Thursday, 30th November 2023

38 years after, Onwana reflects on how juju shattered Spartans’ WAFU Cup dream

By Christian Okpara
22 July 2020   |   4:14 am
In 1982, Spartans of Owerri was one of the hottest football clubs in West Africa. The team, then coached by the late Kelechi Emeteole, was always in the mix of things in the fight for the league title...

Onwana outruns an Enugu Rangers defender in a league game.

In 1982, Spartans of Owerri was one of the hottest football clubs in West Africa. The team, then coached by the late Kelechi Emeteole, was always in the mix of things in the fight for the league title, which then was dominated by Enugu Rangers.

Spartans had the opportunity in 1981 to break Enugu Rangers’ stranglehold on the division one title when they led the table with less than five games to go. Rangers were second on the table, while Bendel Insurance, IICC Shooting Stars, Raccah Rovers, Calabar Rovers, Mighty Jets of Jos, Housing Corporation of Akure and Water Corporation of Ilorin were also in the competition.

Spartans needed to beat Rangers in Owerri to open up an unassailable four-point lead in the title race and eventually win their first top flight title. But the elements had other ideas.

On match day, with all the bigwigs in the then Imo and Anambra states’ football family at the Dan Anyiam Stadium, Spartans were on the ascendancy when some parts of the spectators’ stand crumbled, forcing fans to spill onto the pitch. The match was promptly called off.

After deliberating on the circumstances that led to the disruption of the match, the Nigeria Football Association ordered a replay in Calabar. That was how Spartans lost the opportunity to win their first league title, as Enugu Rangers beat them 2-0 at the U.J Esuene Stadium and went on to take the crown.

While Rangers qualified to play in the African Champions Cup (Now CAF Champions League), Spartans as league runners up took the ticket to represent Nigeria in the third tier WAFU Cup. The WAFU Cup then was a glamorous competition involving some top sides in West Africa.

Presented the opportunity to break their trophy jinx, Spartans poured all their energy into the competition. They were so convincing in the group and knock out stages that most pundits gave the trophy to them.

On their way to the final game against Sekondi Hasaacas of Ghana, Spartans defeated Buffles de Borgu of Benin Republic 9-1, beat Stade Malien 3-1 before eliminating Togo’s Aigions de Lome 4-1 after two legs.

So, after such a fine run in the competition, most observers believed that although Sekondi Hasaacas would prove tough for the Owerri Spartans, the Kelechi Emeteole boys had enough in their armoury to win the trophy.

The team had such talented players as Harris Ugochukwu, Kelvin Onwana, Skipper Eugene Ohuabunwa, Idika Aku, Emiliano Momokobo, Iyke Madukairo, Goddy Ebomuche, Sunny Ikwuagwu, Emma Ajunwa, Nicholas Ukadike, Sidney Ugorji, Ben ‘Zico’ Nwosu, Chimeziri Igoni, Ben Akanu, Goddy Agbarakwe and Sam Anozie, among others.

With support from such football ‘crazy’ patrons as Chief Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu and Governor Sam Mbakwe, the thinking then was that only a major catastrophe would deny the Owerri side the WAFU Cup that year. And that was exactly what happened.

Narrating the sequence of events that led to the tragic ending of the competition for Spartans, Kelvin Onwana, who was the team’s leading goal scorer, said the defeat was self-inflicted.

“Something happened on the eve of the first leg. That is why I always say that any athlete who begins to look at juju for help, instead of working hard for excellence, will miss his mark.

“We were playing and winning comfortably. We prayed before every match and went ahead to win. But before the first leg of the final, we were in Lagos preparing for the match when some people decided to create division among us.

“I didn’t know about it then, but after the match we heard that the state government promised some players cars for victory and left out some people.

“That morning, there was also confusion among the officials at Kilo Hotels when as early as 7.00 a.m., they woke us up to give us some concoctions, which they said would give us extraordinary strength during the game.

“They called it ‘Ike agwu nwankpi,’ which literarily means ‘the he-goat never tires.’ Some of us questioned the wisdom in bringing that thing in the final. We argued that if we won, they would take the glory and ignore God, who led us to the final. I refused to drink it and they threatened to hold me responsible if we lost.

“Our coach, the late Kelechi Emeteole didn’t allow us to take that thing, but they forced some of the players to take the concoction. The thing was mixed with local gin (kai Kai), which weakened some of those that took it. There was confusion in that match, the team was divided,” Onwana said.

Even with all the confusion in the team, Spartans still had the upper hand on the pitch, but they could not convert their dominance into goals. And then Hasaacas did the unthinkable.

“Our left back, the late Iyke Madukairo, passed the ball to one of our midfielders, who, unfortunately, had already left his position. A Hasaacas player intercepted the ball and chipped it over an onrushing Goddy Ebomuche for the only goal of the game.

“From that moment till the end of the game, we camped on their half of the pitch, but we couldn’t get the equalizer.

“In the second leg, when all the experts, who brought the concoction in the first match had left, we went to Ghana and dominated the decisive leg, but like the first leg, we could not get the needed goal.

“At the end of the match, even Ghana’s then president, Jerry Rawlings acknowledged that we were better than Hasaacas. He found it difficult to believe that Hasaacas defeated us in Lagos.”

The fall out of the WAFU Cup miss, according to Onwana, was the dismantling of the Spartans team by ‘people who actually contributed to our loss.’

Onwana said: “After the game, the Imo State Sports Council blamed the players for the loss and retired some of us from the club.

“The players were all staffers of the sports council, and so they sent most of us to the local government areas to work as coaches and brought in younger players. That was the beginning of the fall of Spartans until Chief Iwuanyanwu took over the club.”

Onwana revealed that he had many offers from other clubs, including ACB of Lagos, Bendel Insurance, Abiola Babes and Enugu Rangers, but he didn’t take up any.

“I was so demoralised with the way they messed up the WAFU Cup campaign and the fall out that I couldn’t get myself to join another team,” he said.

Another incident that presents a sad memory of his days at Spartan, according to Onwana, was the 1981 clash with Enugu Rangers, which ultimately cost him the opportunity to have a league winners’ medal.

He said: “During the decisive match in Owerri in 1981, we knew that Rangers would not beat us. We had the players and also the supporters. We were at home and at the peak of our game. But the managers of the Dan Anyiam Stadium did not anticipate the huge number of people who came to the stadium that day. They all crowded into the stadium, forcing parts of the spectators stand to collapse with fans spilling onto the pitch. The match was later taken to Calabar because the NFA said the stadium was too small for a game of that calibre.

“Referee Festus Okubule was in charge of the game in Calabar and he was sympathetic to Rangers. Idika Aku had an opportunity to score, but he missed the chance, and from that moment, Okubule never allowed us to make any move towards Rangers’ goal.

“Rather, he allowed an offside goal by Rangers to stand. That demoralized us so much that before we could recover from the setback, they had scored another goal. Rangers knew they were not better in that match, which they won 2-0.”

Right from his primary school days, Onwana knew he was destined for greatness in football. Aside his skills, the Awaka, Owerri-born Onwana, also trained hard and made sure he was always among that could add positively to his development.

He said, “I didn’t go into football by mistake. Right from my primary school days at St. Bridget’s Asata, Enugu, and my infanthood, I liked and played football. I played street football in Enugu and when I started secondary school, I was playing for the U-13 team in 1972.

“I was made the Games Prefect and captain at St Patrick’s School, Emene. From there, I was invited to the East Central State Academicals in 1972 with people like Nweke, Ogbueze (Pele). Patrick Ekeji and Kenneth Ilodigwe were our seniors in the academicals.”

According to Onwana, the then East Central State newspaper, The Renaissance, made him so popular that even while he was still in secondary school, big clubs started enticing him to join them. But he held on, since according to him, he wanted to further his education.

“ I did my class five at St. Patrick’s Emene, but NEPA FC saw me and took me to Lagos in 1975. They offered me a two-year scholarship to go for my Higher School Certificate at St Gregory’s College, Obalende. That was when Adeniran Ogunsanya was Commissioner for Education in Lagos State.

“At St. Gregory’s, I met Brown Ebewele, Ben Bruce and the Ofege Boys. Life was fun in the 70s. I took Stoneface (Francis Nwosu) to St. Gregory’s and he was also offered scholarship.

“When we came to Gregs, it wasn’t known for football, but we shook Lagos State when we arrived. All these other schools, Baptist Academy, Igbobi College and St, Finbarrs started dreading us. Playing in the Lagos State Principals Cup was marvelous. We were recruited into the state academicals and we played the final of the National Sports Festival in 1975 against East Central State. That was my last game in Lagos because I came down to Enugu even though NEPA had given me employment. That was the time of Joe Erico as the NEPA goalkeeper.”

Onwana played for Rangers for a few months before Vasco took him in 1974. When Imo State was created in 1976, he joined the exodus from the then Anambra State to the new state, which had just formed Spartans.

“My stay in Rangers was the preparatory period for my football career, because I saw men in the team. Such giants as Kenneth Ilodigwe, Aloysius Atuegbu, Dominic Ezeani and Dominic Nwobodo, were all there.

“At Vasco, I played as a striker, but when Alabi Aisien came to the club, he changed my position to outside right. He started giving me all the training I needed and made me so confident that I never feared any defender. I could dribble anybody.

“I remember that Christian Chukwu and Emmanuel Okala dreaded facing me. Whenever I confronted Okala, he was always unsettled,” Onwana said.

Everybody knew I was better than Odegbami
As popular as Onwana was in the 1970s and 1980s, one of the mysteries of Nigerian football is that he did not make it big in the senior national team, the Green Eagles. The former St. Gregory’s College, Obalende, Lagos star attributes that to national politics that affected the Nigerian society after the Civil War.

He explains: “It wasn’t that I didn’t make it. In 1978, I was in the team to travel to Ghana for the African Cup of Nations, but on the eve of our movement, Willy Bazuaye, who was assistant coach to Father Tiko, called me to his room and told me that I would be dropped. He said that in terms of play, I was very good, but that they could not drop Odegbami and include me, adding, if they tried it, the Yorubas would kill them.

Onwana in a midfield battle against a Calabar Rovers player during the 1980 season. PHOTOS: KELVIN ONWANA

“He said he had told Tiko the implications of dropping Odegbami from the team, and advised me to continue doing well in my club, saying my time would come.

“Everybody was there in the camp… Christian Chukwu, Emma Okala, Tunde Bamidele, Best Ogedegbe, Adokie Aimiesimaka, Muda Lawal. They saw that I was better than Odegbami. They said I was more positive than Odegbami, who was a showman. They would always invite me to the camp only to drop me on the last day.

“When we were preparing for the African Nations Cup in 1980, they said nobody should leave the camp for club football. But we had a game in Ibadan against IICC, which I went to play. We beat IICC 3-0 and I didn’t go back to camp because I knew the implication of what I did.

“It was during the leadership of the former goalkeeper, Carl Odwyer. He said I was not disciplined and that they should not allow me back into camp. But I didn’t care. I was the man-of-the-match in Ibadan and many people were not happy with me. Some saw it as an insult that Spartans went to Ibadan to beat IICC 3-0. That was the last time I went to the national team. Chief Lekan Salami was then one of the top officials of IICC.”

Onwana, who reckons that his days at St. Gregory’s College were among the best periods in his life, regrets that he has lost touch with some of his school friends.

“Since we took our exams in 1975, I have not set my eyes on some of them. The only ones I have met in recent times are Ben
Bruce and Brown Ebewele because they are visible in society. Sometimes, I reminisce on the good old days, the days when St. Gregory’s ruled Lagos sports and music. Those are good memories.”

Since retiring from civil service, Onwana has been engaged in grassroots football development in Owerri, where he teaches young talented players the proper way to play the game.

One of the products of his latest venture is Super Eagles’ Goalkeeper, Francis Uzoho, who as the Aspire Academy coordinator in Imo State, Onwana discovered, nurtured and took to the Senegal branch of Aspire Academy in 2013.

Uzoho, who moved from the Aspire Academy to Deportivo la Coruna of Spain after the U-17 World Cup in UAE, currently plays for Omonia of Cyprus on loan from Deportivo.

“I am a CAF B licensed coach, which I acquired in 2012, but I am looking forward to taking my skills to any Premier League club. I currently have an academy where I train and expose young boys to other clubs.

“Since retiring from the Imo State Sports Council in 2007, I have been engaged in coaching boys from the ages of 15 to17 years old,” he said.

Onwana is happy that some of his products are now doing well in big clubs, but he regrets that the boys tend to forget where they began their careers once they hit the big times.

He said: “Right now, to be candid, I am not looking at what I will gain from them. I look at what I put into them to make them provide food for their families.

“Uzoho doesn’t call me, but I am happy with him. I found him in 2010, coached him, took him to Qatar, he was screened, he made the academy for five years, but when he was signed into Deportivo I didn’t know. He never told me. I heard stories about him from other people.

“When he went to the World Cup, he didn’t call, but I am happy for him. It is unfortunate that he, like others, don’t reach out to me.”

Kelvin Onwana (right) being introduced to their opponents by stand-in captain, Muda Lawal, before a friendly match against a Russian club in the 1970s.

Onwana said watching his young kids develop into big footballers makes him happy, adding, “developing young players feels like developing the world. Looking at what I have made makes me proud, because any player I train, when you see him play, he is always distinct. That some of them remember to acknowledge my input into their career makes me happy.”

The way forward for Nigerian football
Looking at the current state of Nigerian football, Onwana laments that the country has not been able to fashion out a discernible pattern of play. He said the uncoordinated way different coaches approach the game in the country has been hampering the development of the game.

“As a former player and now a coach, I have always told people that Nigeria does not have any tradition in football. Some of the people playing for the country now don’t have the basic skills. The thing is affecting the whole nation.

“We don’t have the preparatory standard for our football. As long as we don’t develop football from the grassroots, from primary schools to secondary schools, we will continue to produce half-baked players. We were discovered from the secondary schools.

“Again, we need constant training for coaches, which will build the culture of patience in them. Our coaches are always afraid of defeat. That is why they use old men to play in age-group competitions. When they do that they deny the real young ones the opportunity to develop.

“If we had foundational coaches, who will go to the grassroots to scout for talents, and train them in the basic techniques of the game, we would see a change in our football.

“In the world, as it is, you cannot play football if you don’t have the basic skills. That is why all these European clubs have academies. But in Nigeria, we believe in quick fix. That is why our boys cannot make up to five accurate passes in a game. They want to force the ball into the opponents’ area. When you build from the defence, everybody has a role to play, from the goalkeeper to the striker.”

Onwana said the solution lies in going back to the basics, adding that coaches should be sent to the rural areas and schools to scout for talents.

He added: “There is so much work in football. You don’t have to coach in the national team or club to be relevant, because the job at the grassroots is enormous. A good coach should be happy to bring up quality players from the grassroots.

“The NFF should channel the youth development fund they get from FIFA to train coaches and send them to the rural areas. These coaches will bring up the young ones; other coaches will take over, until the players become finished products. One coach cannot do everything. The NFF should strengthen its youth development arm with good youth coaches.

“Again, we should not sack and employ coaches at every given failure. We should give them the chance to build their teams; else they will look for cheap ways to get results.

“When I became the coordinator of the Aspire U13 team, we went to the rural areas to get boys and trained them to become good players. Aspire spends money every year on its youth development programme.”