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Super Eagles, Pharaohs… and ‘Red Sea’


super-eaglesFor years, goalkeeper Emmanuel Okala provided cover for the then Green Eagles to cage the Pharaohs of Egypt. One particular encounter Okala will not forget in a hurry was the semifinal tie at Lagos ‘73 All Africa Games.

Then, the Eagles with soccer legends like Tony Igwe, Morton Owolo, Victor Oduah, Haruna Ilerika, Yakubu Mabo, Sunny Oyarekhua and Josiah Dombraye had raised hope of millions of Nigerians by beating a ‘stubborn’ Black Stars of Ghana 4-2 and secured a 2-2 draw with the Desert Warriors of Algeria in Group A.

On the day of the semifinal against the Pharaohs, all eyes were on Okala to perform his usual magic. He did not disappoint.

“That was one encounter I won’t forget in my life,” Okala recalled yesterday in a chat with The Guardian. “As usual, the National Stadium in Lagos was filled to capacity and the expectations of Nigerians were very high.”

The Eagles won 4-2 and Okala was celebrated for his excellent performance. That was one of his many encounters with the Pharaohs.

On Friday, the Super Eagles will host the Pharaohs in a crucial Nations Cup qualifier in Kaduna. Qualifying for AFCON used to be taken for granted by Nigeria, but things have changed.

After failing to qualify for two of the last three editions of the Nations Cup (2012 and 2015), the Super Eagles are learning to see Nations Cup qualification as a tough battle akin to the battle for the FIFA World Cup ticket.

The Pharaohs have not done better. The Egyptians have won the African Nations Cup title for a record seven times, but they have failed to qualify for the last three editions of the competition. They have also failed to reach the FIFA World Cup since their last appearance in 1990 where they got bundled out in the first round.

Okala sees Friday’s AFCON qualifying showdown in Kaduna as ‘The Red Sea’ for both teams to cross. “We are going to witness a great football match in Kaduna and as a patriotic Nigerian, I pray for our boys to get things right,” he said.

The Pharaohs have six points from two matches, while the Super Eagles have four points from same number of games.

“As far as the Egyptians are concerned, qualification for 2017 Nations Cup is in their hands and they are ready to do everything to protect it. But all that could change in Kaduna on Friday, if our players put seriousness in the game.

“My major worry is blending. We have not played together as a team for a very long time and that is dangerous in the game of football. People are shouting we will beat Egypt silly…some people are singing we will score 4, 5, 6 goals in Kaduna. It does not work that way. I belong to the football family and what I want our boys to do is to focus attention on winning, even if it is by 1-0. The Egyptians take football very serious and I want the Super Eagles to thread with caution. This is really a ‘Red Sea’ test for both teams. I wish the Super Eagles the best of luck,” Okala said.

Football rivalry between Nigeria and Egypt shows that the teams have played 12 games since their first encounter in 1960. The Eagles have won seven, drew four and lost five.
Nigeria’s first encounter against Egypt at the senior level was in an international friendly on January 1, 1960. It took place at the National Stadium, Lagos and the Green Eagles defeated the Pharaohs 2-1.

The next encounter between Nigeria and Egypt was in 1963 in Kumasi, Ghana, where the Pharaohs triumphed 6-3 in the Group B to push Nigeria to the last spot in the final classification with no point.

Three years later at Addis Ababa ’76 Africa Nations Cup, the Eagles defeated Pharaohs 3-2 in Group B to finish second in the final classification behind Guinea and Morocco. In that match, Haruna Ilerika accounted for a brace in the 35th and 62nd minutes.

Nigeria played host to the African Nations Cup in Lagos in 1980, and the Eagles, with stars like Best Ogedegbe, David Adiele, Christian Chukwu, Tunde Bamidele, Okey Isima, Alloysious Atuegbu, Godwin Odiye, Felix Owolabi, Segun Odegbami, Muda Lawal, Adokiye Amiasimaka and Kadiri Ikhana sent the Pharaohs and their flags-and-banner-waving supporters to early bed with a slim 1-0 defeat in their Group A match.

Abidjan ‘84 edition of the Nations Cup provided another avenue for both teams to test their soccer prowess. This time, players like Stephen Keshi, Sunday Eboigbe, Yisa Sofoluwe, Muda Lawal, Ademola Adesina, Humphrey Edobor, Ali Baba, Henry Nwosu, Paul Okoku and Clement Temile were in control of the national team.

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