By Segun Odegbami
Everybody remembers the day of the final match in 1980. People recall where they watched the match, who captained the gallant team, who scored the goals and how they celebrated that victory that night and several nights after that eventful Sunday, March 22, 1980. For 4 decades, they have told and retold the stories. At the same time, only very few persons can recall and tell the story of the day before the final. That is what I want to attempt now, to recall what happened on the eve of one of the greatest days in the history of Nigerian football.
Today is Saturday, March 21, 2020.
It is exactly 40 years to the eve of Nigeria’s first and probably most memorable football match, where 100,000 Nigerians crammed like Sardine into a 60,000- capacity stadium, a trumpeter (legendary Highlife musician, Zeal Onyia) leading the choruses as the packed terraces became the theatre of song, dance and drums throughout the 90 minutes of a pulsating match that opened perfectly. Nigeria scored the first of three un-replied goals within the first two minutes of kick-off by the man nicknamed Mathematical. That goal became the fastest in the history of the African Cup of Nations and remained so for the next 39 years until the 2019 AFCON, when it may have been broken. Let me take us back to Saturday, March 21, 1980.
It is 6 am in the morning. We wake up to the shrill, long drawn sound of Coach Isaac Nnado’s whistle. How we hated to hear it pierce through our deep sleep just before day break. It is the call for hard work – endless exercise drills, boring runs, set plays, and small sided games. The part we usually enjoyed the most are the actual ‘two-sides’ where we are divided into possibles and probables and play against each other. You often know after these games who is likely to be in the team that weekend. Today, there is no ‘two-sides’. The team is almost roughly set from all the three previous matches we have played to get to the finals. There is tension in the team even as we limber through the very light exercises this morning, mostly stretches and jogging around the perimeter of the football field on the grounds of Trade Fair Hotel, on Badagry express road, after Festac Town in Lagos, a beautiful country-side-like holiday resort where the Green Eagles have been in camp since returning from their almost three months camping in Brazil, leading to the championship.
It has been months of the best kind of training any team can have under one of the most experienced football coaches in the world, the man who coached Portugal (with the great Eusebio) at the 1966 World Cup in England and is the president of the Brazil Coaches’ Association when he is hired to take Nigerian football to a higher level, from the previous British, dribble, defense-to-attack, kick-and-follow style of play to the silky-touch, patient, flamboyant, expressive, quick and short passing Samba style of South American football. In three matches, the country has seen the results as the Eagles march into the final match coming up tomorrow. We are 22. We have become ‘brothers’. It is dawning on us as we run around the grassy make-shift football field this morning that we are actually close to the finish line of an ‘impossible’ dream – becoming champions of African football. We are singing as we jog along, a mixture of determination and butterflies is our stomachs. We go through very light training, mostly of set-pieces, rehearsals of specific runs down the flanks with crosses to connect the waiting head of our central striker for that match, Muda Lawal, practicing to play that position for the first time in the championship. Otto Gloria has something up his sleeve. He is changing our pattern for this final match. Muda, the best defensive midfield player probably in Nigeria’s history, is being prepared to play as a decoy centre-forward! The experienced professor of football intends to throw the Algerian plans for that match into dis-array with that simple change in strategy. I can see it unfolding. We finish training, return to our rooms, take our bath, change into our camp ‘uniforms’ (in camp we all wear the same sports outfits for every session of everything we do) and go for breakfast. The uniformity in our dressing whilst in camp is a tradition that still sustains till today. It embeds the spirit of a team. After breakfast the tension starts to build up with unusual visitations. The first is by renowned parapsychologist, Professor Okunzua, for the first time to our camp. I don’t recall which official’s idea it is to bring the celebrity professor to talk to the team, but he comes and does after breakfast. I can’t make out what impact it has. It is neither inspirational nor motivating. He assures us the stars have given victory to us. Another parapsychologist also visits. He is a Yoruba man, also well known. I don’t remember his name. He wastes our time. An army of football officials also come in and pretend to be offering encouragement by distracting us with words that impact little or nothing. We tolerate them until Raul Carlesso and Isaac Nnado, Otto Gloria’s assistant coaches, send everyone away and we return to our rooms. I spend the rest of the morning reading in the room I am sharing with Best Ogedegbe this time. Usually my roommate used to be Emmanuel Okala.
Lunch goes well. We return to our rooms to rest till evening. I read a novel. I love reading books. They take my mind off the pressure of thinking about the most important match of my life. Music is booming out of several rooms from stereo sets that late Lawyer Shola Rhodes, a popular supporter of Nigerian athletes (he has sponsored many athletes to the United States for schooling), distributed to several players in camp. He is obviously well-liked for his generosity.
Dinner is early. The camp is shut to outsiders. No one is allowed around the hotel premises anymore. There is palpable tension around the camp. Otto Gloria has not been seen since after morning training. He must be in his room. We have dinner. Prayers are offered. We retire to our rooms for an early sleep. Sleep has taken flight. I am playing the match in my mind over and over again. Creating movements on the ball, and dreaming about goals, after all that’s my job. I have been Nigeria’s highest goal scorer for three years in a row even from playing from the wings. My head is a deadly weapon of destruction. In Ghana, two years before, in 1978, I was one of the three highest goal scorers of the Nation’s Cup. So, now, I am always expected to deliver the goods, so I create them in my mind before matches. It is almost midnight. Restless, I leave my room. Best is sound asleep. I don’t know how he does it, but his confidence is unhuman. He never believes any attacker is good enough to score against him. Bestila! I come out to the courtyard of the hotel for some air. On the other side, Christian Chukwu is also outside staring at nothing in particular. I walk over to him and we chat. We decide to take a walk.
We go past Professor Gloria’s room and it is ajar.
The man is awake bent over his desk, working on something.
We decide to go in and see him.
He looks up, sees us. He says he understands why we are unable to sleep. He advises we go take a glass of beer each to cool our nerves. Glass of beer? That is taboo in football. But, he is dead serious. It will help, he says.
We ask him what he is doing. We observe our names in different positions marked by arrows all over the chart in front of him. He tells us he is playing tomorrow’s match on his chart, explaining how he wants his team to play, the team tactics they will use, and how they will counter what the Algerians will bring to the table. Chukwu and I are mesmerized. Prof was actually playing the match on paper one day ahead of the actual match! We leave his room educated. It is probably the best 15 minutes of football coaching lesson I have had. I can almost read Otto Gloria’s mind. We take Otto Gloria’s hint and go to the bar. We share a single glass of beer. By the time we return to our rooms, I am in another world, transported by Otto Gloria’s genius. For the first time that day, I relax completely. Tomorrow, Sunday March 22, 1980, is settled.
I am on fire, yet as cool as a cucumber.