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One of the areas in which Nigeria has gained global recognition is football; aka Soccer. Nigeria actually shot into limelight on the soccer pitches through scintillating performances on the soccer pitches in the 1970s and 1980s, when the nation gained international reputation as a major force to be reckoned with in soccer.  From its first outing abroad in 1949, Nigeria’s national team got stronger recognition globally as one of the leading nations in soccer as then rated by FIFA in the 70s and 80s. The nation’s prowess is such that Nigeria have reached the finals of the FIFA World Cup five times, with the first feat recorded in 1994. On that tournament, Nigeria reached the second round. The next and sixth appearance, will be made this year at the finals in the 2018 FIFA World Cup slated to hold in Russia.

Who are the pioneers? Nigeria first played its first match outside the country in 1949 when the Nigeria UK Tourists team played by ordinary feet. They made history by emerging first West African team to play matches abroad. It is interesting to note that the Nigerian players wore no soccer boots. Before that memorable outing, the bunch of the then promising players had featured in a number of matches against various local and regional teams, including the Ghanaian national team. The 1949 tour, is recorded to have changed the perception of Africans, as they performed excellently before the British public.  The “UK Tourists”, as they were branded, comprised 18 players picked from the best Nigerian teams by the Nigerian Football Association. In all, they had nine outings against English amateur and league clubs for five weeks.  The Nigerian team won their first match against Marine Crosby 5-2 at Liverpool. 7,000 spectators were recorded at that match. But they lost the remaining eight (8) matches.

As recorded by ‘The Manchester Guardian’, ‘’The players selected were largely representative of colonial society. Fourteen of the eighteen players were civil servants, and another two were teachers, while the team’s player/secretary, Kanno had been educated in England and had thus, it was deemed, ‘acquired the refinements necessary for the public engagements.   ‘’Significantly, even though the British administrators wanted the Nigerians to wear boots, the Nigerian players insisted on not wearing them and so the decision to play barefooted could also be seen, as a sign of defiance – the retention of a traditional Nigerian identity – within a tour that clearly sought to establish an image of a modern ‘British’ Nigeria. ‘’The Nigerian tour in 1949 was followed by tours from the Gold Coast in 1951, Uganda in 1956, and the Caribbean in 1959, these were also meant to illustrate the development of these areas under British rule and to highlight the continued role of the British throughout the Empire.’’

Those great Nigerian players branded ‘’UK Tourists’’ were: Goalkeepers – Sam Ibiam, named ‘The Black Magnet’ & Isaac Akioye who later became Director of Sports. Defenders– Justin Onwudiwe, Olisa Chukwura, Ahmed Tijani Ottun, Isiaku Shittu. Half Backs – John Dankaro, Hope Lawson. Centre Half Back- Dan Anyiam, Okoronkwo Kanu, Mesembe Otu. Inside Forward- Peter ‘Baby’ Anieke, Sokari Dokubo, Edeth Ben. Outside Right– Godwin Anosike. Centre Forwards– Etim Henshaw, Tesilimi Balogun, aka ‘’Thunder’’ that soccer legend who died in1972 at the age of 45, and was the first Nigerian coach to lead the national team to the Olympic Games held in Mexico in 1968.  Outside Left – Titus Okere. Etim Henshaw, and Hope Lawson. One of them in particular, Thunder Balogun was so named because he had a myth built around him that kicked the ball so hard such that the force opened the stomachs of goalkeepers. Thunder commenced playing at age 19 for the Apapa Bombers; and was a member of Nigeria’s national team for 17 years.  From1944 and 1961, Balogun played in eight (8) different first division clubs.

Those great footballers left indelible marks on the sands of time. They laid a solid foundation for Nigerian soccer with great patriotism without pursuing wealth. But that was then because players must survive, hence their exodus into foreign nations where they earn incredible amounts as professionals. It was not until Nigeria won the 1980 Africa Cup of Nations that players were fantastically rewarded. I remember vividly the encounter that held at the National Stadium in Lagos, at which even President Shehu Shagari jumped up enthusiastically to cheer the Nigerian side that defeated Algeria 3–0.  ‘’Mathematical’’ Segun Odegbami scored two goals, while his compatriot, Muda Lawal, scored another goal for Nigeria to win their first African Cup. Will those glorious days come again? Is it possible to raise the Osogbo Bombers, Aba Warriors, Port Harcourt Strikers, and Kano Fighters etc? Will a move like this succeed these days of what I usually refer to as ‘’Era of Second Colonization’’ with so many Nigerians, (even ‘’people at the top’’) now belong to Fans Clubs of European soccer outfits?  I am not too sure that Nigerians still listen to  soccer commentaries of successors of commentators like the great Ishola Folorunsho, Sebastian Ofrum, and bombastic Ernest Okonkwo, who injected life into his commentaries and analyses, nicknaming footballers according to their prowess on the pitches: ‘Mathematical’ Odegbami; ‘Block Buster’ Aloysius Atuegbu;  ‘Chairman’ Christian Chukwu, “Owo-blow Felix Owolabi;  ‘Chief Justice’ Adokie Amasiemeka and ‘Man Mountain’ Emmanuel Okala.   Nigeria Must Be Great Again!