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Sylvanus Okpala, Odion Ighalo and Victor Osimhen

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Odion Ighalo and Victor Osimhen

It always gives me real pleasure to dwell on Nigerian sports, particularly on Nigerian football. I always find the ‘task’ of discussing Nigerian football agreeable, and, if I may add, desirably desirable. Indeed I enjoy discussing Nigerian football – from diverse or multiple perspectives – as a Jack of all tackles and dribbles. And when I make my pronouncement on Nigerian football (and sports generally) I do so – or tend to do so – not from the realm of a shaky assumption but from that of pontifical pleasure, which many readers may not find un-desirable. Let me also state as well, and urgently so, that when I read anything, any story, any report, any interview or any criticism relating to sports and particularly to tennis and football, I do so with decorous amusement that is superior to mundane amusement.

And when I eventually decide to pass my judgment on what I read or have read I do so with pontifical solemnity – if you know what I mean. I am not saying this with any air of superiority, or any sense or any feeling of amusement for superior lovers of the sport of football. Before my introductory or preliminary remarks here appear meaningless to you, let me terminate any inclination to expand them and go straight now to what excited or agitated me to focus on Sylvanus Okpala, Odion Ighalo and Victor Osimhen, three relatively young personages of Nigerian football.

Of the three notable stars Sylvanus Okpala is the oldest and the first to distinguish himself as a national and international star – or superstar – of Nigerian football. I am here rightly assuming that no current member of our football federation, the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF), knows football better than this retired gem of a player in Nigerian soccer-dom. I am excited to write about him now because of the interview he granted Saturday Vanguard Sports of June 6, 2020 (on pages 30-31). He said some interesting but pertinently critical things about Nigerian football. The critical revelation(s) revive old memories which dwell on some of the current headaches of our football. It will not be out of place to point out Sylvanus Okpala’s error(s) in his afore-said interview before looking at the interesting and critical issues he raised. Sylvanus came into reckoning as a Nigerian player in 1978/79 when he captained our country’s junior football team called then Junior Eagles, and not Flying Eagles, as he wrongly called the first set of international junior or youthful players of Nigeria. The first set of junior internationals was distinct and different from the well known Nigerian Academicals mostly made up of secondary school players of the 1960s and early 1970s.

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Also, the Junior Eagles were not popularly known then as the “U-20 national team” as the young man wrongly said. I must correct the record and the history he was relating. His failing memory on this score must be set right. Some of the great frontline players of the 1978/1979 Junior Eagles were the late Stephen Keshi, Franklin Howard, Bright Omokaro (defenders), Uyi Okungbowa (goal-keeper), Edema Benson, Henry Nwosu (mid-fielders), Prince Afejuku (left winger and an all-out attacker), Humphrey Edobor (substitute left winger and attacker), etc. I cannot conveniently recall the other junior players who after playing a drawn game in Lagos with their counterparts from Cameroun went on to defeat Cameroun 1-0 in Yaounde in Cameroun in the second leg and qualified to play Guinea in the next round.

The Junior Eagles’ defeat of Cameroun in Yaounde was the first in recent memory (as at that time) that a Nigerian team outclassed Cameroun in Cameroun. And Prince Afejuku who scored the lone goal in Yaounde was the hero of the victory. Be it known that if Nigeria had upended Guinea in the next round Sylvanus Okpala would have captained the team to partake in 1979 in the second edition of the FIFA youth tournament in Japan where Diego Maradona, ranked the most valuable player/golden boy of the tournament after Argentina lifted the trophy, was discovered. Now let me aver here that Guinea beat the Junior Eagles to move ahead of our country because in the first leg in Lagos we fielded a depleted team. Several of the frontline players did not feature in Lagos because of the Christmas holiday season when they did not make it to the camp in Lagos in readiness for the first leg. In the second leg in Conakry where the key players played, our lads mesmerized their Guinean counterparts, but the misadventure in Lagos, essentially on account of the earlier tendered reason and other attitudinal problems, part of the Nigerian problematic sports morals, certainly knocked the Junior Eagles out of contention as Africa’s representatives in Japan. Why did Sylvanus Okpala’s fabulous memory fail to recall the fabulous Junior Eagles of Prince Afejuku, Henry Nwosu, Stephen Keshi, Bright Omokaro and Sylvanus’ other team-mates?

The politics in the Green Eagles of his youthful time and the politics and intrigues relating to the selection of the players in the team as Nigeria’s representatives in the 1980 team that won for us the Africa Nations Cup for the first time did not escape Sylvanus Okpala’s memory – rightly so because of his own sad experience that the late Otto Gloria, the Brazilian coach of the team, converted to a joyful experience. Politically and immorally, Sylvanus was to be dropped from the team. But Otto Gloria’s principled intervention saved the youthful Sylvanus. What of other youthful players like Prince Afejuku, Ottorobio (I hope I am getting the name of the Rivers’-born boy right) and Stephen Keshi who were politically and immorally axed and excised from the team? Did Sylvanus Okpala not know this? Or the pathetic exclusion of the marvellous Christian Madu from the team, maybe Sylvanus did not know the monstrous politics that compelled Christian Madu, the tranquil but gloriously effective right winger, to be excised from the 1980 victorious Green Eagles. If readers must know, Christian Madu was ‘discovered’ in Ghana where he was a frontline member of the something-very-different Ashanti Kotoko Football Club (I hope I am getting this right). In the minds of many he was hundred percent qualified to bench Segun Odegbami. But to make that happen would amount to an aberration and a taboo in influential football circles of our country. I remember vividly that Christian Madu said something similar to what I am saying here years ago.

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Why have I said what I have said?
Nigerian football has never been strange to monstrous abuses of power, by Nigerian football administrators, coaches and pushers and movers of influence who go to any length to make their favoured players to make our national teams. Interestingly, in his interview Sylvanus omitted, deliberately, in my critical view, to tell us why Chief Festus Onigbinde axed him from the 1984 Africa Cup of Nations national team after he took from him the captainship of the team, and gave it to the late Stephen Keshi. Clearly, Stephen Keshi’s elevation must have been a new incomprehensible aberration for Sylvanus. But it could not be divorced from the ridiculous politics of our ridiculous football epoch which is still here with us. I am ready to eat my words if I am wrong on this and other matters alluded to here. We should have won the cup in Ivory Coast instead of placing second behind Cameroun if Sylvanus was in the team.

Now I must sketchily focus on Odion Ighalo and Victor Osimhen. If I were Odion Ighalo, I would not stay put in Manchester United after the transfer season. I would have returned to China to make the big money there. Odion Ighalo has proved everything provable by an African player in international football. If he experiences a dip in form today, in Man U, he would lose his current football glory there. And he would be made a goat fit for slaughter. He should leave when the ovation is loudest, as we say. Or he should have left when the ovation was loudest. My football horoscope is not clearly in his favour. I hear he is likely to return to the Super Eagles. He should bury the thought.

Victor Osimen is the centre-forward of the moment and of the future for our Super Eagles – barring the unforeseen. Odion Ighalo is good but Victor Osimhen is better and is more talented than Odion Ighalo. Yes, Odion Ighalo is more experienced than Victor Osimhen, but Victor is a more pointed and more ruthless finisher and exploring tantalizer as a predator. He is Nigeria’s current golden finisher, exploring explorer and excellent, instinctive predator. He will hit it big in Europe. My horoscope says so – again, barring the unforeseen. He should look carefully before leaping from France.
Afejuku can be reached via 08055213059.

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