Forty years ago – precisely on March 22, 1980, Nigeria won her first Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) title after a 3-0 win against Algeria in Lagos. The man who led the victorious team, ‘Chairman’ Christian Chukwu hosted Complete Sports in his Trans Ekulu, Enugu, residence.
Chukwu reflected on that epoch 1980 AFCON moment, also revealing that he opened a ‘trophy and medal’ museum in his Obe, Nkanu LGA, Enugu home where his career trophies and medals are preserved for posterity.
The former Rangers captain equally lamented his inability to breed his career successor, how his wife once asked him why people call him ‘Chairman’ as well Super Eagles’ lack of a ‘motivator’ on the pitch, Yobo’s appointment, state of the current national team and Eagles/Lone Stars AFCON qualifier.
He spoke to Complete Sports’ BUCHI JNR. Enjoy excerpts…
CS: Good afternoon Chairman, its nice meeting you again after your medical trip to London.
Chukwu: Thank you and you are welcome.
How are you faring since then, hope you have been attending check ups?
Yes, I’m fine and I must say I’m much better now as you can see.
We thank God for His mercies upon you.
We give Him all the praises for sparing our lives.
Chairman, on Sunday, March 22, it will be 40 years since you led the then Green Eagles to win the Africa Cup of Nations in Lagos (on March 22, 1980) following a 3-0 thumping of Algeria in that thrilling final. It was the first time Nigeria would win the AFCON title. Now 40 years after, how do you look back to that historic achievement?
The years are really moving fast, I must say. Forty years gone, so wonderful. I still cherish it as if it was just yesterday. But I thank God for keeping us alive to celebrate this occasion. It was a big occasion, a path finding moment, looking back to behold 40 years when Nigeria won the Nations Cup for the first time. For me, it was a moment with lovely memories, excitement, joy, happiness and a sense of fulfilment. Bringing joy and happiness to Nigerians of all shades. You needed to be at the stadium on that day. You needed to anywhere in Nigeria that day. It was a moment everyone was proud to be a Nigerian. It wasn’t an easy feat though.
Don’t forget, that history happened when Alhaji Shehu Shagari was Executive President of Nigeria. That moment, that event at the National Stadium, Lagos, 40 years ago, is worth celebrating and we would go to church to give thanks to God that it happened in my time and I was part of that historic moment when the jinx was finally broken for Nigeria to lift the Nations Cup for the first time and all corners of the country erupted in wild excitement. I only hope that government comes to our aid for us to celebrate it properly.
Does it mean that you have already started planning a church service to mark the 40th anniversary of Nigeria’s first AFCON win?
No. But maybe some of us, I mean the players who are still fit. You know 40 years is not 40 days. Some of us are sick, some are bedridden and can’t even move any more. But there are still those who can move one step or two. So those who can still move, we will encourage them, maybe to liaise with the Ministry of Youth and Sports, to see how they can help us to make the anniversary of the 40th AFCON Unity Cup win celebration a success.
When you reflect on that huge victory, that glorious moment when you lifted that Unity Cup, what feeling really goes through your mind?
Each time I look back at that moment, after 40 years, and place it side by side with what we have now, I get this feeling that truly, our game is improving. This is because aside the 1980 victory, Nigeria has won the Nations Cup twice since that time (1994 and 2013). Besides, we have facilities now all over the place which was never the case then. At that time, we had only the National Stadium in Lagos and the Liberty Stadium in Ibadan.
Let me use this opportunity to plead with the government to renovate the National Stadium in Lagos. It is a big stadium, it is a monumental edifice which brought Nigeria glories during the 1973 All Africa Games, 1980 Nations Cup and even the 2000 AFCON. That stadium shouldn’t be left to rot away just like that. That is where Nigeria got her first big glory in Africa , making the country to stand tall in African football. Government should do everything possible to rehabilitate it.
Chairman, can you tell us how the Eagles prepared before that tournament?
Our preparation took years. That we won the cup in 1980 does not mean that our preparation started that year, no, not at all. It took us years, say, like about four year or so. It started in 1976 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where we won bronze in that year’s Nations Cup. It stretched to 1978 in Ghana where we also won bronze. Then it climaxed in 1980 when we were privileged to be the host of the tournament in Lagos, and we fought hard enough to win. The preparation took time, organisation and planning from way back in 1974 through 1978. The victory was a product of continuity, I would say.
What do you mean by that? What about the team’s camping?
You know Eagles is a national team, it is not a club where players are kept together permanently. Majority of the players came from two main clubs, Rangers and IICC Shooting Stars. There were few others coming from Raccah Rovers and Bendel Insurance. We were fit, we had been playing together from 1974, 1976, 1978 and 1980.
Some players could not make it to the 1980 squad. Some could not make it to the 1978 edition. Some ended up in 1976. It was a case of elimination by substitution. It was not as if the players were put together in the camp and said, ‘look, I’m camping or preparing you for the 1980 AFCON, no, no, no. Once you are doing well in your club and you did well in the previous national team assignment, you get invitation for the next game. Of course, there was camping for the Nations Cup, but it was more of a concentration thing.
What was the atmosphere in camp like heading into the final squad selection for the tournament?
You know there was no professional football back then. What we played then was amateur football unlike what obtains now. In the national team, we had mostly Rangers and IICC Shooting Stars players, just as I had said earlier, though we still had few players from Bendel Insurance and Raccah Rovers. But majority of the team players were from Rangers and IICC Shooting Stars. These two clubs kept on producing players that dominate the national team, even during the 1980 Eagles team.
We were like a national team drawn from one club. We knew each other and who played how well at our clubs because we were all based here and played against each other week in, week out in the league and Challenge Cup. So even at the national team, we already understood each other. Felix Owolabi would know when Muda Lawal wants to give him a pass even if he was looking at a different direction. Alloy Atuegbu knows when Odegbami wants to dribble and so would not run into offside. Amiesimaka knows when to deliver a cross into the area for Atuegbu. Kadiri Ikhana and David Adiele know when to overlap so Amiesimaka and Odegbami would run into the middle to give the space. That was the scenario then because we knew each other very well right from our clubs. So selection was not too difficult for the coaches to make.
How did the players relate to each other in camp then?
Anytime we came to the national camp, we became one family. At this point, no one thinks of where one cane from, whether Rangers, IICC Shooting Stars, Bendel Insurance or Raccah Rovers. No one even thinks whether you are a Muslim or Christian. We were just a family bound by one objective, to play and win for the country. You share room with anyone and after the national team assignment, everyone goes back to his club.
Who did you share room with during the 1980 AFCON?
I was sharing a room with Godwin Odiye.
So as captain, you were not given the privilege of having a room to yourself?
No, there was nothing like that. Staying in pairs makes room for team binding. You have a teammate to chat with and not live in isolation.
And on the pitch, you became a ‘Platoon Commander’, yelling at your teammates, especially defenders on what to do....
(Cuts in) That role was God given. It just dawned on me, that’s why I said it was God given. I never thought of it earlier. On the field of play, I was able to be talking to my colleagues, we were communicating, saying a lot if things.
In your own opinion, would you want government to declare March 22, the day Nigeria won her first AFCON a public holiday?
That’s left for the Ministry of Youth and Sports. Winning the Nations Cup on that occasion was a great feat. It changed a whole lot of things in the country. It brought joy, it brought happiness and I think the Ministry of Youth and Sports can think towards that direction to encourage the younger generation of players. It will also remind the younger ones that at so, so, time this happened. Don’t forget that at that time, we were showered with gifts by President Shehu Shagari, individuals and companies, from everywhere. Everybody was donating, showing that they appreciated what we had achieved.
You talked about gifts coming from all over the place, from people, from companies?
Yes, we were happy.
There were also houses given to you guys in Festac Lagos and cars from the Federal Government.
Yes, President Shagari graciously gave a car each and also a house each at Festac, in Lagos. It was so generous of him.
So, where is the car, the house and those other items given to you?
Well, you can see that 40 years is not just a number but quite an age. Those things have rendered their services and they are no more.
Including the house?
No. That one is different
We learnt some of you have even sold their own houses. Did you also sell yours?
Yes, some sold theirs and some are still with their houses. Some sold theirs to build another house in their states or villages. Its not just that they disposed off it, they brought the monument back home.
Certainly you are amongst those who sold theirs to build another one in their states or village thereby ‘transferring the monument home’?
Yes, I did so too.
What about the car? Did you sell it too? If not, where are the relics?
No, I didn’t sell the car. We were using it and it gave us a good service. The relics have been disposed off.
What about the gold medal hung on your neck on that historic day of March 22, 1980 AFCON final win by President Shehu Shagari?
Its still with me. I kept it in my archives. Its of great importance to me, like other medals and trophies. So I had to take it to my house in the village for safe keeping alongside other medals and trophies.
Why in the village?
That’s where I decided to exhibit all my medals and trophies. Its something that if someone comes to visit me in the village, he will just take a walk round my ‘museum’ and take a look at and appreciate. And that will show you how far I went in the game instead of telling stories. Even here [in his Enugu residence] you can see, these are some of them (pointing to his shelf where he displayed the 1980 Nations Cup Most Valuable Player trophy, among others). You can see that one, it was presented to me then as the Most Valuable Player of the 1980 AFCON tournament.
You talked about companies and individuals showering gifts on the players back then, didn’t the FG give cash incentives to the players?
No, there was no cash gift to the players. President Shagari did not give us money, but the house and car gifts were more than anything for us.
But individuals did?
Not really, but companies gave us items like fridges and other things.
Yet the FG under General Sani Abacha announced house reward to players and officials of the Super Eagles for winning the 1994 AFCON in Tunisia.
Yes, that was very kind of him
So you now have another house from the FG, this time, in Abuja?
I have not gotten the house. In fact, some of us have not been given, though some equally collected theirs. Government has not fully redeemed their pledge to some of us.
But why, how could that be? How did some collect theirs while others haven’t?
Between 1994 and today (2020), how many years is it”? We know of a fact that some, especially those who accepted to have their in Abuja, have all collected theirs. But those of us who took the Lagos option after such offer was made to us, are yet to get their houses and this is 26 years after that historic victory in Tunisia.
A child born 26 years ago would have gotten married and started having children if a girl. And if a boy, he would have started planing to start his own family. Now, we are being told there’s no house and that they would give us in our respective states.
We had thought we would get it when Babatunde Fashola was Minister for Works and Housing. But that didn’t happen. Yes, we have been making efforts and as we speak now, there are still efforts as one of us has been assigned the role of pushing our demand through.
Are you sure the 1994 AFCON promise would still be fulfilled?
I don’t know, but we are still being hopeful. Maybe it will take time in coming, but I think we can still get it.
How did you become ‘Chairman’? I’m sure it wasn’t part of your baptismal name given to you by your parents. How did it come about?
Ernest Okonkwo of the blessed memory, a radio sports commentator, was the one who gave me that name, ‘Chairman’. He would look at how you plays and give you a name that suits your style or quality of play. I wasn’t the only player he gave a nickname. He gave Segun Odegbami ‘Mathematical’, there was Emmanuel ‘Man Mountain’ Okala; Aloysius ‘Bluckburster’ Atuegbu; Sylvanus ‘Quick Silver’ Okpala; Luke ‘Jazz Buckanner’ Okpala; Adokiye ‘Barrel Chest’ Amiesimaka; Felix ‘Owoblow’ Owolabi and others.
And that name, ‘Chairman’ stuck like super glue. Ernest Okonkwo created the names all by himself. We didn’t know when the names eventually took part of us such that till date, even at our old age, we are still bearing the names, and joyfully too, because they have become part of us.
Were you married at that time?
No, I was still single, a bachelor, then.
Tell us, before you married your wife, was there a time she asked you how you came about the name ‘Chairman’?
No, she didn’t. But I remember a day she asked, ‘Chris’ because that was what she used to call me then, ‘why do people call you ‘Chairman’?. And I explained to her. That was after we had gotten married. But before we got married, she didn’t ask, but she knew I was ‘Chairman’ courtesy of Ernest Okonkwo.
Was she a football person before you met her?
I would say I made her to be a football fan.
Since then, how often do you take her to the stadium to watch matches?
I do so whenever she showed interest. If not, she stays at home and watch on television. But as far as I can remember, I had taken her to the stadium but that was a long time ago.
It is often said that the hallmark of a good leader is his ability to breed a good successor. Isn’t it?
You are right.
Has ‘Chairman’ Chukwu gotten his successor? In other words, is any of your children taking to football, maybe, to take after you?
I must say it is unfortunate that this has not been the case. It is not as if my children don’t like football. But unfortunately, they are not playing up to the level of their dad (father). Till tomorrow, they enjoy playing football but found out that they had to go to school. For them, it is education first. So they tend to face their education first and perhaps combine it with football some day. They always wish they could play like their father but they have not really done that.
Super Eagles are in the race for qualification for the 2021 AFCON finals with a clash against Lone Star of Sierra Leone in Asaba on March 27. What are your thoughts on the match even though the Coronavirus crisis has forced CAF to put the game on hold?
My position is that Super Eagles should not underrate Sierra Leone. During our time in the national team, we do beat Sierra Leone anywhere, anytime. But you know, right now, things have continued to change, football is improving rapidly these days. You can’t regard any team as minnows now, so I have to drum it loud into the players ears that on no account should they take Sierra Leone for granted even though I believe Super Eagles have all it takes to beat Sierra Leone anywhere, anytime, yes, Sierra Leone are beatable.
The present Super Eagles team is said to lack a ‘leader’ while on the pitch. This is unlike in your days when you, as ‘Chairman’ play that role on the pitch while Stephen Keshi, ‘Big Boss’ played similar role during his own time spanning through the 1994 era. What has really changed or better still, what’s the missing link?
For me, the missing link is the fact that we have not been including the home-based players in the senior national team. And this is very, very unfortunate. I’ve spoken about this severally. You cannot build a national team in isolation of the domestic league players no matter what. Now, you call about 30 players to the national team and all of them will be overseas-based without any home-based player. How then do you encourage these players plying their trades on the domestic scene? How do you motivate them? Yet, we have a whole lot of good players here in the home league. These are players you can develop from the home front. The home fans know them. Most fans don’t even know most of the national team players because they are too foreign. Many of them are not even born here in Nigeria. So, for me, the solution is for us to begin to include some of these home league players in the national team. Its important as anything and don’t forget too that it saves cost. Yes, you can train home-based players for weeks or months while you can call up overseas-based players on Friday, they play on Sunday and disperse on Monday. I don’t see this as a national team. The players come from different countries, different leagues and under different coaches. Yet, even the Eagles coach himself is a foreigner. So it makes everything more difficult, more complex.
What’s your take on Joseph Yobo’s appointment into the Super Eagles coaching crew?
Very wonderful, a most welcome development. Many argue that Yobo hasn’t undergone coaching course. And I ask, which coaching course? Which course do you want Yobo to attend again? In fact, Yobo should conduct coaching courses. What kind of training regimen, what manner of administration or type of coach that Yobo has not passed through as a player or as a captain? So, for me, it is a good decision by NFF to appoint Yobo into the Super Eagles technical crew and this is coming at the right time.
Yobo will be responsible for identifying local league players and bringing them into the Super Eagles according to the terms of his appointment. What’s your take on that?
Whatever the arrangement is, what matters is for us to look around and get the good [domestic] league players into the national team. We’ve many good players in the home league and I’m confident Yobo can do well to identify them. He can do it.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t invite or use overseas-based players, but not mixing them with home-based players and denying the home league players opportunity to be part of the national team is not the best and it breeds discrimination. It simply means that if a player does not play outside Nigeria, he cannot play for his national team. This is reason why many of the home league players sneak out through the Sahara Desert to abroad, even to play in countries like Afghanistan that are fighting war, in the name of being overseas- based players and coming back home to play for the national team. Reason is that once you are still playing in the country, nobody notices you and under that circumstance, what do you expect them to do?
Super Eagles have not done too well since 2013 when they won the AFCON in South Africa. What is wrong, why is it so?
It is simple, we don’t have good organisation. Once you have good organisation, results would come. We have good players, home and abroad, but the organisation is zero. Everybody is flooding into football because of politics and money. People who know next to nothing about the game have mounted the throne of its management. This is the problem.
Thank you ‘Chairman’, it has been wonderful sharing some thoughts with you. Hope you grant us audience some other time.
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