By Segun Adenuga:
I HAVE not seen any Nigerian dead or alive, who had painstakingly devoted his entire life to the development of youth football than Tony Eke. He was excellent and elegant, a complete football aficionado of extraordinary savvy. He combined a rare administrative ingenuity in football management with patriotic fervor in raising the standard of football from grassroots level and became an apostle of youth soccer development in the last five decades in Nigeria.
No one could fault Tony Eke’s genuine love for youth football development programme right from his childhood days in Ajegunle, the cradle of modern day footballers. He got involved in football matters as a teenager in 1965 when Youth Sport Federation of Apapa (YSFA) was formed by Chief Israel Adebajo, who was also the founder of the famous Stationery Stores Football Club of Lagos as a breeding ground for the would-be Lagos darling club.
Tony was in his early 20’s when the likes of Avi Awotoro and Sam Nwobum were being urged to sign for Stores, but it was only petit Awotoro that was preferred to the bulky, stout and lanky Nwobum. At that period, YSFA was firmly under the supervision of former Nigeria national team manager, Major Ibikunle Armstrong, an indigene of Ilaro in Ogun State, whilst millionaire business Kano-born Garba Nautan Hamza was the chairman. Patiently but painstakingly, Tony Eke learnt the ropes and became a popular figure in football circles in Lagos State, making Ajegunle his base for youth soccer
At the age of 19 in 1970, Tony Eke had already become familiar with some top brass of the Nigeria Military like Col.Sule Apollo, Major-General Joseph Garba and General Benjamin Adekunle, who had been keeping the youth club going, since the death of Mr. Israel Adebajo in 1969. The trio formed a remarkable partnership with Garba Hamza from early 1970 till 1976 when the military coup that toppled General Murtala Mohammed began to have adverse effect on the day-to-day running as financial straits crippled the activities of the body.
Imbued with a burning patriotic fervor, Tony Ossai Eke, a young Nigerian of Delta State extraction, born in 1950 in the heart of Ajegunle, in Ajeromi Ifelodun Local Government of Lagos State, took up the challenge to expand the financial base of YSFA when he approached the management of VONO Nigeria Ltd to sponsor the first RAMAT CUP in Lagos State in 1977. The request was granted and Lagos was privileged to host the maiden edition of General Murtala Ramat Mohammed U-16 Boys soccer championship at St. Gregory’s College, Obalende, where Chief M.K.O. Abiola, a personal friend of Murtala Mohammed replaced the trophy and took over sponsorship of the yearly RAMAT CUP till 1994, even while in detention mid-way.
It would be pertinent to recall that Tony Eke was the brain behind the transformation of a local football outfit to national spotlight when YSFA (Youth Sport Federation of Apapa) became YSFON (Youth Sport Federation of Nigeria) in 1980.
For the first time, the RAMAT CUP was played in Kano and had eight (8) states from the Federation participating at Sabon Gari Stadium, Kano it was during that tournament that Tony Eke mooted the idea of changing YSFA to YSFON in order to reflect national outlook. It is also of interest that Tony Eke initiated the moves that culminated into the appointment of prince Dokun Danquah Abidoye, business mogul and owner of KODA Sports as the National President of YSFON on March 26, 1980 at the Central Working Committee of YSFON meeting held at Tony’s family house at 18, Olowojeunjeje Street, Ajegunle, which served as interim secretariat of the body.
I can also attest to the fact that Tony Eke was the one that first launched Nigeria into global honour when he registered the Nigerian youtyh to take part in a competition organized in Goteborg, Sweden in 1980. Tony Eke singularly recruited a crop of talented youngsters like Tajudeen Disu, Tarila Okorowanta, Paul Okoku, Dipriye Tebowei, Christopher Anigala, Alphonsus Akhahon, Femi Olukanni, Mutiwa Oshuntolu, Felix Egogo, Patrick Udoh, Monday Onyebuchi, Monday Oyarekhua, Gbewuro Amatere,
Roland Onyemechi, Lawrence Akufe and Ali Kadri and kept them under the supervision of a football technocrat and former Red Devils goal-poacher “Diamond-toed) Peter “Baby” Anieke of Nigeria’s 1949 U.K. Tourists fame.
Led by the President of YSFON Prince Abidoye and seven other officials, Ben Ekpo, Isaac Eke, Patrick Akpavuerhe, Kayode Abiade and my humble self (the writer of this piece), we arrived Goteborg in Sweden to play against the best Europe could offer in terms of youth soccer. We were simply unstoppable as Tarila Okorowanta and Felix Egogo tantalized and taunted their opponents with sizzling football artistry to win Nigeria’s first soccer laurel at international U-16 stage.
Tony Eke’s record as a football administrator and pathfinder of Youth soccer revolution would be uncompleted without an illusion to the fact that he was truly a national soccer icon who touched all corners of the county, staging soccer contents to immortalize or celebrate those who made the game famous at their time.
For instance, Tony Eke regularly staging football competitions in honour of Kano Ado Bayero, Oba of Benin, U.J. Esuene, M.K.O. Abiola, Lekan Salami, Joe Audu, Dominic Oneya, Muda Lawal and recently the ALL STARS CUP which was his last assignments in October 2018, shortly before his sickness of almost nine years took a dramatic turn.
I would like to recall Tony’s last moments on earth with an agonizing feeling. As a friend, colleague and confidant for almost four decades, Tony Eke had been the one always inviting me to his house on issues pertaining to football in Nigeria and other
West African countries. In fact, he had told me in September, 2018 that we should arrange a football match to celebrate Chioma Ajunwa’s birthday and also mark her recent promotion by the Police on 25th December, 2018, but for his sickness which relapsed in the early part of December. He called on phone and I noticed that his voice was incoherent. When I got to his Oluwalose residence in Ikotun, Lagos on February 1, 2019, I noticed that Tony Eke was in his last days on earth and I quickly called his lawyer daughter Anthonia, who answered my call from Abuja. However, Tonia later told me she was making arrangement to take her father to their village in Delta and wanted to know whether I would be able to go with the family, which I unhesitatingly gave my nod.
Maybe we procrastinated because it took Tonia another three days to get back to me, and when she did, it was to break the sad news that her father had passed on in the
early hours of February 16, 2019. I was devastated.
Meanwhile, the remains of Tony Ossai Eke will be buried on Friday, 1st March, 2019 at Ikoyi Cemetery. There will be a wake-keep on Thursday, 28th February at Navy Barracks, Ajegunle, Apapa.