I took over the national team towards the end of January 1983 and that gave me over a year to prepare for the Africa Cup of Nations in Cote d’Ivoire in 1984. But almost immediately after I resumed, we went into the preliminaries for two major competitions – the 1984 Olympics and the Nations Cup. We got to the last stage of the Olympic qualifiers and also qualified for the Nations Cup finals which took place in March of 1984.
We played against Angola and Morocco for the Nations Cup and qualified. For the Olympic Games, we played against Ghana and got some outstanding results. We drew 0-0 with Ghana here in Nigeria and went away to beat them 2-1 in Accra. No one had done that before and even since then, I can’t remember any other Nigerian coach beating Ghana on their own ground. Unfortunately, Morocco later eliminated us on penalties from the Olympic Games and we had to focus on the Nations Cup.
Preparation & Squad Selection
The story of our preparation for the 1984 Nations Cup will not be interesting if I don’t mention how I was appointed as the national team coach in the first place.
I was one of the few Nigerians then who agitated for the employment of a local coach for the national team instead of foreigners. I started my agitation as far back as the 1960s. In 1982, the national team crumbled following their ouster in the first round of the Nations Cup in Libya after reaching such a height as winning the Nations Cup at home two years earlier in 1980.
The NFA advertised the job of the national team coach in the newspapers after the failure in Libya. I applied and seven of us were invited for an interview. According to a reliable source then, I scored 75% and the next man to me who was their (NFA) favourite choice scored 65% so it became a difficult decision for them. They delayed the announcement for a period of time, and one of them who had travelled outside the country when the appointment was made told me face to face on his arrival that he didn’t favour my appointment. He told me I was fortunate that he wasn’t in the country when I was appointed otherwise I wouldn’t have got the job, but at any rate, he would support me. I would now tell you the kind of support I got from this man, who was unbelievably a fellow Nigerian.
Preparation for the 1984 Nations Cup was fully held here in Nigeria and I didn’t have a single foreign-based player in my team. We started camping at the NIS (National Institute for Sports) in Lagos towards the end of January 1983. Sometimes we moved to the Games Village in Surulere, but eventually, we moved to Ibadan at Bembo Hotels. We had people who were supposed to support us like the powerful FA board member I talked about earlier, who didn’t. I’ve said this before; the NFA virtually didn’t give my team any footballs to train with. I went about getting equipment for the team myself. I remember the FA chairman said we didn’t need more than two balls for our preparation, though I requested for 30 balls.
I didn’t have a new set of jerseys, so the players wore different colours of jerseys. It wasn’t until December 1983 that we started having a semblance of support for the team. The NFA chairman was Navy Commodore Kentebe (Rtd), but he and the board member who told me he didn’t like my face was probably not happy about my appointment as coach of the team. The “support” I had from them was that they denied me equipment for one whole year.
Back to the team, all the big name players had left as at the time I took over following the team’s failure at the 1982 Nations Cup. The only prominent senior team player was Peter Rufai because players like Henry Nwosu and Stephen Keshi were just coming in from the junior team though they had been to past finals. So I had to gather players from the local league and some of those just emerging from the junior national team. I had Yisa Sofoluwe, Chibuzor Ehilegbu and many others and the togetherness and determination in the team made us achieve a lot of results against all odds.
When we were departing for Cote d’Ivoire for the Nations Cup, the equipment we would use didn’t leave with us; it was only brought to us at the venue. My assistant was sent to Germany to go and get them. This posed a big problem for me later at the competition, as many national newspapers and some people unfairly labelled me s a tribalistic coach because of one unfortunate incident that happened.
I had a very good midfielder in Chibuzor Ehilegbu but because of the poor equipment we used at the finals, he got a blister on his feet from using a very poor pair of boots in one of our games and I couldn’t use him in the next match. But the Nigerian press said I was tribalistic and didn’t want to use him because he was not my tribesman. So you can see that one has experienced a lot of things trying to serve one’s fatherland, but above all, we thank God for His mercies.
There were two groups during the 1984 Nations Cup, one in Abidjan and the other in Bouake. We were in Bouake along with Ghana, Malawi and Algeria. Our opening match was against Ghana and coincidentally it fell on my birthday, March 5. The players woke up that morning and greeted me a happy birthday, and promised to win the game for me as a gift and they delivered it. We beat Ghana 2-1 in that opening game and then we met Malawi who led 2-0 early in the game but we equalized to finish 2-2. We then drew 0-0 with Algeria in our last group game to qualify for the semi final.
We played against Egypt in Abidjan in the semi-final. They led 2-0 at one stage and we equalized again in the second half for the second game running. The game went into penalties and I remember that we played nine penalty kicks before winning the game. In the final, we played against Cameroun. We scored first through Muda Lawal who I drafted into the team for his experience, and we then scored another goal which was disallowed but Cameroun came back and beat us 3-1.
Some of the players later confessed to me that it was sabotage that made us lose to Cameroun in the final. We got to know that a Nigerian who had a problem with my appointment as coach and someone who had a grouse with the NFA came into my team before the final and caused disaffection amongst my players, leading to one or two of them sabotaging our cause.
That is all history now and we thank God for His mercies.
Memorable Events & Regrets
I think the most memorable episode I can remember about my 1984 Nations Cup team was the dedication and determination of the players. I remember when Morocco visited us in Benin City and got a goalless draw in the first leg of our qualifiers. I got to the airport on the way to the second leg in Rabat, and three key players were missing because a leading newspaper said in its editorial that we would be whitewashed.
My practice then was to make sure that all my players including those not going on the trip accompanied the travelling group to the airport. So when we got to the airport and I found three players had chickened out, I drafted two new players into the team to replace the absconded ones and went to Rabat and won. I have used that incident to illustrate our team spirit because football is a team sport.
As for regrets, I don’t like regretting anything in life because whatever happens to a man is by divine commission. I thank God for all what happened and I’m happy for His favours.
As for the players, I can’t say one particular player was the best at the competition. I don’t like building my team around a single player because I believe football is a team game. But if I must pick, then I think Muda Lawal did well for us at the 1984 finals, because I brought him in for his age and experience to help my pack of youngsters and he didn’t disappoint.
Also, Stephen Keshi, Sunday Eboigbe, Yisa Sofoluwe as well as Monday Eguavoen really did well for me.
We returned from Ivory Coast quietly and nothing happened to us. There were no fans to receive us at the airport neither was there any fanfare about our arrival. The government didn’t host us to any reception nor did they give us a simple handshake, despite the fact that we won a silver medal at the tourney. Years later a foreign coach won bronze at the Nations Cup and the government honoured his team with a reception.
I quit the national team in 1985 after I was told to hand over to someone else and I left quietly for my base in Ibadan. The first time the team went out after I left, they went to Tunisia and came back with five goals in their kitty.
However, the same 1984 Nations Cup that I thought brought me lots of pain later turned out to be a blessing in disguise for me. Four years after the competition in 1988, I was recommended by the Egyptian coach whose side I defeated in the Nations Cup semis to the Confederation of African Football (CAF) when they wanted to start their technical committee. The man said he had never experienced such tactical manoeuvres from a coach like the one I gave him in our game. He couldn’t even remember my name, but CAF went into their records and through the NFA I was contacted in Ibadan.
There was also a time I gave the then CAF president Issa Hayatou a proposal and he was so amazed at my technical depth. By 1994, I became a FIFA technical instructor on the recommendation of Hayatou even without my knowledge. In 1998, I became a member of FIFA’s technical committee so I thank God for everything He has given me.
So, as I said earlier, I rarely have regrets. What people planned to use in frustrating me during our preparations and at the Nations Cup final turned out to be what God used in elevating me.