AITEO/NFF Awards 2018: Night of shining stars

By Jacob Ajom After 25 years, Nigeria finally honoured their best set of footballers to date— the 1994 Super Eagles, who attained a lot of firs

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By Jacob Ajom

After 25 years, Nigeria finally honoured their best set of footballers to date— the 1994 Super Eagles, who attained a lot of firsts in the country’s football history. The stage was colourful and the event was classic. The audience, which had 18 Presidents of Football federations from across Africa, was of the highest profile. They included Presidents of the Football Associations of Zambia, Zimbabwe, Angola, Guinea Bissau, Gambia, Equatorial Guinea, Togo, Ethiopia, Benin Republic, South Sudan, Tanzania, Rwanda and Liberia. Danny Jordan of South Africa FA was also in attendance.

The maiden edition held the previous year had in attendance, President of FIFA Gianni Infantino. This time the second most powerful person in the FIFA hierarchy, the Secretary General, Ms Fatma Samoura was present and she deservedly bagged NFF Order of Merit Award. The Senegalese national broke new grounds when she was made the Secretary-General of the global football governing body on 13 May 2016 to become the first African to occupy such an exalted position in world football.

Members of the NFF Executive Committee and Management, Members of the NFF Congress and chairman of various Clubs were also in attendance.

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President of the Nigeria Football Federation and First Vice President of CAF, Amaju Melvin Pinnick, called on Nigeria’s other billionaires and well–heeled companies to emulate AITEO Group and boost the development of football in Nigeria.

AITEO, an indigenous energy solutions company, is the official optimum partner of the NFF and sponsors of the Federation Cup. It also bankrolls the annual African Football Awards organized by CAF. Its team on Monday night was led by Deputy Managing Director, Mr. Francis Peters and included the Executive Director, Mr. Andrew Onyearu.

The AITEO/NFF Awards 2018, a platform for the recognition of players, coaches, administrators and fans who excelled in their various callings during the 2018 season, was indeed a milestone for the Amaju Pinnick-led Nigeria Football Federation. It was the second edition of the awards and there was a marked improvement in organization and delivery. The 2018 Awards was special and distinct in many respects.

Super Eagles stand-in captain, Ahmed Musa and his Super Falcons opposite number Onome Ebi proved their worth at the event after bagging Nigeria’s best male and female footballer of the year awards. Musa was again recognized for his master class act as the goal he scored against Iceland at the Russia 2018 FIFA World Cup was voted as best goal of the season by a Nigerian. Although the Al Nassr star was not physically present to receive his awards due to club commitments, the entire hall stood to salute of his exceptional skill, when his name was announced as winner.

There were numerous other categories of the awards, including the NFF Presidential Award which rightfully, though posthumously went to late politician, business mogul and proprietor of defunct Abiola Babes of Abeokuta, Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola and Lifetime Achievement Award which was conferred on Lagos State Governor Akinwunmi Ambode.

The award that received the biggest ovation was the recognition accorded the class of 1994 Super Eagles, the squad that first won the Africa Cup of Nations for Nigeria, outside the shores of the country – they attained that feat in faraway Tunisia; qualified Nigeria, for the first time, for the FIFA World Cup and six members of that squad were part of the record breaking Dream Team that won the 1996 Atlanta Olympics gold medal to become the first African team to win the Olympics football tournament. Except for the inexplicable absence of Victor Ikpeba, understandably, other ex-players like Michael Emenalo, Emeka Ezeugo, Emmanuel Amuneke, Chidi Nwanu and Efan Ekoku could not attend the ceremony. However, the rest of the squad were physically present at the Eko Hotel and Suites to receive their awards. Present were Peter Rufai, Aloy Agu, Austin Eguavoen, Uche Okechukwu, Mutiu Adepoju, Austin Jay Jay Okocha and Sunday Oliseh. Others include George Finidi, Samson Siasia, Daniel Amokachi and Ben Iroha. Edema Fuludu, Nduka Ugbade, Isaac Semitoje were not in USA ’94 World Cup finals but they played some qualifier matches and were recognised. Ugbade and Edema were at the awards but Semitoje could not make it.

Members of the squad who have passed on like Captain Stephen Keshi, Rasheed Yekini, Uche Okafor, Wilfred Agbonivbare and Thompson Oliha were honoured posthumously. Yekini’s daughter, Omoyemi received the award on behalf of her late father.

Receiving the awards, former captain of the squad, Coach Austin Eguavoen thanked the Nigeria Football Federation for remembering them 25 years after their historic feat. He however, reminded the football authority to press for the redemption of houses promised them by the federal government. “What the NFF and Nigeria have done today is phenomenal. This [the award] has bridged the gap and healed old wounds,” Eguavoen, popularly called Cerezo by fans, said.

Continuing, the former defender said, “We are here today to celebrate us. Five of our colleagues are no more; they are gone. A promise is a debt,” Eguavoen said, echoing a lyric in the National Anthem which says, “The labour of heroes past shall never be in vain.” The former Nigeria international urged government to fulfill its promise so that younger generations could be motivated to give their all to their fatherland. He advised that when government would be redeeming the promise, members of the squad who are dead should not be forgotten so that their children could enjoy from the sweat of their fathers.

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Sunday Oliseh, spoke after Eguavoen and he went memory lane, capturing some of the special moments that marked Nigeria’s finest era in football. He spoke about the synergy, love and unity that was the strength of the team. Oliseh thanked the NFF leadership for the recognition and said, “at some point in time, we must move forward.”

But the absence of Clemens Westerhof, the man who midwifed the historic team has been a topic in some quarters. However, President of the Nigeria Football Federation, Amaju Pinnick in an answer to our enquiry, told this reporter that “we can’t get it 100% right at all times, but we are open to constructive contributions. We are humans, we can’t be perfect.

“I think we deserve some commendation that for the first time in 25 years the players were being recognized. They are all happy and, like I told you, it was a great gathering because I was seeing players like Finidi Geroge for the first time since he last played for Nigeria 25 years ago. The good thing is that we have given them a rare recognition, which we should be commended for.”

On his part, Chairman of the Award Organising Committee, Seyi Akinwunmi who is also the Vice President of the NFF said the players were their focus. “We planned to honour the players and remember, Westerhof was not the only coach in the technical crew. We also had other backroom staff which means a whole lot more.”

It is however hoped that in subsequent awards, the NFF would deem it fit to recognise the Dutcgerian (as Westerhof was known) who has remained Nigeria’s most successful coach to date. He led the Eagles to attain the highest ranking – 5th – in the world, a height Nigeria is yet to achieve since then.

Organisers should also adhere to time as the event started more than one hour late. Time management should be key as awards are basically a media affair. It would be useless if awards were held today and the media only end up publishing the report two days after. It is absurd. There is too much waste of time and unnecessary ceremonies. NFF should not go the way of CAF Awards. I would rather recommend they go the way of FIFA and UEFA whose annual awards do not take more than one and a half hours.

The night was garnished by top class performances by respected dancer Kaffy who staged an electrifying show that held the audience spell-bound for close to a quarter of an hour. Superstar musicians D’ Banj, Ricardo Banks and Timi Dakolo also performed to the delight of the audience. It was indeed, a night to remember.

The AITEO/NFF Awards 2018 held at the Eko Hotel & Suites, Victoria Island Lagos Monday night could have passed like any other but the conferment of NFF Legend Award on the class of 1994 Super Eagles made all the difference.

There were numerous speeches but the one that stood out was the extemporaneous rendition by former Super Eagles captain Sunday Oliseh. The former Super Eagles coach seized the occasion to tell the world that although separated by time and space, the class of ’94 Super Eagles were still one big family.

Oliseh held the audience spell bound with his oratory and near-flawless presentation. He started by appreciating the NFF for their thoughtfulness in seeing reason to honour them.

More importantly, Oliseh who is now a coach – only recently, was coach of Nigeria, said the award had done them a world of good. “This is the first time we are all coming together in the past 25 years. And I must confess that exactly nine days away from today(April 1), 25 years ago, on the 10th of April 1994, we shocked the world in style, when we won the Africa Cup of Nations”.

He said, “we are one big family although we hardly agreed on anything then. But as you see these guys here, the moment we put on the jersey, we became of one accord.”

He went memory lane. “I remember Uche Okechukwu then telling me(on the pitch), ‘Oliseh leave him[opponent], as him kick you, him go come to me,” he paused, leaving the crowded hall in suspense. He gathered himself and resumed his speech, “I remember, and this sometimes brings tears into my eyes. I remember the late wife of Stephen Keshi, she would cook special African dish, she would then bring the food to us in the hotel and we would share it among ourselves. That tells you the love we had for one another.

“As we look back; I am a coach now and I know how differently football is played today— full backs are asked to attack. We no longer have true number 9s anymore as what we have now is 9 and half. This started in 2008 but as at 1994, Daniel Amokachi was not a number 9, he was not even a number 10 as he was already playing 9 ½. So, he was ahead of his time. As at 1994 we had an overlapping left back and sometimes we used to beg him, ‘Ben please stay back, I don tire’.But he would still go(attack) and we would beat Ivory Coast.” The full house quaked in laughter and he added “with due respect.”

“At that time, all midfielders used to just carry the ball; then we had one small boy from Delta all he did was to fight for the ball and give to others to play. And as the time, God blessed us with the best striker this continent has ever seen. I am talking of Baba Rashidi. I will share something that he used to tell me: “Look Sunday don’t bother, just send the ball in(18-yard box). And this man had the most clinical finishing I have ever seen in my football career. I played with players like Philipo Inzagi, Zinedin Zidane and the likes but none came close to Yekini.

“Then we had one crazy number 10, Jay Jay Okocha. In as much as we have a very good relationship between us today, we clashed on the pitch on several occasions because I always screamed at him, ‘Jay Jay pass na,” laughter. “But I must confess, if I had a problem and I was crowded by opponents, I would give it to Jay Jay to find a solution. We were very complementary, from Dodo Mayana(Peter Rufai) to Baba Rashidi. But we could not have achieved anything we did without other players. For those who are below age 30 cannot understand this. We had over 30,000 fans watching us train as our training sessions were like real matches. For anybody who was going to wear the jersey on Saturday, if you didn’t give your 150%, not only would the Lagos fans kick you hard, there was somebody waiting on the bench to take your jersey and good luck to you if you lost it. And let us not forget, we had one man who brought us all together, Clemens Westerhof. He made us a family, a unit.”

Oliseh said he carried the battle for recognition for the class of ’94 Super Eagles beyond the shores of Nigeria. A proud product of the Nigerian national team, he recalled how he told his foreign friend, Zola about the achievements of his generation of Eagles in London. “For three years I was going in and out of London, to get my coaching license as I attended classes with people like Ryan Giggs, Oleg Solskjaer and they were always talking about England national team. One day I was sitting with Gianfranco Zola and I told him the last time England won something I was not born yet. I am going to tell you what these guys did, in 1993 these young guys qualified for the Africa Cup of Nations, in 1993 they qualified Nigeria for her first ever FIFA World Cup, in 1994, April 10 won the AFCON, in 1995, won the Afro-Asian Cup and in 1996, six members of this group won the Atlanta Olympic gold. They include Jay Jay Okocha, Victor Ikpeba, Emmanuel Amuneke, Daniel Amokachi, Sunday Oliseh, Taribo West and Uche Okechukwu. Why am I saying all these things? Ever since, people think we have problems amongst ourselves; it is far from truth. We know that without one another, we would not be having food on our tables today, we would be starving. We helped each other and we carried the ball for each other. Daniel[Amokachie] used to come and join me on the pitch to assist me when I was surrounded by three or more opponents. Because he was a 9 and half he used to come and join us. We also had Samson Siasia who was also coming in. Siasia was a number 9, but then we had the god of Nigerian attackers as number 9, Baba Rashidi, Finito and the team goes on”.

Considering the frosty manner he parted ways with the Nigeria Football Federation, Oliseh confessed he was reluctant to attend the event. Said he, “When the NFF invited me to come, the first thing I said to myself was, ‘why not just stay at home. But then I saw my colleagues were coming and I felt that at some point in life, we have to move forward. Nigeria have given everything we have and we have given everything we have to Nigeria. If we are not recognized, Nigeria will not produce another set. What will it take to name one street in every state ‘the Super Eagles of ’94 Street’? It doesn’t matter if the street is fine or not, but just the recognition.

“We thank you very much, We are grateful and we thank you for this event, we thank the NFF leadership and we thank you the most, Nigerians,”

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