came face to face with Portugal in what was termed a ‘grudge match’, having lost to the same team at the group stages. Most Nigerians who watched their darling team against Russia and Team USA thought of nothing short of victory for the Eagles. But it was an anti-climax as the Eagles lost 2-0.
Mutiu recalled. “It was painful that we lost that match. I believe we lost to what I would say fatigue. Having played the quarter-finals that went into extra time and the nail-biting penalty shootout, then the semi-finals stretching into extra time, back-to-back, a lot was taken out of us, especially when you consider the fact that these matches were within three days apart. Portugal didn’t have any such problem. We all wanted that trophy and we came so close.”
The Saudi ’89 tournament provided the former IICC Shooting Stars pearl of a window to fame. “The tournament gave me my break to go to Europe,” he recalled. “I didn’t know scouts from Real Madrid were in Saudi Arabia while the tournament was ongoing. After we returned to Nigeria, they (Real Madrid) came for me. The experience in Spain was unforgettable.
I was a young Nigerian whose only trip outside the shores of the country was during the qualifiers for Saudi ’89. After qualification, Saudi Arabia became the first country I visited outside Africa. So when I found myself in Europe, it was a great experience.”
At Real Madrid, Mutiu confessed, “I was not registered until after one year. Eventually, I was registered for the B team, but intermittently, we trained with the first team.”
According to him, only three foreigners were allowed to play for Real Madrid at the time and for a young boy of 19 years to break into the senior team then was difficult. “After three years, when I should have been ready for promotion, I had an injury and I was sold to Racing Santander. Before I signed for them in 1992, the club had stayed for long in the second division. But after I signed for them, we were promoted to the La Liga at the end of the season. I spent four years with them.
“On deadline day in 1996, Real Soceidad came for me. I was there for another four years.”
After the Saudi ’89 feat, Mutiu and some of his former colleagues in the Flying Eagles were promoted to the Super Eagles. “Yes, I was home based and it took me time to break into the main team because we had a lot of good players who were already playing in Europe. Players like Etim Esin, Samuel Okwaraji, Ademola Adesina, among others.”
He recalled that when he eventually broke into the Super Eagles team, he had numerous memorable games and moments with the team. “I played for 12 years for the Eagles and some of my memorable times were the Senegal ’92 AFCON, where I emerged the second best player of the tournament behind Abedi Pele of Ghana.
I am also proud to be part of the team that qualified Nigeria for her first World Cup in 1994 and I scored some memorable goals for Nigeria. Those are some of the memories that would remain evergreen in my memory. They were too numerous for me to recount.”
He made 48 appearances for Nigeria and scored six goals. He was a member of the 1994 AFCON winning squad as well as the 1994, 1998, and 2002 World Cup squads.
Looking at the present Super Eagles being midwifed by German coach Gernot Rohr, Mutiu said Nigerians should be hopeful. Said he, “the present Super Eagles squad has very young, talented players that can last for many years, if they remain focused. I see the team as one that can deliver.”
He dismissed as untenable, the argument that the present crop of players in the Super Eagles lacked the never-say-die Nigerian spirit and the passion reminiscent of a typical Nigerian team.
“I doubt if that holds water. In terms of attitude I don’t know because of their backgrounds, but I don’t think any player worth his jersey would want to play to lose. Personally, anytime I am on the field I don’t like being on the losing side. Even in training, I strive hard to win because I don’t like to lose.”
However, Mutiu has some advice for Rohr. “I know friendlies are supposed to be test matches to keep your team in good shape for competitive challenges, but you don’t tamper with the core of your team too frequently. You can try a few players during friendly matches but to change more than half the team defeats the purpose. These days, every country wants to win matches, friendlies or not, because apart from having the bragging rights, the monthly FIFA rankings are determined by the number of points a team garners. That is why every country wants to win matches”
Despite the poor results Rohr’s team had against Algeria and Tunisia, Mutiu harbours no fears on Nigeria’s chances in the 2021 AFCON qualifiers. “With two victories and six points in the kitty, I have no fears,” he said. “People should not rate Eagles because of the last two friendlies against Algeria and Tunisia, in which the Eagles lost one and drew the other respectively. When the main players come, we will return to winning ways. I will not join those who are saying that the man(Rohr) has not got it right.”
Mutiu also led us into his engagement as the La Liga Ambassador in Nigeria, an issue he talked so passionately about. “That is what I have been doing since 2016. I was the country manager of the La Liga at some point. We have been able to project the Spanish La Liga to a household name in Nigeria.
Indeed, the most important aspect of our efforts has been the partnership the La Liga and the Nigeria Football Federation through the League Management Company have entered into. This has brought about the exchange programmes between the Nigerian Professional Football League and the La Liga.
That has enabled us to bring the U16 tournament to Nigeria and it has also made it possible for us to take the NPFL Team to Spain on a playing tour. We have also brought managers from Spain to Nigeria to train their counterparts here. Nigerian managers have also travelled to Spain for short courses.
This weekend, baring any disruptions, in view of the ongoing #ENDSARS protest, we hope to invite some journalists and some members of the football fraternity to watch the first El Casico of the season at a particular location. We just hope and pray that it will be possible.”
He commended Nigerian players in the La Liga. “Unfortunately, Chidozie Awaziem has left after his team, where he was on loan, was relegated. But the likes of Samuel Chukwueze and Ramon Azeez are making Nigeria proud in the La Liga. I just hope more Nigerian players will work hard to attract La Liga teams to come for them, although most of them go after academy players who they believe they can train and bring up through their own philosophy.”
He said the Nigerian Professional Football League can be made to become as popular as European leagues but that cannot be achieved under existing conditions. “The league structure is defective, the facilities are not there, the pitches are bad and the league is poorly funded.”
Above all, the former Real Madrid player said the Nigerian league suffers too many disruptions. He was not surprised that the national team manager, Gernot Rohr has consistently been reluctant in selecting home-based players to his team. “I would not expect any national team coach to select a player who has not kicked a ball for more than six months. I think it is not advisable and I sympathise with Rohr in that respect.”