Permit me to pay a little tribute.
Let me start by joining my little voice to the global chorus of millions of people that are mourning the passage of legendary Brazilian football player, captain of the 1970 World Cup champions, and scorer of one of the most memorable goals in the history of the World Cup.
Early this past week Carlos Alberto Torres passed on at the age 72.
Carlos it was who scored the last goal of the 1970 World Cup that is still globally acknowledged for its construction, its beauty and its almost perfect execution. He also captained the team that is regarded as an assemblage of some of the most gifted players of a generation packed into one team. The footballers, under the tutelage of Mario Zagalo who won three World Cups, two as a player (1958, 1962) and one as a coach (1970), included Jairzinho, Gerson, Tostao, Rivelino, Clodoaldao, Felix and Pele amongst others.
This week tributes have been pouring in torrents from the mournful hearts of Carlos’s contemporaries, friends, fans, and football stakeholders across the global landscape of the game.
It is understandable if there has not been many of such tributes coming out of Africa it is because only very few people know that, indeed, he had a brief stint in Africa. It ought to be recalled here to make the proper account of his life complete.
It happened in 1995.
By the end of 1994, the Super Eagles of Nigeria had become a beautiful bride of world football. Before that year, very few European countries would readily accept to play the national teams of most African countries in friendly matches. Their standard was considered too low. 1994 was the watershed that changed all of that.
From winning the Africa Cup of Nations in Tunisia, qualifying for the 1994 World Cup, playing some truly exhilarating matches against a few smaller European clubs en-route USA ’94, putting up some spectacular performances during the World Cup itself that catapulted Nigeria’s global ranking to fifth in the world, and to being declared as one of the most entertaining teams of the World Cup because of its free-flowing, unadulterated, all-out attacking style of football played down both flanks with power, panache, precision and pace, the Super Eagles established a global brand of African football, and became a beautiful bride courted by some of the leading footballing countries in the world, all within the space of a few months!
It was in that spirit that England readily accepted to play the Eagles in the historic first friendly international match between Nigeria and its former colonial master on the revered turf of Wembley stadium in London. It was on the strength of that also that the country was invited by the USA Soccer Federation to participate in the 1995 USA Gold Cup, an annual international tournament played amongst four specially selected national teams from around the world considered good enough to promote and drive USA’s rapid football development agenda.
Unknown to most, the Super Eagles that departed USA ’94 as great ambassadors of African football was a fragmented team, in strife, slowly imploding under the weight of the same forces that propelled it rapidly up the rungs of global football but created in its wake a number of newly minted megastar football players that had the fame and fortune to engage their manager, Clemens Westerhof, and their national federation in a power tussle even as the World Cup went on.
By the start of the World Cup, the team was in two parts – one unofficially led by Rashidi Yekini, accused by some of his mates of not giving credit to those of them that fed him the balls that made him Africa’s greatest goal scorer, and the other by Daniel Amokachi whose grouse was with Westerhof’s manner of dealing with players, particularly side-lining those he wanted to tame, or that offended him.
On the eve of the match against Italy, the crisis came to a head with Daniel publicly challenging and disobeying Westerhof in training. That led to breakdown in discipline as well as a revolt against their manager. The team refused to obey the coach’s directive to relocate to a different hotel to halt the distraction caused by the unfettered access of every Tom, Dick and Harry to the players’ hotel.
The team remained in the hotel even as their coach relocated alone! Peace never returned to the team again. Nigeria lost the match and the team left the World Cup in tatters. Westerhof left the team unceremoniously and his contract was not renewed.
The players’ ranks were divided into camps. Yet the global image of Nigeria had been magnified to its highest levels in history by their exploits on the field! Invitations from various countries including a few of the global giants of football that only a few months before would never had agreed to play them, started pouring in.
Returning to America a few months after the World Cup to honour the USA Gold Cup became a great challenge. Several of the megastar players including Rashidi Yekini, Jay Jay Okocha, Sunday Oliseh, Daniel Amokachi, Emmanuel Amuneke and Finidi George turned down invitations to the national team.
The NFA had to create a last-minute open invitation to any interested Nigerian players abroad that had valid USA visas! That was the only way to avoid the sanctions that would have come by not attending the competition. It was a hurriedly assembled new-look Super Eagles that went to represent the country!
Nike, the official sponsors of the Super Eagles that had been a pillar of support for the team were distraught. Noel Okorougo, who was the broker of the deal between the NFA and Nike, stepped in.
His calculation was rational. The new globally respected Super Eagles needed an equally globally respected new manager, a coach with an awesome reputation that the megastar players would respect.
That’s how the ‘captain of captains’, the man that led the greatest footballing nation on earth at the time to its greatest and most celebrated World Cup achievement – Carlos Alberto – came into the picture for his first and only African assignment.
Carlos Alberto was based in America at the time and was doing some work with Nike. Africa did not exist in his radar. Through the strategic intervention of Noel Okorougo, Carlos Alberto was convinced to take up the Nigerian assignment, particularly since his wageswere to be picked up by Nike.
His initial excitement to work in Africa with one of the most exciting teams in the world soon turned sour when he joined the Nigerian team in Boston for the start of the Gold Cup and was introduced to a make-shift Super Eagles team that did not have most of the players that had excited the world during the World Cup.
He remained with the team through the two matches of the tournament working on the bench with newly drafted coach Amodu Shaibu to try to mould the team into some shape. The players under the captaincy of Samson Siasia still played decently but could not soar to the heights of the authentic World Cup heroes.
It was clear from the results of that match, and from knowing more the depth of the crisis within Nigerian football, that Carlos Alberto, a cool, calm and complete gentleman, was not prepared for such a firestorm. He did not return to Nigeria with the team. He rejected the Nike offer, and Nike’s relationship with Nigerian football started to wane fast.
So, ended Carlos’s short relationship with African football. But short as it was, I believe, it makes absolute sense for the world of football to know and to record for posterity that Carlos Alberto Torres amongst his many contributions to the global game, also had a stint with African football when he coached the Super Eagles of Nigeria for two matches in 1995.