By Emeka Obasi
Leading Vipers of Benin to Challenge Cup glory was all that Victor Oduah needed to wear the Green Eagles captain’s band ahead of senior players like Ken Olayombo and Tony Igwe. It was evening time for substantive captain Godwin Achebe.
At the Lagos ’73 Second All Africa Games, Oduah led Nigeria to soccer gold. Achebe was in the team as non playing captain. The country celebrated and expected more from the new skipper. Strangely, some months after that high moment, he was not the same Oduah.
Olayombo captained the Eagles against Ghana Black Stars in a West Germany 1974 World Cup qualifier decided at the Accra Sports Stadium in 1973. Igwe also captained Nigeria before Christian Chukwu stepped in to lead until 1980.
Fidelis Atuegbu was at Christ the Kings College, Onitsha in 1973. His four older siblings, Mathew, Nicholas, Andrew and Aloysius knew Oduah as the Vipers captain who lifted the Challenge Cup. Of the quartet, Aloy was not part of the Mighty Jets team that lost to the Benin side in that epic 1972 grand finale.
The 1972 grand finale was the first time the Challenge Cup would be decided outside Lagos. The first match at Onikan ended controversially when Sam Garba Okoye scored two goals to bring Jets back to life. Referee Sunny Badru was suspended for six months.
By 1978, Fidelis Atuegbu was playing for Standard of Jos. He is the only Atuegbu that did not feature for Mighty Jets. Garba Okoye was coach of the Pen Power Boys. They were at the National Stadium, Lagos. Their bus was parked at the NFA office.
Okoye stepped down for some business inside the NFA Cubicle. As he walked down, Atuegbu saw the coach exchange banters with one haggard looking man. It turned out to be Oduah, the captain who won All Africa Games gold five years earlier at the same stadium.
” I was shocked when told that the haggard looking man was indeed Oduah. From that moment, I decided to leave the country. I could not stand the sight of a national hero looking more like a destitute. And I never looked back,” Atuegbu said.
He spoke from his United States base as we discussed the planned big event to honour Nigeria’s Montreal 1976 Olympians, a bunch that landed in Canada, checked into the Olympic Village but were hurried back at the last minute, to honour an African boycott.
Atuegbu was excited. “This is commendable. The first time Nigeria will be honouring heroes who laboured or died for the country. In the United States, there are monuments dedicated to great sports personalities even in the universities.”
His elder brothers, Andy and Aloy, were part of the Nigerian contingent. The Green Eagles were considered medal favourites after a successful training tour in Belgrade. In three friendlies they won 4-0, 3-0 and 10-0 respectively.
Fidelis felt worse when he visited Jos from the US with Andrew. ” Sule Kekere called to see us. I was not home when he came . Andy was devastated when I returned. The story was that Kekere had sight problem and did not have money to take care of himself. You can imagine someone I regarded as a superstar while growing up.
” Segun Odegbami was around too, to see his mom. He rallied round to raise money for Kekere. The government could do nothing,” he added.
Andy travelled to America in 1974. Godwin Odiye and Fidelis joined him in 1978. It was the sight of Oduah that also forced Odiye out of Nigeria. The Eagles left half back hurried out of Benin after seeing Oduah at the Samuel Ogbemudia Stadium.
Fidelis and Odiye were together at University of San Francisco with two other ex – Eagles stars, Tony Igwe and Alex Nwosu. They once tackled Andy’s professional team, Oakland Stompers in the San Francisco Super League. The Nigerian trio were surprised to see Andy uproot his brother from the ground with a killer tackle and whisper, ‘welcome to America’.
Oduah attended St. Peter’s College Aro ( Olomore ) Abeokuta. His mates included George Hassan Osaile, Yemi Akinwowo and James Akintonde. Another product of the school, Godwin Okoku,was Paul Okoku’s elder brother. Vice Principal, Father James Morrison converted Oduah from goalkeeper to central defender.
Akinwowo is a professor in the United States. Three other members of the 1973 Golden Green Eagles, Dominic Ezeani, Sunday Izebigie and Igwe live in America and are fine. George Hassan died in Ibadan in 2021 but had a degree from the University of Ibadan. Oduah, died a forgotten hero in 2013.
Curiously, of the five Atuegbu brothers, three – Mathew, Nicholas and Aloy – are late. They lived in Nigeria. Andy and Fidelis are still very much alive. They are based in the United States. Andy is expected at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs ( NIIA) to be honoured as a 1976 Olympian.
Many thanks to Odegbami whose push made the NIIA to buy into the project. Allen Onyema and his Air Peace are also deeply involved, providing honourees with ticket to Lagos from any part of the globe. Mathematical eventually realised his Olympic Dream in 1980. So did Aloysius Atuegbu.
Fidelis would be in for another shocker when he learns about Mike Onyemachara, a former national team player who was buried on July 7 with no Federal presence. Then, Los Angeles Olympian, Jerry Okorodudu, died and his body was detained by the hospital until bills were sorted out.