A season of death
In the past one month, four former international football players, a former Chairman of the Nigeria Football Association and a fine sports journalist have all passed on.
It has been a very painful period for those of us in the football fraternity, a reminder of the fragility of life and of our mortality.
When a number of journalists called me a few days ago to pay tribute to Yisa Sofoluwe, I turned it down simply because it felt like I was almost sounding like a broken record. Never has there been a period such as this – Four colleagues in a month? May the Creator of the Universe, who sees and knows all, who knows the why and the how, intervene in the uncertainties of our present times.
When I look at what the most advanced countries are doing to stop the rampage of the Coronavirus and the slow successes being recorded, and compare those with the non-challence and unseriousness of our immediate environment where people are going on with life as if we belong to another planet, I realise that we are all sitting ducks.
In 2021, I have lost four cousins, and three close friends to the Coronavirus. With the number of persons privately admitting to having survived it, a truly scary picture of the state of affairs in being painted.
Meanwhile, I must pay my tributes to our football heroes, whose deaths may not have being from Coronavirus, but are definitely collateral during this season of death.
Defense minister – Yisa Sofoluwe
A few days ago, Yisa Sofoluwe died in a hospital in Lagos. At 53, his death is extremely painful. Yisa was a great football artist, one of the most elegant defenders to watch on the football field. He was always cool, calm, and calculative. He never did the unnecessary thing, like dive into dangerous tackles, or kick an opponent. He always saved his tackle for when it mattered the most.
Smallish in stature, fragile looking, this right-footed player could play on both defensive flanks. I always saw him as a player that was born to play in defense, yet he had the ability to glide down the flanks and join attacks with lovely passes and crosses that were delivered with some delicacy and precision. Yisa was a beauty to watch during matches.
He was given the nickname ‘Defense Minister’ by late Ernest Okonkwo, the iconic sports radio commentator, because of his mastery of the art of defending. Yisa made it look easy, effortless and beautiful. Not for him the crunchy, bone- breaking tackles that most identify with defenders. Yet, underneath his simple style lies a steeliness, a ‘poison’ that only those who ever played against him can confess to. He was a difficult player to play against, a nuisance to opposing wingers, and hard to beat with a dribble or speed, because of the level of his intelligent play.
Outside of his football career, like the rest of us, he was a struggler, on the move all the time to find a way to survive and live well. He was a nomadic coach, going from one small club, or academy, to another in my reading of him every time we met.
Football in Nigeria was never built on a solid foundation, or on fertile ground to cater for its exponents when their playing careers are over. I am now sounding like a the refrain of a song.
So, I ran into Yisa from time to time on the struggling circuit, and I was never pleased with his fragile looks even though he always assured me he was doing fine. He was a humble pilgrim, kind and gentle, a constant smile on his face, unassuming with his harmless, ageless and fragile frame. When you met him, you wanted to hug him.
At 53 or 54 years of age, he died too young.
His place in the unofficial (because there is none officially till now) Hall of Fame of Nigerian football is secure. In a recent unofficial polling game that I created on social media, he was listed amongst the greatest full backs in Nigeria’s history. That, surely, speaks volumes.
Rest in perfect peace, Yisa.
I knew Sam, but not enough to do justice to his place in the annals of Nigerian football. He was too far from the circuit after his career in football. Amongst other things, he was a former Bendel Insurance FC player who also played briefly for the national team.
Except one was around in the early 1970s, one is unlikely to know a lot more about him.
He played briefly but very well. His very light skin stood him out and shone brilliantly wherever he played in those days.
Sam was slightly ahead of me in the generation of Nigerian footballers, but we played against each other a few times. I don’t recall much about his football, but we became friends outside the game.
I did not follow his career after he retired, but from what I now have gathered from the tributes by those that knew him better, he was also a struggler like the rest of us.
May he rest peacefully also with our Lord.
Joseph Erico – NEPA One
Joe Erico was my friend.
I met him in the national team. He was one of the reasons I was invited to the national team. I scored a beautiful goal against him with him in goal in the opening match of the 1973 National Sports Festival when he kept for Lagos State and I was a striker for Western State. I was immediately, thereafter, invited to the Green Eagles in December of 1974.
He was the goalkeeper for NEPA FC, and that’s why I personally nicknamed him ‘NEPA One’ when we met again in the national team in 1976 and became friends.
Everyone else called him ‘Jogo Bonito’, which in Portuguese language translates to ‘beautiful play’, an apt description of the kind of football Joe Erico taught all the teams he coached when he converted from player to coach. His teams played like Brazilians, a football philosophy he adopted when we returned from our Brazilian trip in 1979 preparatory to the 1980 African Cup of Nations.
Joe Erico occupies a very special place in Nigerian sports. He was an athlete and an on-field football striker. He excelled in both. Until his injury on the football field that gave him a knocked-knee and a limp, he was good enough for both the national athletics and football teams. Then the accident.
He gave up high-jumping, converted to goalkeeping and became one of Nigeria’s first choice national goalkeepers, sharing the limelight with Emmanuel Okala. He kept goal for most of the 1976 AFCON in Dire Dawn, Ethiopia, where Nigeria won her first Bronze place.
When he could not make the 1980 squad, he became a coach, went to Brazil along with Chief Adegboye Onigbinde, Jossy Lad, Amodu Shaibu, John Zendai, and a few others to be trained in the Brazilian philosophy of football. He came back and became the greatest teacher of ‘Jogo Bonito’.
Joe and I worked in my sports academy for MTN for a few years during the period of the MTN Scholar/Athlete Soccer program. Under him, many young footballers ended up in American colleges.
He did very well as a businessman, coach, and father of very gifted children who are all US-based, playing professional sport and doing extremely well.
In terms of life after our football careers, Joe Erico made a great success of his. He is one of the few very successful ones. He travelled widely with the support of his wife who worked then with Nigeria Airways, and was a strong pillar. He worked all over the United States during several summers, coaching kids in clinics organised by Sam Okpodu, for several years.
He was a keep-fit fanatic, a daily face in the gym of the National Institute of Sports, NIS, inside the National Stadium, Lagos, for his workouts.
As he returns home to our Father in heaven, I wish him a peaceful journey.
Goodnight, NEPA One
Nwabueze Nwankwo – Dan Vadis
I had not fully absorbed the shock of Joe’s death when the ‘messenger’ came calling again to tick off yet another Nigerian football hero.
This time it went Eastwards to Abakaliki, where my friend, the one I called Dan Vadis, after the popular American war-film actor, had settled to struggle for his own survival in the evening of his life.
Nwabueze was the ultimate ‘warrior’ in the Rangers International FC of Enugu when the team emerged from the Civil War in 1970 and started to play like wounded soldiers.
The main ‘destroyer’ of teams and a terror to opposing players stood in the heart of the Rangers FC Midfield like a Trojan, reminding all that to enter the Rangers defense, opposing players needed steel-plated armour. Nwabueze was ‘wicked’ on the field and a terror to several teams. He looked, walked and played menacingly, encapsulating in his play on the field, the fighting, die-hard spirit and reputation of the Biafran Soldier, which he was during the Civil War and acquired a fearsome reputation.
At the height of the era of the great Rangers International of Enugu in Nigerian football, he was one of 10 Rangers players that eventually wore the national Green and White Jersey of Nigeria’s Green Eagles.
Nwabueze became my friend many years later, and together we championed the cause of the welfare of retired Nigerian players. He moved to Lagos for this cause and became a very close disciple of Prophet TB Joshua.
He went back to the East about 15 years or so ago, to be a part of developing grassroots football in Ebonyi State. For many years we still worked together on the Shell Cup programme for secondary schools in Nigeria, with him as my ‘eye’ in the East of Nigeria.
We lost touch a few years ago. Recently, I was harassing Okala to get me his number so I could reconnect with him, when the about two weeks later, the same Okala called me after Erico’s death to announce Nwabueze’s own passage, and apologise that he kept forgeting to send me his number until the man died.
Dan Vadis may have been a terror on the football field but he was a completely harmless gentleman outside it. He loved football with a passion and took the welfare of retired Nigerian footballers as his calling on earth.
Journey well, my friend, and rest in perfect peace with our Father in Heaven.
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