AT the outset, they looked so inconsequential that they had no official name, but by their bravery on the night of their departure for the big stage on the Asian continent, they made a statement that they could be the cynosure of all eyes sometime soon.
On that night July 24, 1985 the teens suddenly grew up and became mature to turn a hitherto gloomy environment into a spectacle. It was at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos and members of the Green Eagles, as the Nigerian national football team was then known, had just returned from Tunisia, where they had lost out in their quest for a place in the Mexico ’86 World Cup. Both the players and officials of the team wore mournful looks, but the youngsters, with their coaches, turned the atmosphere around by arranging themselves into two walls and made their seniors who by now, could not but be amused, to pass through like heroes of defeat.
Moments later, the youngsters were on their way to China for the FIFA U-16 World Championship on the same Alitalia plane that had brought the Green Eagles players and officials from Tunisia, that is.
Their theatrics just before they boarded the plane did not confer on them immediate recognition or prominence to many people who witnessed the drama, members of this contingent, each clad in buba and sokoto of Ankara material, were unknown quantities.
This prompted questions like, “who are these boys” in some bystanders at the airport. The very bold among the crowd even approached the group of boys to know their identity and destination. “They thought we were band boys for Sunny Ade o, but we told them that we were footballers, they said ‘footballers, going where?’ We said China, then they asked, ‘to go and do what?,” one of the players, Hilary Adiki, recalled in a chat with Tribunesport.
Even the largely influential Nigerian press could not do so much in pinning a stable identity to the team as many names like “Baby Eagles” and “U-17 Eagles were fiddled with. However, these soon faded out.
But 21 days later, the issue of formal designation of this team was put to rest when it became the ‘World Golden Eaglets”. At the reception held in its honour by General Muhammadu Buhari, Nigeria’s head of state at the time, the team was so named because it had just conquered the world in the first ever FIFA-organised cadet championship.
Thirty years and a further 14 FIFA U-17 World Cup (as it is now known) tournaments after the China edition, Nigeria has won the tournament on three other occasions to set the record of the most successful country at that level of world football competition.
The time-tested Yoruba axiom that a score of youngsters cannot bond for that length of years by reason of natural circumstances has also rubbed off on the 18-player team to the China ’85 tournament.
Apart from Kingsley Aikhionbare who died in London some years back, the 17 surviving members of the team are currently scattered across Nigeria and beyond, where they are striving to make a living.
Tribunesport was able to trace 12 of these heroes to tell the story of the events leading up to their emergence as world champions on August 11, 1985. The other five Chukwuma Nwoha, Victor Igbinoba, Duere Tonworimi, Bella Momoh and Lucky Agbonsevbafe – were unreachable at the time of this publication. While inquiries to Momoh and Agbonsevbafe, now residing in the US and UK respectively were not replied, Tonworimi, said to be based in Italy, Nwoha and Igbinoba could not be reached.
‘Saudi Arabia players gave us boots, gloves’
Whoever believes that predetermined occurrences could be relayed beforehand, one way or the other, would also believe that the message that Nigeria would triumph in China 30 years ago had been shown to Adiki in one of his dreams years before. Recalling how he made the Golden Eaglets team, Adiki told Tribunesport: “Going into a team like that, I felt I was in for a real battle because I knew it was something that was not going to be very easy, but I told myself, I was going to give it my best shot. And when I told my mum about it, she told me that if I could remember vividly well that when I was a little child in primary school, I dreamt that I won a world cup and she told me to keep my dream alive.”
Then, Adiki, to such a person, had just been destined to be part of world football history the physical manifestation would only be a matter of time. Otherwise, the circumstances and events before and even during the 12-day competition did not favour the former player and his teammates so much that they could have been listed among the favourites. The odds were heavily against them. This is as recalled by the former players themselves.
Against the background of the belief that Nigeria was only going to China to make up the number “bankunjo” (also rans) as Fatai Atere captured it, allowances were not made available for the players at the group stage.
“They didn’t bring allowances, they said we would play the first three matches and go home,” Atere, now a project manager at Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Maryland, USA, told Tribunesport by phone from his base.
And when allowances were eventually made available for the players in the knockout stages, the players, on the instruction of captain Nduka Ugbade, refused collection. “It was when we travelled to Shanghai [venue of the quarter and semi-final matches] that Patrick Okpomo, then secretary, Nigeria Football Association came with allowances from Nigeria, but we gathered ourselves and Nduka [Ugbade] said we should not collect the money until we win,” Yahaya Mohammed, now working with the Niger State Ministry of Sports Development, Minna, recalls.
Earlier, Ugbade had secretly endured a pain in Nigeria’s first match, a 1-0 win over Italy in Dalian. This was only known to Ugbade’s roommate, Jonathan Akpoborie, who relayed the story to Tribunesport. Akpoborie was sitting beside Ugbade in the bus for the 30-minute journey to the stadium, when, very close to the stadium, the captain told his mate: “Jonathan, I have a problem.” What was the problem? Ugbade, who wore size nine boots, had mistakenly taken a boot of his size and another belonging to Jonathan who wore size seven and a half! And Jonathan, because he was out of that match due to injury, had left the other pair of mismatched boots in the hotel room. Yet, Ugbade would not tell their coaches who could probably find a way round the problem. But in spite of this, according to Akpoborie, Ugbade did not put a foot wrong in the match: “Nduka wore those boots like that and after the game, I was the only one who knew, the toes were bent inside the boots. But we won and Nduka played fantastic I can never, never forget that one.”
Also, Adiki’s experience with the same pair of worn out boots used by the players for training and pre-tournament matches that each of them took to China for the competition proper will not let him be. “Would you believe it that the football boots that we used to train in Nigeria for the past three months, that aboki [Hausa] cobbler don sew, sew tire, na im we carry go play for World Cup,” says Adiki. The soft-studded boots were soon found out to be unsuitable for the lurch pitches but a friendship struck with Saudi Arabian players yielded dividends for the Eaglets, some of whom were given better pairs of boots by their Arab counterparts.
Nigeria’s first choice goalkeeper, Lucky Agbonsevbafe too partook of the ‘goodies’ as Adiki says he was given a new pair of gloves to replace the pair “the gloves that caterpillar drivers used” which the Nigeria Football Association provided for him. The Eaglets’ third choice keeper, Dele Abubakar, also a beneficiary of the largesse, captures it more succinctly: “A Saudi Arabian goalkeeper came to our training, yours truly, he fell in love with my style of goalkeeping and gave me a brand new pair of gloves.”
Not only the boots and gloves the players’ memories of the circumstances surrounding how the jerseys they donned are still haunting. The players said the NFA, quite alright, provided jerseys for the team, but added that they were too big for their small statures. Binebi Numa was there at the hotel lobby together with Imama Amapakabo and Adiki the day adidas officials approached and offered to make kits available for the team free of charge, as part of the company’s marketing and advertising strategies.
Readily, Numa, now the team manager of Bayelsa United Football Club of Yenagoa, who is also into youth development programme and equipment marketing, said the players jumped at the offer, for one, they saw the jerseys as being better than the slightly bigger ones they brought from Nigeria. “Adidas brought those jerseys … and we took some old jerseys from Nigeria to the tournament. But adidas met us, talked to us and asked if we could advertise for them, we obliged them. We took them to our officials, they discussed and we started using the jersey,” Numa told Tribunesport.
The contentious side to the story, however, is the claim that Okpomo told the players the same set of jerseys was the consignment the NFA had ordered from Europe. Numa counters this: “We didn’t believe him because those people came to us first. If we had those things for free, why were they going to buy?” Okpomo and Tony Ikhazoboh, the NFA chairman at the time are both dead. Emeka Omeruah, then sports minister is also deceased, making verification difficult. Even Patrick Ekeji, long involved in Nigerian football and its administration, had scant information about the Eaglets when faced with their issue sometime back. Former Green Eagles player Ekeji who retired in 2013 as Director-General of the National Sports Commission, while appearing before the National Assembly in 2010 had said: “I don’t have enough details of China 1985.”
Greek gifts? /Unfulfilled promises
On October 15, 2012, a certain Kehinde Makanjuola, while making a comment on a Facebook photograph posted by Atere sometime ago, wrote: “Two great Eaglets safe hands! Your 1985 U-17 team is still the greatest!” In the photograph, taken immediately after their return from China were Lucky Agbonsevbafe and Amapakabo, two of the Nigeria’s three goalkeepers to the FIFA tournament. But Amapakabo had replied to the comment: “Thanks Kehinde, but the least rewarded.” Amapakabo’s response, obviously, is in reference to the rewards given to members of the Golden Eaglets sets of 1993 and 2007 who got cash rewards, national honours, plots of land and houses from federal and state governments for winning the tournaments in Japan and South Korea. The following year (2013), after Nigeria won the tournament for a record fourth time, in the United Arab Emirates, the story was not different as players and coaches were equally rewarded, not only by federal and state governments, but also by other stakeholders.
The feat of the maiden champions did come with rewards like their successors after all. Rewards such as a trip to the Mexico 1986 World Cup, the naming of a street after each player in their states of origin, scholarship up to university level in Nigeria, a tour of the then 19 states of the country, purchase of CBN shares in their names were announced. The package also included national honour for every member of team. While appearing before the National Assembly in 2010, Ugbade mentioned house gift as being part of the promises then.
But the ‘Golden Eaglets’ tag appears to be the only reward the players were, in reality, generally ‘given’ apart from the trip to the Mexico 1986 World Cup which all the players made. While the spirit to fulfil all other promises across the board has been failing with ‘fulfilment’ appearing to be more only in the letter, the name has remained indelible as Nigeria attends the next FIFA U-17 World Cup Chile 2015 in October with that nomenclature.
On the street naming, the former footballers’ submissions on their experiences are divergent as they are also confounding. In Plateau State, the state government decided to name the streets on which its two ambassadors in the team were born. Salisu Nakande was born on Kasuwan Dare, while Sani Adamu was born on Butcher Line, both in Jos. So the streets soon became Salisu Nakande Street and Sani Adamu Street respectively. But Sani Adamu Street has since been reverted to Butcher Line. “When we came back [from China], they changed the name to Sani Adamu Street, eventually they removed the signboard, what we have there now is Butcher Line,” Adamu, assistant coach of Plateau United, told Tribunesport. Nakande has been lucky to have only lost the signpost on his street to a crisis in 2001.
Though Bauldwin Bazuaye confirmed to Tribunesport that the (defunct) Bendel Development and Property Authority apportioned a street to each member of the eight players from the old Bendel State, Ugbade claims he can’t locate his own, said to be somewhere in Benin City. “The one they said was named after me, they said it is at Ugbowo, I never saw it, till this very day,” Ugbade told Tribunesport. The old Bendel State has since been broken down to Edo and Delta states and Akpoborie wishes his street in Benin City, the Edo State capital will be transferred to his native Delta State.
Three members of the team came from the then Rivers State, from which another state Bayelsa was created, but all of them have lost their streets. When asked about the street named after him, Amapakabo, now the chief coach of Rangers FC of Enugu told Tribunesport: “It has gone into oblivion.” And Numa explains the loss of his own street and that of Tonworimi: “They [streets] are not there anymore, they could not sustain them, the streets were too strong for us.”
“Too strong” could be explained in the context of how Atere was dissuaded from picking Broad Street in Lagos as his choice street. Broad Street, on the Lagos Island, is a commercial hub of Lagos State. Atere had settled for Broad Street after a journalist had told him he could ask for that street to be renamed after him. However, the advice of the military governor of Lagos State then, Air Commodore Gbolahan Mudasiru made Atere to change his mind. “The governor asked me if I wanted a street for short time or a street for life and I said a street for life,” Atere told Tribunesport. Fatai Atere Way in the Matori area of Lagos is enduring till today. Numa and others from the old Rivers State were never privy to such ‘golden advice’.
Dele Abubakar, from Ilorin, recalls vividly the commissioning of his own street in the Kwara State capital: “A street was named after me, but it is not in use. It is still being called the old name that was given to it, that is Stadium Road, instead of Dele Abubakar Road. But in government’s record, it was commissioned as Dele Abubakar Road by the then military governor, Colonel Abdulahi Mohammed, I was there when it was commissioned, with the former Commissioner for Sports, Mrs Sarah Jubril. Some people along the street changed their signposts to Dele Abubakar, but of late, it has returned to Stadium Road.”
Perhaps, the most astonishing of all is the case of Yahaya Mohammed, who was revelling as a street owner in Minna, Niger State, until, according to him, “something went wrong.” What went wrong? “After the death of U.K. Bello, they removed my name and put U.K. Bello there. Yes, in Minna, they removed ‘Yahaya Mohammed Road Road’and put that of Bello,” he told Tribunesport. Colonel Usman Kakanda Bello was the former military president Ibrahim Babangida’s aide-de-camp who was killed in a botched military coup, led by Major Gideon Gwarzo Orkar, on April 22, 1990. The Niger State Council for Arts and Culture on the street got ‘UK Bello Arts Theatre’ added to it while Mohammed was stripped bare.
Mohammed, who now works with the Niger State Ministry of Sports Development, however makes light of this loss, explaining his desire above having a street named after him on his scale of preference. “It is not the road that matters. As far as I am concerned, I am a family man, I need money to take care of my family, because if I die now, they will not ask me about road.”
The promise of a scholarship for the team was also, largely, neither fish nor fowl. The patience of those who depended on the scholarship among the players to further their studies thinned out as it appeared they were never factored into the programmes of government despite its word. And having been let down by their country, the situation for the youngsters then became “from whence cometh my help?” The help that came for some of the players, definitely was beyond Nigeria in every sense of it. From the US came scholarship awards for players like Babatunde Joseph and Jonathan Akpoborie, who proceeded to Brooklyn College, New York in furtherance of their studies. Joseph and Akpoborie couldn’t have been sponsored by the Federal Government in a foreign land as the promise of scholarship to the entire Golden Eaglets was for any university in Nigeria.
But when a player like Adiki decided to improve his intellectual capacity within the country, the scholarship, as promised by the Federal Government, was not there for him. Adiki, who attended University of Lagos for a degree in Human Kinetics, told Tribunesport: “They said they gave me scholarship to go to school, I went to Unilag all by myself, wrote to the Federal Government, but nothing came out of it. I am so bitter about football that I just left it a long time ago.” He currently lectures in a school in Port Harcourt.
Of the lot spoken to by Tribunesport, only Mohammed was able to access the government’s scholarship, and that, according to him, did not come on a platter. Mohammed attended Kaduna Polytechnic where he bagged a diploma in purchasing and supply on his own bill. He eventually got the scholarship after the programme, when he “had to struggle hard” pestering the authorities. “I had to struggle hard, I remember the National Sports Commission chairman by then, a Yoruba man, I have forgotten his name, I had to go to him and complain, it should be 1989, because I finished from Kaduna Polytechnic in 1988. He said he would push the file to the account section, he then asked me to come back at a certain date when I was given a cheque.”
The ‘Yoruba man’, in the reckoning of Tribunesport, is Air Commodore Bayo Lawal, the Minister of Youth, Sports and Culture at the time. Sports minister serves as the chairman of the NSC. The only other player who got financial assistance for his education was Nakande. But it was not the promised scholarship. “When I went for my diploma at Plateau State Polytechnic, the little assistance was through the Educational Trust Fund, which was formed by the Babangida regime,” Nakande, proprietor of SAS Football Academy, Jos and a match commissioner in the Nigerian Premier League, told Tribunesport.
Not even the Federal Government’s policy to keep the players together could improve their fortune it rather became a reproach to them. Government had announced that the players would be kept together and be made to graduate to the next category of (age-grade) national team. By the policy, which also prevented them from playing for local clubs, they were called ‘government property’. But while this policy lasted, the players lost opportunities, though not wittingly.
As offers to play professional football abroad came, the government policy hindered them. Adiki recalls his experience: “Even when I tried to play professional football they arrested me at the airport and said that I was government’s property. After making me government ‘s property, what did they do for me?” Adiki said, adding that he, Igbinoba, Agbonsevbafe and Aikhionbare were headed for Italy, where two of them would have signed for Roma while the two others would have joined Torino
As it turned out, government meant to keep the players on the cheap and such arrangement, according to Atere, for him, could not work, considering his run-down Mushin Oloosa (Lagos) background. “In my own case, we were living in a room in a face-me-I-face-you (building). You have to motivate me, I needed money, but they didn’t do anything,” Atere told Tribunesport. But he was stopped from joining Tottenham Hotspur FC of England.
The lack of ‘motivation’ prompted the players to force a meeting between them and the leadership of the NFA, where they presented options before the authorities. “We had a general meeting with the NFA chairman, the late Ikhazoboh, then…and we told him our options: either we go to a school in the US, where we will all be together as a team, or if they were keeping us, they should be able to pay us our wages, because at that time, Julius Berger [FC of Lagos] was willing to pay us Jonathan [Akpoborie] and I about N544,000, which was close to Level 10 then…” Numa told Tribunesport. But either of these, Numa explains, “the Federal Government couldn’t match.” Rather, the government said the players could go their way and anytime their services were needed, they would be brought together.
“In football, a month, even a week, is a lot, things change as quickly as possible,” Jonathan Akpoborie said. And so had a lot assumed different twists and turns by the time government set the Eaglets loose after about four months in the ‘cage’. So when Numa was able to get a foreign club, he saw it as being divine “favour from above, favour from God.”
Numa, who took in Austin Okocha in Germany during the early days of the former Super Eagles captain in the European country, said that a Nigerian national handball team player, Adeyemi, whose other name he couldn’t immediately remember, brought news from West Germany (as it was known then), where Adeyemi himself was playing professional handball, that their services were needed. Following their discussion at the National Stadium, Lagos, Numa, there and then sent his papers, likewise Akpoborie, who was on vacation in Nigeria from his US school. The two players were eventually invited by Kaiserslautern FC.
The bond bought for the players in 1985 was to mature in 1999, but the dividends, according to Numa, were not in any way encouraging. “We bought Federal Government bond, it was not an encouraging bond it was just a standard bond, which at the end of the month, you get thirty-something naira. That, from 1985 to 1999 amounted to N5,000 or something,” Numa said. At N39.00 per amount, the whole amount in 14 years would be N6,552.00.
And the national merit award too has only been on paper. However, Ugbade, as an assistant coach of the Golden Eaglets squad that won the title in UAE two years ago, was honoured with the MFR, while one of the coaches, Christian Chukwu, had bagged the MFR in 1980 as captain of the Green Eagles team that won Nigeria’s first Africa Cup of Nations title.
The national award was one of the rewards for the coaches, together with the naming of a street after them and promotion to the next grade. However, Chukwu and Bala Shamaki, another assistant coach, only have tales of woe to tell.
Though Shamaki has a street named after him in Minna, Niger State, he faults the acclaimed promotion, which he says was not more than a routine exercise. “The promotion? Forget about that one. It is like someone being on Level Seven and he is due to move to Level Eight. It is just a stage promotion, which one must have been due for,” Shamaki, who retired from the Niger State Sports Council two years ago, told Tribunesport. Chukwu, on his part does not have a street named after him in his state. This, he blames his state government for it. And the ‘Chairman’, while speaking with Tribunesport, said he never did anything about it, “because I am not the kind person that runs after things like that.”
Attitude and treatment such as this, Shamaki says can be very dampening. Joseph Babatunde goes with his former coach. Ordinarily, the 30th year of their China feat, he believes, “should be a celebration”, but asks: “how do you celebrate a bitter-sweet story?” For the wrong which he believes the country has done the 1985 Eaglets team, Babatunde, who works in a pharmaceutical company in Brooklyn, New York, told Tribunesport from his base: “Nigeria really has to reflect and do a soul-searching.”
He lays emphasis more on the plight of his other former colleagues: “It’s important to acknowledge those people that did not benefit at all…those that are not doing very well.” The same people Ugbade says “are doing menial jobs with the name that they made in Nigeria.”
Chukwuma Nwoha’s situation perfectly fits into the picture of Ugbade’s description of their colleagues ‘doing menial jobs’. Amapakabo told Tribunesport of how, when he was coaching at Enyimba FC, he ran into Nwoha working at a motor park in Aba, where he was conducting passengers for a commercial luxury bus.
Amapakabo, who said he had stopped at the park to buy recharge card, adds: “This is a true life story…that day, I had over N20,000 on me, I had to give him everything and I tried to cheer him up.” He added that another member of the team, Victor Igbinoba, since his return from Europe, has been living a low life somewhere in Benin City.
Situations such as this have made Amapakabo to give up despite the return to power of the man who made the promises. “I lost hope since not even faith. Hope is the last thing that dies in a man,” he told Tribunesport.
The Rangers FC of Enugu coach also believes that the Eaglets’ victory 30 years ago has been a curse to the country, rather than a blessing. “Our success is the problem of Nigeria today,” he told Tribunesport. He bases this on a now desperate system, where he says 30-year-olds now parade themselves as U-17s to make the team.
However, others are still very upbeat. “Before he [Buhari] leaves, I am very, very sure that if this is brought forward to him, he will surely remember that he was part of this then because he won it for this nation and those boys will be honoured and given everything they were never given,” captain of the side then, Ugbade said.
It remains to be seen if these heroes will feel the pre-election change mantra of President Buhari who originally set the pace for a difference in their lives 30 years ago.
Search for ‘Sabara’Sebastian Brodericks-Imasuen was at the centre of the Golden Eaglets success in 1985 as the head of the technical crew and so it was just natural to go after the man called ‘Sabara,’ ahead of this write-up.
But all efforts to get to talk to the coach were futile. However, Tribunesport got a clue from one of his wards in the process. Bauldwin Bazuaye, while speaking with Tribunesport dropped the hint: “Sebastian Brodericks is down, terribly sick, nobody is coming for help,” Bazuaye had said.
Then, could he help with the man’s mobile telephone number? Bazuaye said he himself had, somehow, lost Sabara’s number. He made attempts to help get the phone number for Tribunesport, but he was not so lucky.
As interviews with Bazuaye’s team-mates and other coaches for this piece continued, it turned out that none of them, apart from Bazuaye knew that Brodericks-Imasuen has been ill. The story of his illness was news to them all.
In the final of the first Challenge Cup (now Federation Cup) to be replayed and the first final to be played outside of Lagos too, ‘Sabara’, it was, that scored the winner for the Bendel Insurance of Benin against the Mighty Jets of Jos, at the Liberty Stadium, Ibadan, in 1972.