Some time in 1985 the news broke that the NFA had suspended five key players of the Green Eagles for events that I thought, as a teenager then did not make any sense.
Stephen Keshi, Sunday Eboigbe, Bright Omokaro, Henry Nwosu and Clement Temile did not report to the national team on time for a Green Eagles game and Air Commodore Tony Ikhazoboh, the chairman of the NFA at that time used military might to suspend the players.
They were not supposed to take part in any form of football activity for a period of time.
These players formed the bedrock of the Green Eagles at the time and it was like the USA 94 Super Eagles at the World Cup without Rashidi Yekini, Daniel Amokachi, Okechukwu Uche, Emmanuel Amuneke and George Finidi. Yes, it would have spelled disaster.
I was in my 3rd year in secondary school then and I remembered discussing this event with Samuel Ogali and Ovie Ughuanogho (who incidentally was a fan of NNB FC based in Benin).
NNB had won the West Africa Football Union Cup twice in a row and were on the verge of winning it a 3rd consecutive time. They were also in contention to win the League having finished 2nd the previous season.
They also thought there was a plan by some people above to deny them of the title by taking their very best players away when they had crucial League games to play.
For every Green Eagles game, at least nine NNB players were called up- Wilfred Agbonivbare, Stephen Keshi, Sunday Eboigbe, Bright Omokaro, Austin Popo, Samson Ozogula, Henry Nwosu, Clement Temile and Humphrey Edobor.
At least 7 of these would start for the national team so it was not like these players were just being invited to deplete the team, they were actually the best the country had at the time.
The people in Benin did not like it hence these five players mysteriously failing to turn up.
No doubt they had their reasons, like one claiming he went to visit his sick mother and things like that but the Association had wielded the big stick.
According to Rufai, “Keshi was a super patriot. Towards the end of 1984, we had secretly gone to train and join Tottenham of England, but Keshi reasoned that we should return to Nigeria because the NFA badly needed us for a game.
“When we returned to Nigeria, Keshi headed for Benin and arrived camp late, while I went straight to the Lagos camp. That was how I managed to escape that suspension. His family was then in Benin and he had to see them before coming to camp. So, I believe the NFA was hasty in suspending him.
But it seemed like the players decided to stay back in Benin and help their club prosecute a League game before reporting to the Green Eagles camp.
No doubt axing these key players went a long way to prevent the country from qualifying for the World Cup as the team only managed to beat Tunisia 1-0 in Lagos and then lose 2-0 in Tunis, but that may not have been the only reason we did badly.
Looking at the records, the Eagles went ahead to win a couple of World and AFCON Qualifiers without the players involved then ahead of the crucial game against Tunisia, three were recalled, still leaving Stephen Keshi and Henry Nwosu out.
Now let’s face it, Keshi and Nwosu were two of Nigeria’s most influential players at the time and leaving them out of the team for a crucial game would surely affect the harmony in the team.
The NFA was in complete shambles.
First, the coach of the team, Chris Udemezue was sacked after Nigeria failed to qualify for the World Cup in July 1985, forgetting we had an important AFCON qualifier against Zambia in August, one month later.
In what would turn out to be Muda Lawal’s last games for the country, a hurriedly arranged Green Eagles coached by Patrick Ekeji managed to draw 0-0 against Zambia in Lagos and lose 1-0 in Lusaka.
Henry Nwosu was recalled for that game as a couple of Nigeria’s foreign based contingent who were rare at the time like Emeka Nwajiobi, John Chiedozie, Okey Isimia and Sylvanus Okpalla decided not to turn up for the game against Zambia.
It was a shambolic Green Eagles outing as the likes of Henry Nwosu were seen trying to do more than necessary on the pitch to ensure Nigeria wins, at least in Lagos but it just was not to be.
This sad showing ensured that Muda Lawal did not get into the record books as the first man to play in six Africa Cup of Nations tournaments.
That was how we missed out on Egypt in 1986, but Nigeria was back in the AFCON hosted by Morocco in 1988.
There were a few returnees from our 1986 team like Peter Rufai, Yisa Sofoluwe, Ademola Adeshina, Sunday Eboigbe, Bright Omokaro, Henry Nwosu, Rashidi Yekini, Humphrey Edobor and Stephen Keshi. Yes! Keshi was back.
Between his suspension and now he had done well for himself.
Keshi knew he could not stay suspended so he had moved to Abidjan to play for Stade d’Abidjan and then ASEC Mimosas before leaving to Belgium to play for Anderletch FC.
He had also turned the godfather to many of his contemporaries as he opened the doors to a lot of them in Belgium. The likes of Ademola Adeshina, Osaro Obobaifor, Austin Eguavoen and Humphrey Edobor had soon joined him in Belgium. There was a mass exodus.
There were also a few new additions to our team like Andrew Uwe, who was at the U20 World Cup in Russia in 1985, Samuel Okwaraji, who just appeared out of the blues, Ndubuisi Okosieme, whose father, Cyril played in goal for the Eagles in the late 60s and early 70s, Folorunsho Okenla, Austin Eguavoen and Mike Obiku.
The team looked decent enough and having watching every qualifying game they had played, I was sure we would win the AFCON for the first time since 1980.
We easily dispatched Kenya 3-0 with goals from Rashidi Yekini, Humphrey Edobor and Ndubuisi Okosieme.
Then we drew 1-1 against Cameroon and it was Sam Okwaraji that scored.
Now, let me digress a bit. In 1988, I was a freshman at the University of Port Harcourt and would not miss an Eagles’ game for anything in the world.
We needed to qualify for the Olympic Games and we had to play Algeria home and away in January before
the AFCON that would start in March and I remembered watching the first leg in Annaba on TV where we lost 1-0 and I saw some things that impressed me.
First, Stephen Keshi, my hero was back and he held the defence well with Sunday Eboigbe, Bright Omokaro and Austin Eguavoen, but it was what Thompson Oliha did in midfield I could never forget.
He was all over the place, covering every blade of grass and ensuring the Algerians had a hard time going through.
However, in the 2nd leg in Enugu, there was no Thompson Oliha anywhere in the starting line up, which was a surprise, we had Sam Okwaraji, a fellow most of us hadn’t heard of until that time.
Who was Sam Okwaraji and why was he playing ahead of Thompson Oliha?
I remember that day well as though it was yesterday. Stuck in school and not being able to get home, I had to go to the common room of Male hostel C in Choba Park to watch the game.
Okwaraji seemed the real deal. His touches were deft and he seemed a very intelligent midfielder, such we hadn’t seen since Muda Lawal a few years back.
So when he was back at the AFCON and scoring against Cameroon, it was something worthy of celebrating.
Final group match against Egypt ended goaless and it was Algeria in the semi final.
That one ended 1-1, Belgherbi scoring against his side but the most memorable thing in that game was the red card given to Ademola Adeshina at some point in the game.
With all the Algerian substitutions done, Bright Omokaro injured an Algerian, Djamel Menad and restored the numbers to 10:10.
From that game in 1988 until this day, Bright Omokaro has been known as ten-ten based on his tackle that reduced the Algerians to ten players.
I met Omokaro sometime in 2008 and he told me it was the coach of the team, German Manfried Hoener who gave him the instruction to injure an Algerian player.
We were in the final again and we had Cameroon who had beaten us in 1984.
From that 1984 team were Peter Rufai, Stephen Keshi, Ademola Adeshina, Sunday Eboigbe, Henry Nwosu, Humphrey Edobor and Rashidi Yekini.
Surely they had enough revenge in their blood to make Nigerians happy, or didn’t they?
Well, Henry Nwosu scored what we all thought was a genuine goal but the flag went for offside.
Keshi hit the cross bar with a free kick and then Roger Milla was brought down in the box and the referee gave a penalty which was converted by Emmanuel Kunde and we had lost to Cameroon again.
Note that at the time of the AFCON, FIFA had not reached a plan where players had to play for their countries if invited. A lot of Europe based Africans would miss the AFCON because of club commitments, but Keshi hatched a plan with Anderlecth where he flew a private jet between games.
He was however only able to play two of the AFCON games for Nigeria, incidentally, both against Cameroon.
In my life time I had experienced just two AFCONs that Nigeria played in, and in both of them, Nigeria was in the final and both times and lost to the same team? I hate Cameroon and I hate Hayatou.
My AFCON memories continue with how Clemens Westahof turned the Super Eagles around in nine months.