Thursday, October 27, 2011

Dominic Ezeani and the reinvention of Nigerian football

Many football pundits tend to forget that the first serious victory for the Nigerian national team was the soccer gold won at the 1973 All-Africa Games staged in Lagos. For many years before then, Nigeria flattered to deceive with an array of football masters such as Teslim “Thunder” Balogun, Dan Anyiam, Etim Henshaw, Dejo Fayemi, Godwin Achebe etc. Some of these early star players were seen as irreplaceable, and they played for Nigeria for many years on end. In fact Godwin Achebe who had been playing for Nigeria since Independence in 1960 was still the captain of the 1973 All-Africa Games until a young centre-back straight out of Christ the King College (CKC) Onitsha, Dominic Ezeani, replaced the great man, thus helping Nigeria to win her very first major soccer title.

            Curiously, whenever the list of Nigeria’s greatest-ever footballers is compiled you more often than not find that Dominic Ezeani’s name is missing. What even makes it more scandalous is that it was not only Godwin Achebe that Ezeani retired but that other football great known as Victor Oduah. A player who ended the era of two of Nigeria’s greatest ever defenders deserves his place among the immortals of Nigerian football. It was with Ezeani that the modern era of effective libero application began in Nigeria.

            Popularly known as “Hugo Harris”, Dominic Ezeani was the pillar in the defence of the all-conquering East Central State Academicals of 1971 that won the All-Nigeria Manuwa/Adebajo Cup. The team boasted of such schoolboy soccer artistes as Ahamefula Umelo, Pat Ekeji, John Azinge, Moses Nweke, Obed Ariri, Godwin Ogbueze, Kenneth Ilodigwe, Tony Uzoka etc. After winning the Manuwa/Adebajo cup competed for by the secondary school footballers across the then 12 states of Nigeria by beating Kwara State 2-0 in the final, the East Central State Academicals were paired up in a match with Enugu Rangers. Within a short time the schoolboys were three goals up, menacingly thrashing the great Rangers team. Soccer administrators in Enugu had to think fast to save the pride of the Igbo nation, such as Rangers was seen after the Civil War, from total disgrace. The administrators met with the match officials to ensure that the match ended as a respectable drawn game! It was there and then that Ezeani was drafted into the Rangers squad, and was soon made the captain of the team.

            Ezeani proved such an irreplaceable pivot of the East Central Academicals team that once he left they became beatable. Ezeani played for the All-Nigeria Academicals team that dealt heavy blows, home and away, to Ghana that used to be the nemesis of Nigeria’s senior national team. Whenever Ezeani returned back to his school, CKC Onitsha, after representing Nigeria, the legendary Principal of the school, Rev. Father Nicholas Tagbo would insist that the budding soccer star must sit and pass his exams!

            The next stop for Ezeani was the Green Eagles, then preparing for the January 1973 All-Africa Games in Lagos. He of course displaced the very captain of the team, the great but ageing Skipper Godwin Achebe, and then paired with Victor Oduah in the centre of the Nigerian defence. Oduah had to take over as the captain of the team that won Nigeria’s first ever football title by beating Guinea 2-0 in the pulsating final.

            Soon after the All-Africa Games soccer gold triumph, Nigeria’s Green Eagles met with perennial rivals Ghana’s Black Stars in Lagos on February 10, 1973 in a World Cup qualifier. Nigeria’s line-up for the match was: Emmanuel Okala, Tony Igwe, Morton Owolo, Sanni Mohammed, Victor Oduah, Dominic Ezeani, Gideon Njoku, Yakubu Mambo, Haruna Ilerika, Kenneth Olayombo, Josiah Dombraiye. Ghana fielded: Lante France, Enoch Asumadu, Samuel Ayi Acquah, Joseph Ghartey, Daniel Oppong, Samuel Amartefio, John Taylor, Eric Amankwah Amansua, Kwasi Owusu, Isaac Eshun, Malik Jabir. The Green Eagles scored two goals through Kenneth Olayombo and Yakubu Mambo while Ghana netted three goals through the dreaded centre-forward Kwasi Owusu in the 18th, 55th, and 82nd minutes. There was crowd trouble at the National Stadium, Surulere, Lagos, as Ghana’s third goal was suspected to be scored from an offside position but was awarded by referee Paul Nkounkou from Congo-Brazzaville. The match was abandoned after 87 minutes. Ghana was thereafter awarded a 2-0 win.

            The return leg in Accra, Ghana witnessed the dropping of captain Victor Oduah, thus ensuring that Ezeani had effectively retired Nigeria’s two great captains! Ezeani was paired with the young Anthony Ottah in central defence and succeeded magnificently in keeping striker Kwasi Owusu quiet in a match that ended as a goalless draw. Of course
Ghana’s Black Stars won on 2-0 on aggregate, but Ezeani had made the point of setting a new course for Nigerian football.

            Having been made the captain of Enugu Rangers, Ezeani led the club to winning the double of Challenge Cup and League Title in 1974. In the 1974 Challenge Cup final that Rangers defeated Mighty Jets of Jos 2-0, the late Aloy Atuegbu who was playing for the Jos team told me of his encounter with Ezeani. Atuegbu said that the then Head of State Gen. Yakubu Gowaon who hailed from Plateau State had come to his family home in Jos and promised him a Volkswagen Beetle if he could help defeat Rangers and thus end the jinx of Mighty Jets never ever winning the Challenge Cup. Atuegbu was therefore charged up, turning the Rangers defence at will in the early minutes of the match. According to Atuegbu, Ezeani ran up to him and spoke Igbo to him that can best be translated in the modern lingo of “Aloy, you go wound-o!” Atuegbu and Ezeani happen to come from neighbouring towns (Adazi and Agulu respectively) in today’s Anambra State. Atuegbu did not want to hear any Igbo talk and thus brushed Ezeani aside. Meantime, Rangers no-nonsense left-back Harrison Mecha had heard what his captain had said to Atuegbu. Shortly after, Atuegbu made yet another darting run only for Mecha’s crunchy tackle to ensure that he was stretchered off the match!

            After setting Rangers on the part of success, Ezeani was offered admission to Howard University in the United States. Christian Chukwu was then groomed to take over from Ezeani, and that was how Chukwu became the Green Eagles captain even as a new member of the team! Even so, the Rangers management ensured that Ezeani was brought back to Nigeria to play for the team anytime it had problems in prosecuting the then 1975 African Cup of Club Champions. Ezeani could not come back for the celebrated semi-final clash with Mehalla of Egypt because he was playing in the NCAA semi-final match as reported in the December 15, 1975 edition of the celebrated American magazine, Sports Illustrated Volume 43, Issue 24, where he dealt with a 190-pound 6-footer of a striker named Greg Villa. According to the Sports Illustrated report: “Early in the second period Villa stole the ball from Fullback Samuel Acquah and charged in for a goal. Taking a pass from Steve Axmacher, he scored again at 17:13 of the half to make it 3-1. A few moments after that, Howard's Dominic Ezeani nailed Villa with a body block in midjump. Villa got up slowly and wobbled to the bench, bleeding from the mouth and clutching his thigh. No penalty was called, except that normally mild-mannered Midfielder John Zacheis was banished from the Cougar bench and the game for expressing his displeasure with the referee's evaluation of the incident. The referees worked the rest of the game with their hands hovering over their pockets, yellow cards at the ready.”     

            Ezeani was flown back from America for the final of the African Cup of Champion Clubs against Hafia FC of Guinea in December 1975 after Rangers had lost the first leg by 1-0 in Conakry, Guinea. The Rangers team was holed up in Enugu, hoping to play the Hafia team in the Coal City, when the then Nigeria Football Association (NFA) suddenly asked the team to proceed to Lagos a day to the encounter. There was even talk of Rangers boycotting the game when the new military governor Lt-Col. Atom Kpera who had just replaced the more charismatic Col. Anthony Aboki Ochefu ordered the team to depart to Lagos despite club chairman Jim Nwobodo’s protestations. In a match played in such controversial circumstances, Rangers players could not believe their eyes when the referee disallowed the long throws of Nwabueze Nwankwo with which they had planned to dislodge the passing game of Hafia of Guinea. Ezeani and his mates tried as best they could in the oppressive circumstances, losing 2-1 in the end.

            The Ezeani phenomenon may have been brief but it represented a major shift in Nigerian football from the old style centre-back to the modern libero such as Germany’s Frank Beckenbauer. Ezeani paved the way for the emergence of the Christian Chukwus, Godwin Odiyes, Stephen Keshis, Uche Okechukwus, Taribo Wests and the sundry modern centre-backs who ensured that at last Nigeria could be counted among the countries winning soccer laurels.