If Thompson Usiyen had not migrated to the USA when he did in 1976, but had waited to play during the last qualifier against Tunisia in 1977 for the 1978 World Cup, every Nigerian that knew the mercurial talent of the young goalscoring machine at the time, believed that Nigeria would have beaten Tunisia at home and qualified for the FIFA World Cup for the first time.
Nigerian football and Nigeria’s place in the world of football would never have been the same. The birth of global football superstars and the growth of the football industry in Nigeria would have come a lot earlier than it did from 1994.
Thompson’s sudden exit from Nigeria’s national team truncated that great movement to Nigeria’s appearance at a World Cup. It also cost him a fantastic career in World football. With his skills and goalscoring ability he would have been in the class of the biggest and best players in the world at the time. He was that good. His ‘setback’ was that he went to America in the hope of advancing his football.
Although he came from America on one occasion to play with the Green Eagles during the 3rd All African Games in Algiers, in 1978, the standard of American football had blunted his skills and it was obvious he was not the same player that left 2 years before.
After Algiers ’78, Thompson never came back to play again in the Nigerian national team. Effectively, his movement to America also marked the end of his international football career.
His story is not unique. It is about the same for a legion of other exceptionally gifted Nigerian footballers who were also lured with scholarships to get an education in the USA and to represent their American Colleges and Universities in soccer, as Americans refer to football. Only four others in this huge army of footballers were able to return and to play in Nigeria’s national team again during or after their studies.
The first was short-lived. Andrew Atuegbu came back in 1976 and joined the national team in Europe in preparation for the Montreal Olympic Games of 1976. Although he played a few friendly matches during the tour around Europe before heading for Canada for the games that were eventually boycotted, it was clear he was not quite as sharp as he was before he left for the USA. After the Olympics he was not invited any more.
Godwin Odiye had also left in 1977. As a result of his huge reputation as a formidable centre-half, he was invited to play again in the Green Eagles during the 1980 African Cup of Nations. But, like Andrew and Thompson before him, his game had been blunted by America. He was not the same player that left 3 years before.
Christian Nwokocha, a young striker with Rangers International FC of Enugu before he left Nigeria in the mid-1970s, completed his University program in the US and was immediately recruited by a professional club in Portugal. This movement to Europe made him the first Nigerian to play professional football in continental Europe.
This attracted the attention of national team coaches, and he was invited back in 1981 to fill the gap left by Thompson Usiyen 5 years before that was still yawning up till then.
Christian played, failed to impress very much, and left never to return again.
The last Nigerian player was Taiwo Ogunjobi. He did not spend a day longer than the 4 years of his study at Clemson University where he had made a mark, along with other great young Nigerian internationals, creating records for the university and for self.
Taiwo returned immediately after his studies to the Nigerian club he had left 4 years before – Shooting Stars International FC, Ibadan. He re-joined his colleagues most of whom were still in the club, and resumed his domestic football career that lasted another decade, at least!
Armed with a university degree, he became a role-model of some sort, successfully transiting from football on the field to football in the boardroom at the highest level. He was probably the only Nigerian in the country’s history to make that transition successfully.
Outside of those 5 Nigerians, the rest of the army of Nigeria’s best players of the early 1970s and 1980s that left the country in droves chasing the greener pasture of education in the USA, opportunities the Nigerian Collegiate system neither encouraged nor offered them, never returned to the national teams again. It is understandable.
Without any antecedents as a guide into the future, the hope of the footballers at the time was that the football system in America would be good enough to sustain their football development, and even improve their football standard to the extent that they would still be good enough to be invited to play for the national teams from time to time.
Things never happened quite like that. Sylvanus Okpala, Okey Isima and, later, Stephen Keshi spearheaded a new migration to Europe. Europe yielded what America could not because of the well-established professional development programmes without education in that environment.
Thereafter, no other international footballer based in the USA was ever invited to Nigeria’s national teams again.
So, ended Nigeria’s little romance with USA soccer from the early 1990s.
The summary is that America began to be seen as a football ‘graveyard’ for some of the best talents in Nigerian football, players that could have taken Nigeria to the pinnacle of world football a lot earlier in history had the experiment with American Colleges and Universities worked well. They lost their edge and sharpness on the football field with their migration to the USA.
At the same time, however, most of the US-based players would tell you they have no regrets for taking the decision to migrate at the time they did To the USA. They did not know the effect it would have on their careers, but, surely, they knew that the opportunity of an education in a system that accepted them, was too good to give up in exchange for the life of penury awaiting them in Nigeria.
What most of them lost in football careers they more than made up for with a good grounding in education that secured for them a better life beyond football. With that movement they also escaped from the ‘prison’ of penury and neglect that playing in the Nigerian domestic league without proper education confined majority of them to.
Most of the migrants look back now and thank their stars for making that move to the USA. Nigeria is still littered with the horrid tales of their ex-international colleagues that waited behind in Nigeria.
The good news today is that things have changed.
American football has been undergoing a transformation since that country hosted the World Cup in 1994. The country has continued to promote and develop its domestic football beyond Collegiate levels. Professional clubs are springing up all over the United States and the economic machine of the USA is driving them. The MLS, the biggest league in the USA, is attracting players from around the world and steadily elevating the status and fortunes of footballers and the game itself.
Players from the MLS and even from Colleges in the USA are now being sought after in several leagues in Europe, and the USA has become a useful transit point for young Nigerian players.
The USA national football team is becoming a global force to reckon with, steadily climbing the ladder of FIFA rankings, and the USA women’s game has become the biggest, the best and most lucrative in the world.
The ‘graveyard’ has become a ‘nursery’ where ‘flowers’ are being groomed and harvested for the global garden of football.
I am taking a moment to pay tribute to those pioneers, Nigerian football greats that blazed the trail to the USA at great cost to their careers in football.
It is a long list – Tony Igwe, Ben Popoola, Andrew Atuegbu, Muyiwa Sanya, Segun Adeleke, Godwin Odiye, Humphrey Edobor, Thompson Usiyen, Chris Ogu, Emmanuel Merenini, Johnny Egbuonu, Dominic Ezeani, Sunny Izevbige, Francis Moniedafe, Kenneth Boardman, Dehinde Akinlotan, Fatai Atere, Adekunle Awesu, Taiwo Ogunjobi, Christian Nwokocha, Nnamdi Nwokocha, Alfred Keyede, and so on and so forth. They are all heroes!
Dr. Olusegun Odegbami, MON, OLY
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