I HAVE very fond memories of my first Africa Cup of Nations, the one hosted and won by Nigeria in 1980.

I call it my “first” Cup of Nations because it was the first time I would follow the proceedings of the competition from start to finish and, even as I write this, I can recollect several episodes quite vividly.

I was a final year student at Iganmode Grammar School, Ota, Ogun State (in Western Nigeria). It was March, 1980, just about three months to my West African School Certificate exams.

Iganmode Grammar School is actually a walking distance from the present day Obasanjo Farms in Ota which the Super Eagles have used as training camp in more recent years. When I was in school, though, Obasanjo Farms had not been established there, so I didn’t have the privilege of sneaking out to watch the national team train as I imagine the current boys in the school would have been doing.

I was in the boarding house so I didn’t have the chance of watching any of the 1980 Nations Cup games live at either of the two centres in Lagos and Ibadan. Of course, some of my bolder and bigger classmates sneaked out to watch the Eagles play in Lagos, but I was always an obedient schoolboy!

Broken down

Unfortunately, the boarding house television set had broken down, or so we were told because I had never set my eyes on it anyway, since I was admitted into “IGS” in 1975. We just learned that the school had one big TV set which was bad and had been locked up in the school store adjacent to the library in the “Senior Block” accommodating classes four and five. So, it was the housemaster, Mr. John Amoah’s 14-inch black and white television set that came to the rescue of about 130 soccer crazy boarding school boys at Iganmode Grammar School in 1980.

Mr. Amoah was actually my favourite teacher. He taught my class in my best two subjects, English Language and Literature-in-English. In fact, Mr. Amoah was instrumental to my becoming a journalist as he told me back then that I had a talent for writing and encouraged me in a lot of ways. See why I said I have a load of sweet, everlasting memories about the 1980 Nations Cup?

Now, Mr. Amoah was a Ghanaian and in football terms, that meant a lot to the Nigerian soccer fan, even back then! Ghana had won the previous Nations Cup at home in 1978 and had come to Nigeria as defending champions. They were grouped with Morocco, Guinea and Algeria in what was considered as the zone of death in Ibadan and I remember as if it was yesterday that the wish of every boy in Iganmode was that Ghana should “die” in the zone by failing to qualify.

We regarded Ghana as the biggest stumbling block to an eventual Eagles victory and didn’t want to see their faces in Lagos at all. And so it turned out as Morocco and Algeria shut out the Black Stars in Ibadan. But I shall come to that later.

Opening day

Back in Lagos and the opening day of the 12th Nations Cup on March 3, 1980. The Eagles were up against the Taifa Stars of Tanzania and Mr. Amoah had to bring out his small TV set on to the assembly ground. Over 100 of us crowded around the tiny box. And for every goal the Eagles scored, we would yell and scatter in different directions to celebrate, then converge back on the tiny box to watch and gesticulate at every movement as the game continued.

The Eagles won that opening match 3-1, struggled to a goalless draw with a stubborn Ivorien side in their second game, then beat Egypt with an Okey Isima goal in their last group match. Nigeria qualified for the semi-final as group leaders and beat Morocco 1-0 in clearly their toughest match of the tournament. Felix Owolabi, alias “Owo Blow” was Nigeria’s goal scorer.

Earlier, Morocco had done our wish by eliminating Ghana. In their group’s opening game played under floodlights in Ibadan, the Moroccans defeated Ghana 1-0 in a high-tempo match and the Ghanaians never recovered from that setback.

I remember the match quite well because on this occasion, Mr. Amoah had not brought out his TV as it was dark and all students ought to be in bed. But fanatics like me couldn’t sleep and we sneaked to Mr. Amoah’s window to peep at the match. The player I remember most on the Ghana side was the cap-wearing goalkeeper Joseph Carr.

The housemaster was angry that Ibadan fans were cheering Morocco and booing Ghana. “Why, why, why are they supporting the North Africans,” Mr. Amoah was moaning to no one in particular. “Nigerians should be supporting us as their black West African brothers,” he complained and I still remember how he pronounced the word “brothers” in that peculiar Ghanaian way: “Brathers!” But for us young, mischievous Green Eagles fanatics at the window, Mr. Amoah’s moans were sweet music to our ears. Ghana’s pain was our joy.

Indeed, the Nigeria-Ghana rivalry runs long and deep as I recollect that my Dad once told me that the Ghanaians were so good in the 1960s that they used to beat Nigeria by comprehensive scorelines like 5-0 in Accra and 7-0 in Lagos! Maybe the scores were exaggerated, but it was clear that Ghana had been our nemesis for long and they were to be hated with a passion!

Overwhelmed

Back to 1980, March 22 to be precise, Nigeria played Algeria in the final of the 12th Africa Cup of Nations and Mr. Amoah, having recovered from Ghana’s exit, brought out his 14-inch TV set again. It was probably the Eagles easiest game as they completely overwhelmed the Algerians. Three times Nigeria scored, and three times more than 100 of us Iganmode spectators scattered in different directions to celebrate.

The heroes of Nigeria’s triumph, of course, were “Mathematical” Segun Odegbami whose footworks brought applause from us each time he “shuffled” those long legs to confuse his opponents; “Chief Justice” Adokiye Amiesimaka who would never tuck in his jersey into his pants; and Felix Owolabi who drew a spontaneous “OwoBlow” from the crowd each time he touched the ball.

I’m writing this 25 years after it all happened but I can still remember everything as if it was yesterday.

I have been lucky. In those 25 years, I have gone on to fulfill Mr. Amoah’s prediction and become a journalist; I have come into personal contact with nearly all of those heroes of 1980, interviewing them, writing about them and even working with them.

The great Segun Odegbami is my director at Complete Sports and we sit at the same table, can you imagine?! I have had breakfast with “OwoBlow” in his house in Ibadan and I have been a guest of Adokiye Amiesimaka in Port Harcourt. In fact, I went on that Port Harcourt trip with Segun Odegbami. As I sat between them, the two great wing wizards, Segun on the right and Adokiye on the left, recalled some of their great moments together while playing for Nigeria.

I looked at myself, sitting between two great players, two African champions who terrorised defences across the continent, two superstars who orchestrated the first remarkable moment in Nigerian soccer history.

It’s not everybody who gets to meet their boyhood heroes face- to-face, much less relate with them so closely. These are things money cannot buy. Surely, I’ve been lucky and I know it. Thank you, God.

ADDENDUM: My first Nations Cup coverage as a journalist was at Senegal ‘92 and Ghanaians, again, played a prominent part in my recollections. As we rode in the media bus from the hotel to the semi-fmal match between Nigeria and Ghana at the Stade L’Amitie in Dakar, a loudmouth Ghanaian colleague (I can’t recall his name now, so I’ll call him “Kofi”) started running an imaginary commentary on the match yet to be played and concluded as we arrived the stadium by declaring: “Final score: Nigeria 1, Ghana 2.”

 The Nigerian press corps simply ignored him, determined to let our Eagles do the talking for us by winning on the field of play. Unfortunately for us, Ghana won the match 2-1 as “Kofi” had predicted and you need to hear his boasts on the bus ride back to the hotel. The eyes of the Nigerian guys including yours truly were red but we still had the last laugh because, whereas Nigeria defeated another arch-rival Cameroun in the third place match to grab the bronze medal, “Kofi” and Ghana surprisingly crashed to Cote d’ Ivoire in a marathon penalty shoot-out in the final.

*This article was originally written and first published in my column, SOCCERTALK, in Complete Sports newspaper in January 2002. It was adapted for reuse in March 2005 in commemoration of the 25th anniversary of Nigeria’s first victory at the Africa Cup of Nations.