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Nigeria at 60: Of iconic sportspersons and golden moments

IT has been 60 years since Nigeria became an independent nation. In that time the country has produced sporting greats and unforgettable highlights, writes NURUDEEN OBALOLA

It has been quite a ride these past 60 years for Nigerian sports: sometimes smooth, other times as rough as the failed portions of the country’s roads. It has been a mixed bag but overall it has been a worthwhile experience.
Since 1960 when Nigeria gained its Independence from Great Britain, Africa’s most populous country has been a big player in sports both on the continent and globally, producing iconic sportsmen and women as well as unforgettable moments.

For each decade of the 60 years, the country has had a collection of elite athletes and spectacular achievements to be proud of. Of course there have been decades of plenty and those of drought, but there has been no 10-year period without something to celebrate…   

Dick Tiger (left) in a world title fight in the 1960s.

1960 to 1969
the Tiger Woods, there was another Tiger, a Nigerian legend. DICK TIGER IHETU was the first globally recognised boxing champion out of Africa and he ruled the world in the early to mid-1960s. Dick Tiger (real name Richard Ihetu) was born in Eastern Nigeria in 1929 and began his boxing journey at home before proceeding to England and the United States of America, where he found worldwide fame. Two years after Nigeria’s Independence, he won his first global title when he defeated American Gene Fullmer to become the World Middleweight champion. He was named Fighter of the Year that same year by the authoritative Ring magazine, the most influential voice in boxing.

He then continued to dominate the sport, moving up in weight categories. The Nigerian hero added the World Light Heavyweight title to his glittering collection in 1966, incidentally the year his fatherland became a republic. Unfortunately, Dick Tiger did not live to a ripe old age. He died in 1971 at only 42 years old but he had left his mark.

Boxing, this time the amateur variety, brought more honours for Nigeria in 1964 when NOJEEM MAIYEGUN became the first athlete from the country to win an Olympic medal. Fighting in the men’s light middleweight category, Maiyegun finally landed Nigeria its first Olympic Games medal – a bronze – at the country’s fourth try in Tokyo, Japan (Nigeria had participated in the 1952, 1956 and 1960 Games without winning any medal). He also won bronze at the Commonwealth Games in 1966.

The 1960s were also the first time Nigeria won multiple gold medals at the Commonwealth Games, the country winning three. The star for the country at the Games in Kingston, Jamaica was SAMUEL IGUN who gold in men’s triple jump and silver in long jump, two tough, highly technical track and field events.

1970 to 1979
THE 1970s saw the rise of Nigerian football with the country finally rubbing shoulders with African elite in the continent’s number one sport. After failing to make an impression at earlier editions, Nigeria became a real contender at the 1976 Africa Cup of Nations in Ethiopia, finishing third. The revelation of the tournament was Green Eagles forward HARUNA ILERIKA whose mesmerising skills held the continent spellbound. The late star often told tales of how Ethiopian women were so smitten with him that they showered him with gifts that made their men jealous.

The undoubted queen of Nigerian sports in the 1970s was MODUPE OSIKOYA. The track and field legend won a combined five gold medals at two All Africa Games editions. Fittingly, when Lagos hosted the continental showpiece at the spanking new iconic National Stadium, Surulere in 1973, the Nigerian gazelle stole the show by winning gold medals in the 100m hurdles, long jump and high jump, events that are hardly ever combined.

In between her golden feats at Lagos in 1973 and Algiers in 1978 (where she won two gold medals in long jump and high jump), Osikoya claimed the long jump gold at the Commonwealth Games in Christchurch, New Zealand in 1974.
Like Osikoya, OBISIA NWANKPA won gold medals at both the All Africa Games in 1973 and the Commonwealth Games a year later. The boxing great won the gold medals in the lightweight category of both Games and went on to have a successful career as a professional boxer and national coach.

1980 to 1989
1980s was the decade with the most productive beginning for Nigerian sports and the period the country’s football properly took off. At the take-off of the decade in 1980, the country for the first time ruled the continent by winning its first Africa Cup of Nations title. The heroes of that golden feat were all the players in the Green Eagles squad and their coaches, but two names stood out. Captain CHRISTIAN CHUKWU led by example, marshalling the defence and contributing to the attack, while winger SEGUN ODEGBAMI was the best player of the tournament, scoring three goals including two in the final in Lagos against Algeria.

Nigeria went on to win two more AFCON medals in the 1980s: silver in both 1984 in Cote d’Ivoire and 1988 in Morocco when it could have been gold if not for dodgy refereeing.

The one achievement that caught global attention however was the young Nigerian team shocking the world by winning the inaugural FIFA U-16 World Cup in 1985 in China. Few people knew the players when they were leaving for China but they returned as heroes and had big streets named after them. Led by the late coach SEBASTIAN BRODRICK, the team gave Nigerians household names like captain NDUKA UGBADE, FATAI ATERE, LUCKY AGBONSEVBAFE and SANI ADAMU.

That 1985 triumph was the beginning of Nigeria’s dominance at that level of football and the country has gone on to win four other editions of the tournament (now the FIFA U-17 World Cup).

Also in football, one of the names that will forever live in Nigerians’ hearts is SAMUEL OKWARAJI, the star midfielder who made the ultimate sacrifice. Okwaraji had become a mainstay of the Super Eagles team after coming home on holiday from Belgium and joining a national team training session. He was one of the Super Eagles’ best players at the 1988 AFCON and was destined for big things until he sadly died on national duty in 1989 while playing in a World Cup qualifier against Angola in Lagos. His statue is still at the entrance of the National Stadium, Surulere, the venue of his unfortunate exit.

Away from football, the 1980s produced great Nigerian Olympians who made the country proud at the world’s biggest sporting platform.

PETER KONYEGWACHIE won Nigeria’s first ever Olympic silver medal in boxing at the 1984 Los Angeles Games while the quartet of SUNDAY UTI, MOSES UGBISIEN, ROTIMI PETERS and INNOCENT EGBUNIKE won the country’s first non-boxing Olympic medal, bronze in the men’s 4x400m athletics relay.
Egbunike was also quite a sensation at the 1987 All Africa Games in Nairobi, Kenya, winning the 400m in an African record and prompting the host President to ask if he was truly ‘Innocent’. 

The 1980s was rounded off with the MIRACLE OF DAMMAN when the Flying Eagles made history by coming back from 4-0 down in the second half to draw 4-4 against Russia in the quarter-finals of the 1989 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Saudi Arabia. The Nigerian lads went on to win silver at the tournament, the country’s joint-best finish till date (matched by the 2005 set).

1990 to 1999
1990s was a fertile period for Nigerian sports, the country making unprecedented strides and achieving feats that are yet to be matched.
After winning silver and bronze respectively at the first two AFCONs of the decade in 1990 and 1992, the Super Eagles claimed the ultimate prize in 1994 in Tunisia. It was Nigeria’s first African football title not won on home soil and the big heroes of that triumph were captain STEPHEN KESHI, top scorer RASHIDI YEKINI, AUSTIN OKOCHA, SUNDAY OLISEH, OKECHUKWU UCHE, EMMANUEL  AMUNEKE, FINIDI GEORGE (who added the UEFA Champions League title with Ajax a year later) and coach CLEMENS WESTERHOF.

Yekini went on to score Nigeria’s first-ever goal at the World Cup after Westerhof led the Super Eagles to qualify in 1994 after several futile attempts in the past. The late Yekini, who is still Nigeria’s all-time top scorer and the country’s first African Player of the Year in 1993, gave the world one of the most iconic images with his delirious celebration of that goal against Bulgaria.

Two years later, Nigeria had its best ever Olympic Games outing in Atlanta, Georgia, United States of America. Prior to the 1996 Games, Nigeria had won eight medals from six editions, none of them gold. In Atlanta, Nigeria won seven medals, including two gold.

CHIOMA AJUNWA won the country’s first Olympic gold medal in the women’s long jump with an African record of 7.12m and the men’s football team, nicknamed the Dream Team due to its array of stars, followed up with Africa’s first-ever team sport gold.

The Dream Team was coached by JO BONFRERE and captained by NWANKWO KANU, one of the youngest players in the team. Kanu was not only the captain, he was one of the team’s most important players and his performances earned him the African Player of the Year award for 1996. He won the award again in 1999 after surviving a heart disease. The former Ajax, Arsenal and Inter Milan forward has continued his heroic acts after retiring from active football by running the Kanu Heart Foundation which funds heart surgeries for indigent Nigerians. 
The 1990s also gave the world Nigerian athletics icons like MARY ONYALI, OLAPADE ADENIKEN, FALILAT OGUNSANYA, OSMOND and DAVIDSON EZENWA, FATIMA YUSUF and others who won medals at African, Commonwealth and Olympic levels.

At the end of the decade, Nigeria pulled off another miracle at the FIFA U-20 World Cup, this time by successfully hosting the tournament after overcoming several hitches.

Chioma Ajunwa leaping to gold at the Atlanta 1996 Olympics.

2000 to 2009
late SHUAIBU AMODU did not attend the World Cup but he holds the record as the first Nigerian coach to help the Super Eagles qualify for the Mundial. And he did it twice: first in 2001 for the 2002 World Cup and again in 2009 for the 2010 World Cup. Amodu was unfairly prevented from leading the team to the World Cup on both occasions but his record remains intact. He also led the Super Eagles to AFCON bronze in 2002 and 2010.

The decade got off to a great start when the Nigerian quartet in the men’s athletics 4x400m produced a superhuman effort to win silver at the Sydney Olympics. The team that included the late SUNDAY BADA and ENEFIOK UDO-OBONG stunned the world by finishing second behind the American team. Nigeria’s silver was later upgraded to gold after one of the Americans was discovered to have used performance-enhancing substances. GLORIA ALOZIE, who later switched nationality to Spain, won silver in the women’s 100m hurdles while RUTH OGBEIFO won silver in women’s weightlifting.

The 2000s was the ‘bronze age’ for the Super Eagles as the team finished third at AFCON in 2002, 2004 and 2006. They won silver in 2000.

Also during the decade, Nigeria hosted the All Africa Games in Abuja at the new 60,000-capacity National Stadium, now named after a true sports hero and philanthropist MOSHOOD ABIOLA,  the billionaire who gave generously to sports.
Apart from 2000, Nigeria was below-par at the 2004 and 2008 Olympics but still won medals and had heroes and heroines.  

OLUSOJI FASUBA, who later set the African 100m record, DEJI ALIU and UCHE EMEDOLU were all in the men’s 4x100m quartet that won one of Nigeria’s only two bronze medals at Athens 2004. The other bronze was won by the men’s 4x400m relay team led by Udo-Obong.

The men’s football team, coached by 1994 AFCON striker SAMSOM SIASIA (silver),  and taekwondo star CHIKA CHUKWUMERIJE (bronze) won medals at Beijing 2008 just like BLESSING OKAGBARE who was a silver medallist in women’s long jump.

At the end of the decade, Nigeria once again hosted the world, this time with the FIFA U-17 World Cup, in which the Golden Eaglets finished as losing finalists.

2010 and the present time, the one truly outstanding moment in Nigerian sports was the Africa Cup of Nations title the Super Eagles won in South Africa in 2013. With a team given very little chance of going all the way, coach STEPHEN KESHI produced a winning formula and he led the country to its third African title. He also became the first man to captain and coach the Super Eagles to AFCON titles.

Keshi then became the first Nigerian coach to take the team to the second round of the World Cup in Brazil in 2014.

That 2013/2014 squad contained great players like JOSEPH YOBO, VINCENT ENYEAMA, the highly decorated MIKEL OBI and AHMED MUSA. 
In 2013 and 2015, the Golden Eaglets again won the FIFA U-17 World Cup, coached by MANU GARBA and EMMANUEL AMUNEKE respectively.
In 2016, SAMSON SIASIA won another Olympic medal, leading the men’s football team to bronze in spite of severe funding problems.

In 2019, with ODION IGHALO leading the line, the Super Eagles made their first AFCON appearance since 2013 and won yet another bronze in Egypt.

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