Thursday, November 9, 2017

The Night of History


MOST NIGERIAN soccer fans can’t be seriously bothered about the Super Eagles last qualifying game for the 2018 FIFA World Cup finals because Gernot Rohr’s boys have already secured their visa to Russia. Therefore, it won’t be a surprise if many choose to even not watch the game against Algeria this weekend in Algiers because it’s an inconsequential dead-rubber.

But it was a completely different scenario at the same venue and against the same opponents some 29 years ago when Nigeria visited in search of her first ever World Cup ticket. That match ended in a tense 1-1 draw and the Eagles qualified for their first World Cup appearance at USA ’94.

Recently, nostalgic older readers of Soccertalk have been asking me to convert my archives into a digital form so that they could access it and relive (on demand) the ‘good, old days’ of the 1990s as recorded by yours truly. The readers remind me of some timeless pieces published by COMPLETE FOOTBALL magazine: Road to USA, We Must Qualify; Allahu Akbar, Nigeria Back On Course; 90 Minutes To Glory; Hurray, USA ’94 Here We Come; and many more.


As the current Eagles file out against Algeria with no pressure on them whatsoever, let’s go back in time to see how the Eagles Golden Generation qualified Nigeria for the FIFA World Cup for the very first time. I hope that even younger Soccertalk readers will enjoy this historical narrative. This one was titled, “The Night of History.”
Friday, October 8, 1993: The Night of History
 
It could be a difficult task writing about an event the like of which had never happened before.

Particularly if that event is of such a magnitude as Nigeria’s qualification for the World Cup for the very first time, then your hands are full.

Various headlines would ring in your head: Eagles Make World Cup History; Nigeria through to USA; Qualification At Last!; and many more.

So would adjectives jostle for use: Remarkable. Unprecedented. Historic. Glorious. Momentous Record-breaking and many more.

All are applicable, they tell the story, yet none would seem good enough. Each would sound to you like an understatement of the fact. The fact is Nigeria’s qualification for the FIFA World Cup for the very first time.

Because the achievement is unprecedented, you would feel the only way to do justice is to use words, expressions, headlines that are equally unprecedented, practically out of this world. Of course, you end up writing nothing! For even though Nigeria had never qualified for the World Cup finals, there are no words in the dictionary that have never been used before.

The best you can do is write the extraordinary or the weird. For example, you could tell your ecstatic readers to repeat after you on the top of their voices…
NIGERIA…. Nigeria, HAVE…. Have, QUALIFIED…. Qualified, FOR THE….. for the, WORLD…. world, CUP…. Cup, FOR…for THE….the, V-E-R-Y… v-e-r-y. FIRST…. First, TIME….. time!
– From the unpublished “Thoughts of a Reporter” on the Night of History. (July 5 Stadium, Algiers. Friday October 8, 1993).


Moment of Glory
 
NIGERIA’S moment of World Cup glory as recorded by the digital stop-watch of this reporter was exactly 8:23:43pm twenty-three minutes, forty-three seconds past the hour of eight ‘O’ clock post meridian on the Day of History, Friday 8 October, 1993.

FIFA-Graded referee Lim Kee Chong from Mauritius took a glance at the time piece strapped firmly to his left wrist as he ran to keep pace with the dying moments of the final World Cup qualifier between Algeria and Nigeria at the July 5 Stadium in Algiers.

Fleeting seconds later, Chong’s steady run would slow down into a walk and the walk into a halt. The referee mouthed his whistle, raised his two hands and pointed to the heavens.

“Phew, phew, phew,” went the shrill noise of the whistle and history was made: Nigeria had qualified for the glamorous FIFA World Cup for the very first time!

Time check: 8:23:43pm. This hour, this minute and this second will forever remain the moment of World Cup glory for Nigerian football.

Sparks of Emotion
 
Chong might have made three bursts on his whistle to signal the end of the Algeria – Nigeria tie, but only the first one was heard by the scanty crowd at the magnificent July 5 Stadium in Algiers.

Long before Chong called a halt to proceedings, the Nigerian players, team handlers and backers had longed for that home whistle with Dutch technical adviser Clemens Westerhof leading the band of Nigerian emergency time-keepers on the night.

Towards the tail-end of the game, Westerhof walked to within ten yards of the touch line, stamping his foot, pointing persistently at his gold wrist watch as he yelled at the referee that time was up…

“Hey referee, it is finished now. It is all over now. Look at your watch. Don’t spoil everything for us now. Why are you doing this? It is finished now. Let us go now…” The Dutchman was panting. And so were his crew, and so were his reserve players. Everyone was watching wide-eyed, expectant, tensed up.

On the pitch, the Nigerian players were in a worse condition. After opening scoring in the first half through right winger George Finidi, all seemed to be going well for them until the Algerians equalized through hit-man Zerrouki Sid Ahmed with 20 minutes remaining. Those 20 minutes would probably remain the most nightmarish in the professional careers of the Nigerian players.

They were aware that a draw from this game would be enough to realize their country’s World Cup dream. With scores tied at 1-1 in the 70th minute, therefore, they simply wished the game would end right then.

But of course, it didn’t. Instead, the opponents turned on the heat full blast looking for the winner. And, all of a sudden, the home fans who had booed their own team all-match long made an about-face and started encouraging them to go for the kill. It was 20 minutes of hell for the Super-Eagles.

Goalkeeper Wilfred Agbonavbare shouted himself hoarse between the Nigerian posts. “Keshi, they’re coming again O! Iroha, look behind you. Ugbade, hold him, hold him. Everybody, come back, come baaaack!!!”

Team skipper Stephen Keshi’s trademark is the ability to organize his defence and assign roles to peers. This night, he needed all his ingenuity to hold his men together as the faster, sleeker and more cohesive opponents attacked in droves.

Several close calls, corner-kick after corner kick, rampaging solos, stinging shots, pushes and shoves. The Algerians threw every brick at the embattled Nigerian boys. Those last 20 minutes were tough for the Super Eagles.

Substitute right full-back Nduka Ugbade summarized that last period of the game: “It was tough. They just kept coming at us.”

Boiling Point
 
With pressure mounting on the field and tension heightening on the bench, the impact was bound to reflect on the Nigerians in the crowd at July 5. For them, anxiety reached boiling point.

Emeka Omeruah is the Chairman of the Nigerian Football Association. Being a retired Air Commodore in the Navy, he is a man whom military training has hardened. But when the Super Eagles came under severe pressure in the last period of the game in Algiers, Omeruah sought refuge in God. He would say afterwards…

“I must confess that I was tensed up. But when I considered the wife of the NSC Chairman, Chief Alex Akinyele who was sitting to my right in the state box, I had to brace up like a man.

“The Secretary General, Dr. Tijani Yusuf was sitting to my left and I could see he was also a bit uncomfortable. In fact, every Nigerian in the state box was tensed up. No real conversation could take place. People tried to talk, but all you could hear were murmurs, blabbering, you know. The tension in the state box was so high.”

Ditto among the Nigeria Football Supporters Club who had arrived the Stadium only about an hour to kick-off. Earlier on in the game, their drumming was loud and they sang in very high pitch. And when the Eagles scored, they drummed even louder and sang even louder.
When the Algerians equalized and pressed forward in search of a winner in the final 20 minutes, however, some of the Nigerian drummers could hardly lift their sticks, while many of the singers opened their mouths but no songs came forth.

The anxiety reached even the journalists from Nigeria at the press area of the Stadium. “Why are these boys now playing like this,” one muttered when the opponents’ pressure reached the peak. “It doesn’t matter now how they play as long as they qualify” another fired back.

Meanwhile, a couple of desks away, an Algerian journalist who had pretended to be indifferent about the possible outcome of the game because his country was already out of contention for the World Cup was betraying his “hidden agenda.” Each time his team swarmed on the Nigeria defence during the last 20 minutes, he would shout goal!, goal!, goal! to further heighten the anxiety of his Nigerian colleagues.

It was amidst this din of tension and pressure for the Nigerians that centre referee Lim Kee Chong finally ruled that the game had gone its full course and sounded the home whistle.
The first burst was heard alright, but not the second nor the third which the referee still dutifully made. “Heey!” the spontaneous jubilation of the Nigerians at July 5 responded to Chong’s first burst of the whistle, drowning the second and the third. Hard, steely and tensed-up faces of handlers and backers relaxed into flashy, buoyant and relieved looks as everyone bared their teeth as though they were in an audition for a toothpaste advertisement.

The sparks of emotion among Nigerians went the full course, from the extremely uneasy to the extremely joyous. It is not everyday that a country qualifies for the World Cup finals.

Sparks of Celebration
 
Algeria 1, Nigeria 1 and both sides ended the historic game of October 8 on a balanced keel. A goal apiece and a point apiece meant both teams had been equal on the night-goals wise, at least. But while Algeria’s one point couldn’t do them any good again as far as the World Cup was concerned, Nigeria’s share of the spoils gave her a place in history: a World Cup ticket.

When referee Chong’s home whistle went, it was celebration galore among the Nigerians at July 5.

On the pitch, goalkeeper Agbonavbare made the sign of the cross – “Thank you, Jesus.” Substitute midfielder Mutiu Adepoju made the sign of Unity – “Thank you, Allah.”
Everywhere, the instantaneous reaction made by all the players was “Thank God.”
Then followed the Hurrays, Hoppees and Yapees. Then followed the huggings, the back-slappings. Each player grabbed the nearest teammate in sheer ecstasy. Let’s paint some picture…

Skipper Stephen Keshi and left full-back Ben Iroha are locked in embrace and both are rolling on the pitch like Japanese Sumo wrestlers. Elsewhere, strikers Rashidi Yekini and Daniel Amokachi are not rolling on the turf, but their eyes are glittering, arms raised, fists clamed. Elsewhere still, substitute full-back Nduka Ugbade is running about like a sheep without shepherd. The former U-17 World Cup champion is crying out of joy, and he is obviously lacking in direction. Luckily, he runs into midfielder Thompson Oliha who also is just running and running with no apparent destination. “Oliha, Oliha, we have done it,” Ugbade sobs as both players run into each other’s arms.

Elsewhere still, substitute midfielder Mutiu Adepoju can be seen running towards his handlers “Aaah, Aaah,” he keeps shouting as he runs along. The boy is mad with joy.

Sidelines
 
On the sidelines, Clemens Westerhof had killed off the last of his cigarettes in readiness for the final whistle. But when the whistle came, he really couldn’t believe his ears. “I really didn’t know how to celebrate again when I heard the whistle,” he would say afterwards. “I was very happy inside me, but on the outside, I didn’t know how exactly to show it.”

Back on the sidelines, Nigeria’s team doctor Akinkunmi Amao is the first to embrace Westerhof at the whistle. Then comes assistant coach Ismaila Lulu and the players on the sub bench – Precious Monye, substituted Austin Eguavoen, et al.

Defender Isaac Semitoje is the first among the players on the field to reach the sidelines. He embraces the coach and gives way to the others as pressmen encircle Westerhof to record his reaction for history.

On the terraces the Nigerian Supporters Club seem bent on beating their drums into disrepair. “O se, O se o, O se Baba” (Thank you, thank you Father), they are now singing, hopping from one step to the other, and beckoning on the players to come and celebrate with them.

Striker Daniel Amokachi is the first to respond. He runs to the fence and collects a Nigerian flag from the supporters. Then he struts off again draping the flag around his body.
While the Nigerians celebrate, the Algerian players stand huddled together in the middle of the field, watching in bewilderment. Two times previously in 1982 and 1986, their country had played in the World Cup finals, the first time ironically at Nigeria’s expense. Today, the positions are reversed.

“We congratulate Nigeria on their qualification”, the Algerian coach Medhane Ighil says. “But they will have to work very hard to do well at the World Cup,” he offers.

Presently, the Nigerian jubilation is beginning to recede. After the initial explosion, the players, officials and supporters are now slowing down to regain their strength.
Skipper Stephen Keshi finds a seat on the deserted Algerian bench and rests his bulky frame. His eye-balls are heavy. He’s been crying…

“I don’t know what to say. I just don’t know exactly what to say again,” he tells one journalist who squats besides him prompting him for a comment.

Shortly after, everyone is leaving the stadium. The flood lights go off one after the other as the grounds men urge people to move it, it’s time to go home.

The Super Eagles retire to their dressing room as the last of the lights inside the main-bowl go off. The Nigerian dream of more than two decades is now a reality: the Eagles have landed a ticket to the Mundial.

Culled from COMPLETE FOOTBALL magazine, November 1993 issue, pages 2,3,6 and 7.


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