Six decades after independence, the position of Nigeria in the world of sports to many, still does not justify the resources and abundant talents the nation is blessed with. Many sports enthusiasts believe despite a few global laurels won by Nigeria, a better scoresheet could have been Nigeria’s lot today if the right environment had been created for the talents to maximise their potential. In this report, Ganiyu Salman relives some of the finest moments in Nigerian sports.
THE UK Tourists popularised football in Nigeria as the August 16, 1949 tour inspired a number of boys in the country then to take to football. Though the Tourists which had skipper Richard Etim Henshaw, Sam Ibiam, Peter Anieke, Teslim ‘Thunder’ Balogun and Isaac Akioye, among others, practically played bare-footed, they did impress even their hosts before they returned home as heroes after recording two wins [against Marine Crossby 5-2 and Bromley 3-1], two draws and five losses.
Nigeria’s flag was first hoisted at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics by nine athletes – Karim Olowu, Edward Ajado, Titus Erinle, Muslim Arogundade, Rafiu Oluwa, Sylvanus Williams, Josiah Majekodunmi, Nafiu Osagie and Boniface Guobadia, who only competed in one sport, athletics. They returned from Finland without a medal but with pride of being the trail blazers. Nigeria made entry in the British Empire Games held at Vancouver, Canada in 1954 which later became the Commonwealth Games, while Emmanuel Ifeajuna, a high jumper, became the first athlete to win a gold medal for the country at an international meet and even Africa following his feat. He jumped 6 feet 8 inches to write his names in gold.
Perhaps, the achievement of Hogan ‘Kid’ Bassey in 1957 brought Nigeria to the global map in sports, as he became the world featherweight boxing champion. Bassey who also won the Empire featherweight title had floored French-Algerian boxer, Cheriff Hermia in Paris on August 27, 1957 to rule the world.
The bout was watched by the first Nigeria President, the late Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe, who wrote in his memoirs: “I was the leader of the government delegation, and as soon as the fight ended and Hogan Bassey won, I excitedly scaled the ropes into the ring to the annoyance of all. But what? You don’t reverse the knockout decision. Whether you are annoyed with my person or not, a Nigerian has become a world champion.”
Five years later, another Nigerian boxer, Richard Ihetu Dick Tiger became the world middleweight champion. Dick Tiger on October 23, 1962, beat American Gene Fullmer on points to win the World Boxing Association (WBA) middleweight title. Another landmark achievement in Nigeria sports was recorded on August 10, 1963, when the Liberty Stadium now Obafemi Awolowo Stadium hosted the first world title fight in Africa, the triology between Nigerian Tiger and Fullmer. Tiger stopped the American this time in the seventh round to retain his WBA title.
In 1964, Nojeem Maiyegun became the first athlete to win an Olympic medal for Nigeria. Maiyegun won the bronze at the Tokyo Olympics in the light middleweight category. This modest achievement was celebrated by the whole country as it marked the dawn of an era in Nigerian sports. Another boxer, Isaac Ikhuoria, brought the second Olympic medal to Nigeria at the 1972 Montreal Olympics when he won the men’s light heavyweight bronze. Sports in Nigeria received a massive boost right from the early 1970s with various steps by the Federal Government as the National Sports Commission (NSC) was established in 1971 through decree 34.
Nigerian boxers were marvellous at the 1966 Commonwealth Games as Eddie Ndukwu and Anthony Andeh won gold medals each. Fatai Ayinla and Abayomi Adeyemi were gold medallists at the 1970 edition, while Obisia Nwankpa and Eddie Ndukwu triumphed at the 1974 Games in New Zealand.
A chapter was added to the history of Nigerian football in 1980 when the Green Eagles won the 12th Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) as hosts in Lagos.
The largesse for winning the 1980 AFCON to the Christian Chukwu-led Eagles was massive. Each player was given a brand new 504 car, a bungalow at Festac Town, Lagos and the national honour, Member of the Order of the Niger (MON). In 1984, Nigeria for the first time won a silver medal at the Olympics through Peter Konyegwachie who lost controversially in the featherweight final to home boy, Medrick Taylor.
Another attempt to win the gold at Barcelona ‘92 failed as heavyweight boxer, David Izonritei and super heavyweight boxer, Richard Igbineghu lost in the final to their respective opponents, while Nigeria’s third silver medal in Spain was won by the Oluyemi Kayode, Olapade Adeniken, Davidson Ezinwa, Chidi Imoh, and Osmond Ezinwa in the men’s 4x100m relay.
Also at Barcelona ’92, Nigeria women’s 4x100m relay made up of Mary Onyali, Beatrice Utondu, Faith Idehen and Christy Opara Thompson won the bronze at the Games.
Nigeria eventually broke the jinx against the Olympics gold at Atlanta ‘96, when Golden Girl Chioma Ajunwa jumped to the gold with 7.12m. Nigeria’s U23 team also won the soccer gold at the Games, the first time by an African country.
Nigeria also had a silver medal at the Games through Falilat Ogunkoya, Bisi Afolabi, Fatima Yusuf and Charity Opara, in the women’s 4x400m relay.
The bronze medallists for Nigeria were Falilat Ogunkoya (women’s 400m); Mary Onyali (women’s 200m) and Duncan Dokiwari, men’s super heavyweight boxing.
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Unarguably, Nigeria remains the most successful nation in the FIFA U17 football championship. A significant incident which bordered on fair play helped Nigeria to win a gold medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Nduka Awazie, the late Sunday Bada, Clement Chukwu, Fidelis Gadzama, Jude Monye, Enefiok Udo-Obong, won the silver in the men’s 4×400m with a time of 02:58.68 but the International Olympic Committee (IOC) later stripped the United States of gold for doping, hence the ultimate medal to Nigeria which competed fairly. After the Nigeria won the maiden U16 World Cup in China in 1985, she went on to win four more titles of the FIFA U17 World Cup in 1993, 2007, 2013 and 2015.
Also, Nigeria had on two occasions lost in the final of the FIFA U20 World Cup, the first in 1989 in Saudi Arabia and the last in 2005 in Holland. What however, remains worrisome to many soccer buffs is the fact that Nigeria despite winning the FIFA U17 World Cup for a record five times, this feat has not translated into success in the senior team, the Super Eagles, as Nigeria is yet to make a quarter-final appearance at the World Cup after her debut in 1994 mundial.
Though, Nigeria has become the largest exporter of African players in Europe, the exploits of these starlets could still not be harnessed to turn the Super Eagles to the best team on the continent and one of the top 10 nations in the world which is feasible, through sound administrative system in place.
It’s indeed, a success story for Nigeria in professional boxing as Samuel Peter became the World Boxing Council (WBC) heavyweight champion on March 9, 2008, when he stopped Russian Oleg Maskaev, two minutes, 56 seconds of the sixth round. Peter also emerged the first African to rule the heavyweight class till date.
Nigeria also produced two-time African Footballer of the Year in Nwankwo Kanu (1996 &1999) as the late Rashidi Yekini (1993), Emmanuel Amuneke (1994) and Victor Ikpeba (1997) also won the African gong.
Victor Osimhen in the history of the FIFA U17 World Cup remains the kid with the highest number of goals in a single tournament. He netted record 10 goals at Chile 2015 to win the Golden Boot award. The state of sports in the country, however, gives many sports-loving Nigerians sleepless nights as they believe the structure which aided sports development in the early 1960s through the late 1980s has been destroyed through politics. Between 1999 and 2019, no fewer than 14 sports ministers had held sway in Nigeria, a system which makes planning a bit ineffective, as projects abandoned by a past minister is never sustained by his successor.
Former Nigeria international, Chief Segun Odegbami (MON), noted that the downturn trend in Nigerian sports began in 1990.
“But the truth is that in the 1990s sports lost their innocence, independence and direction, and became a weapon of destruction and exploitation in the hands of a few administrators who had agenda different from those of developing the youth of the country, encouraging mass participation at all levels, combining sports with education in the schools, encouraging sports and education through provision of scholarships in tertiary institutions, exposing the best talents to the best coaching, training and competition at home and abroad, training the trainers for capacity building, and rewarding all those that excelled,” stated Odegbami.
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What will be the position of Nigeria in the next 10 years in the world of sports?
Surely, anything short of winning the FIFA U20 World Cup by the Flying Eagles; a semi-final appearance in the World Cup by the Super Eagles; a semi-final appearance by the Super Falcons at Olympics and the World Cup, Flamingos not winning the FIFA U17 Women’s World Cup, and the Falconets not winning the FIFA U20 Women’s World Cup should not be celebrated; as it will amount to motion without movement.
Given the resources the country is blessed with, a Nigerian boxer winning an Olympic gold within the next decade is feasible, if a myriad of talented boxers across all nooks and crannies of the country could be properly groomed and encouraged by the authorities.
This is why the return of the National Sports Commission, which was scrapped five years ago can’t be discarded, as it was set up in 1971 to complement the efforts of the sports ministry in the country.