When shall the Ea­gles be Kings of Africa again?

Weekly Trust - - Sportxtra - oluse­gun­odeg­[email protected]­mail.com Go­ing down mem­ory lane – Ben­del In­sur­ance FC

The Su­per Ea­glesre­gained some re­spect in African foot­ball last week­end. They drew with Bafana Bafanain Jo­han­nes­burg. They had lost in their first-leg en­counter in Nige­ria a long time ago.

Since the dis­ap­point­ment of not go­ing be­yond the first round (like all the other 4 African coun­tries) at the Rus­sia 2018 World Cup, the na­tional team of Nige­ria have not been the same.

Even amongst foot­ball an­a­lysts there is hardly any com­mon­al­ity in eval­u­a­tion.

On The Sports Par­lia­ment, a most au­thor­i­ta­tive sports pro­gramme on Nige­rian tele­vi­sion even ar­riv­ing at a con­sen­sus on how well the team would play was a huge chal­lenge.

Whereas most of the par­lia­men­tar­i­ans pre­dicted a land­slide vic­tory for the Su­per Ea­gles, I could eas­ily see ‘pa­tri­o­tism’ and wish­ful think­ing writ­ten all over their as­ser­tions. It was more the heart wish­ing than the head will­ing!

Their per­for­mance on the night left unan­swered ques­tions, still, about how strong the Su­per Ea­gle­sare post the Mikel Obi and Vic­tor Moses era. Both play­ers, re­tired from the na­tional team af­ter the World Cup. Although they are hardly missed, I was shocked to hear some foot­ball an­a­lysts sug­gest their re­call for AF­CON next year in the Cameroons!

How strong are the present Su­per Ea­gles? That’s the mil­lion Dol­lar ques­tion that no one seems able to an­swer right now.

Ger­not Rohr is ob­vi­ously still strug­gling to clearly de­fine his team, to make it find its feet, to build a team struc­ture and to re­gain the con­fi­dence of teem­ing sup­port­ers. His ca­pa­bil­ity and com­pe­tency are also un­der se­ri­ous pub­lic scru­tiny.

It is clear to ev­ery­one that the Su­per Ea­gle­shave not ‘ar­rived’ yet. Nige­ri­ans will have to wait for AF­CON next year to know just how good the emerg­ing new Su­per Ea­gle­sare.

It is just worth not­ing that no Nige­rian player any­where in the world is con­sid­ered good enough to be listed even amongst the nominees for the BBC African Player of the year. That, in­deed, says it all!

The Su­per Fal­cons – still best in Africa?

Nige­rian foot­ball, gen­er­ally, is in re­ces­sion.

The women’s side of the game may not be far­ing bet­ter.

They may still win the on­go­ing African Women’s cham­pi­onship go­ing on in Cote D’Ivoire, but their show­ing so far, with a first loss to Bayana Bayanaof South Africa, has not in­di­cated that they could be back to the days when their stran­gle­hold on Women’s foot­ball on the con­ti­nent was to­tal.

Other teams have started to chal­lenge them, par­tic­u­larly South Africa, Cameroon, and Ghana. Equa­to­rial Guinea also did for a short while, us­ing ‘boys’ to play their matches.

De­spite best ef­forts the Nige­rian do­mes­tic fe­male league has not been churn­ing out ex­cep­tion­ally gifted play­ers at a rate that would en­sure that Nige­ria stays ahead of the rest in the con­ti­nent.

Since the first-round de­feat by South Africa, how­ever, the Fal­cons have found their range again, won their last two matches con­vinc­ingly, and re­stored some level of con­fi­dence in Nige­ri­ans.

Like the Su­per Ea­gles, Nige­ri­ans are watch­ing to gauge how they will fare in the on­go­ing cham­pi­onship. It will take win­ning it for the Fal­cons to be con­sid­ered best in Africa once again.

Fol­low­ing my last two write-ups these past three weeks on Shoot­ing Stars FC and Rangers In­ter­na­tional FC, sev­eral read­ers have writ­ten to de­mand that I go back in time also to re­call some of my ex­pe­ri­ences with Ben­del In­sur­ance FC of Benin.

I re­mem­ber Ben­del In­sur­ance FC of my era mostly for two things.

The first is the at­mos­phere in Benin City ev­ery time we went to play - the mas­sive crowds that were in­tim­i­dated play­ers, vis­it­ing sup­port­ers and even match of­fi­cials, and the rains that al­most al­ways fell on match days to mess up the field and the game of vis­it­ing teams. Some­how, Ben­del In­sur­ance play­ers had mas­tered play­ing un­der those con­di­tions which they con­verted to big ad­van­tage. I hated play­ing on that turf even though I loved the city and its night life af­ter matches.

I also re­call the bare-chested juju men sit­ting over burn­ing fire around the ten­nis courts area of Ogbe Sta­dium be­fore matches. Why they openly did this still con­fuses me. Is it to frighten op­pos­ing teams, or were they needed to in­flu­ence the re­sult of the matches?

Ei­ther way, In Benin City, Ben­del In­sur­ance FC were in­vin­ci­ble. Only Rangers In­ter­na­tional, some­how, and I do not know how they did it, man­aged to de­feat once on that hal­lowed ground. We never did.

For us in Shoot­ing Stars­then, Ben­del In­sur­ance were just an ir­ri­tant op­po­si­tion and not real con­tenders for tro­phies. That is, un­til they came out of the shad­ows of both Ranger­sand Shootin­gin 1978 to mark their place force­fully in Nige­rian foot­ball his­tory.

Benin City had al­ways pro­duced great play­ers and good teams. But their teams had never dom­i­nated the na­tional foot­ball en­vi­ron­ment. Even when In­sur­ance played and won that clas­sic FA Cup fi­nal against Mighty Jets of Jos in 1971 at the Lib­erty Sta­dium, the re­play of a nail-bit­ing and con­tro­ver­sial first match played at the Onikan Sta­dium in La­gos that ended in­con­clu­sively in the last sec­onds of the match, they could not hold on to dom­i­nate the na­tional scene. Their best ef­fort was dwarfed by the two Igbo and Yoruba teams, as they were kept away play­ing from the big­ger com­pe­ti­tions to vy­ing for the WAFU cham­pi­onship lim­ited to West Africa.

It was in 1978 that the team fi­nally broke through and punc­tu­ated the mo­nop­oly of the two gi­ants. How they did it, in great style, has be­come the stuff of folk­lore.

In the mid to late 1970s Nige­ria’s pro­file in foot­ball was ris­ing fast and from af­ter the All Africa Games 1974, and the dis­as­trous de­feat by Zam­bia, the na­tional team started to be shared be­tween play­ers from two teams from East and West of the Niger. The play­ers were in camp pre­par­ing for the sev­eral epic foot­ball bat­tles of that era – World Cup, Olympic games, All Africa games, African Cup of Na­tions.

By 1978, Rangers and Shoot­ing pro­vided, eas­ily, 15 of the twen­tysome­thing play­ers in the na­tional camp. Ben­del In­sur­ance FC were in the shad­ows.

Then came the FA Cup semi-fi­nals of that year and Shoot­ing Stars FC were the first to taste the poi­son of Coach Alabi Essien’s led as­sem­bly. It was al­most mag­i­cal.

In a match that we had taken rou­tinely for granted. Re­mem­ber that Shoot­ing Stars had 5 first team play­ers in the na­tional team that lined up against In­sur­ance that un­for­get­table night in the main bowl of the Na­tional Sta­dium.

The match came and went in a flash like a bad dream. We were in a trance. In­sur­ance came from nowhere and ran rings around us with their speed, en­ergy and crisp pass­ing in mid­field, and a ram­pag­ing pair of twin strik­ers to fin­ish up­front.

They dom­i­nated ev­ery inch of grass on the field that night. I walked back to my room af­ter the match in the Ea­gles camp un­sure what to make of what had just be­fallen one of strongest teams in the land.

We were end­lessly taunted by my room­mate Chris­tian Chukwu, and the other Rangers play­ers. They laughed and mocked those of us in the camp.

I knew that what had hap­pened was not a fluke. It was a mag­i­cal dis­play ex­e­cuted to per­fec­tion by truly gifted play­ers.

Oh, how I prayed they would have an en­core in the fi­nal match against Rangers In­ter­na­tional. My prayers were an­swered.

In the fi­nals of that year’s FA Cup, on a fan­tas­tic evening in­side the main bowl of the Na­tional Sta­dium, Su­rulere, the gods took sides. Be­fore a full house of some 60,000 spec­ta­tors, plus mil­lions watch­ing at home on tele­vi­sion, and even more lis­ten­ing on ra­dio, Ben­del In­sur­ance FC of Benin, put up a mas­ter­class per­for­mance of to­tal foot­ball. Ar­guably, no team since then has played with such to­tal con­trol, con­fi­dence and com­po­sure. It was text book foot­ball.

It was so good to watch that the en­tire team ex­cept their cap­tain were even­tu­ally in­vited to the na­tional team!

Chris­tian Chukwu, my friend, re­turned to our room af­ter the match, head bowed in hum­ble sub­mis­sion.

I could not hold back my laugh­ter. The mocker had be­come the mocked!

Rangers were taught a les­son in hu­mil­ity.

That match must go down as one of the two best matches ever played by that team. They marked their as­cen­dancy to the apex of Nige­rian foot­ball to join Rangers and Shoot­ing Stars in one of the best decades in Nige­rian foot­ball his­tory.

The team com­prised Pro­fes­sor Coach Alabi Essien led out Agbo Nnaji, David Adielle, Kadiri Ikhana, Leo­tis Boateng, Fran­cis Moniedafe, Felix Ag­bonifo, Ge­orge Omokaro, Chris Ogwu, Em­manuel Oba­suyi, Henry Og­boe, Pe­ter Eghareva, and a few I can­not re­call now. . Where are they now? Felix Ag­bonifo, the cap­tain of the side, the only one that did not play for the na­tional team of Nige­ria, passed on a few years ago.

Oth­er­wise, the bulk of the team is still alive, many of them liv­ing in the United States of Amer­ica. Some are still in Benin City sali­vat­ing on the sweet mem­ory of 1978 when they rose from the shad­ows to be­come de­served cham­pi­ons of Nige­ria.

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