Peter Anieke: The Soccer Legend Must Not Die


By Kola Johnson

I remember my glorious days in Ibadan, as always, with great nostalgia. One of the greatest things to have happened to me, were those great moments of the 70s marking my sojourn in that awesomely exotic ancient city.

I was in Agbowo area, proximally opposite the University of Ibadan – today an academic citadel of ephemerally atrophied fame and acclaim. Time was in the late 70s. I was then in the employ of B.E.A.M Nig Ltd as an accounts clerk.

I had as was usually customary on most weekends at that time, ventured from my Oke-Ado residence in the UMC area – to visit a bosom friend living and working in the area, with a construction company.

At that spot of fun located within the conurbation of bars in the area, I was rudely awakened by jitters of sudden shocking awareness. It struck like a nightmare; a chimerical picturesque of some evil genius residing in the discountenable eye of fantasy. I had wished indeed it were at best a mere fantasy and nothing but fantasy. Alas it was real.

Sam Opone and Segun Olumodeji, right before us in starkly face – to –face presence, in proximal bosomly contiguity on the same table of bacchic frenzy with my host friend and I.

In those good old days of the 60s and 70s the two soccer icons of the Stationery Super Stores and history-making heroes of the Mexico Olympics of 1968 were literally worshipped and idolized by the teeming mass of Nigerian soccer fanatics. Yes, Sam Opone and Segun Olumodeji of the Stationery Super Stores, who locked horns with the Pele-led squad of visiting Santos Football Club of Brazil at the famous Onikan Stadium in an energy sapping encounter, which ended 2-2 at the height of soccer glory of the legendary Pele.

As they narrated their real tale of woes it became increasingly clear that this was real; indeed a distant departure from an apparitional make-belief. It was a touching real tale, pavid with stirring pathos and laments, only expiated by intermittent burst of nostalgic ecstasy verging – as they would spontaneously recall throughout that evening – on their conquests and exploits at the apotheosis of soccer fame and glory.

At such moment they exuded flush of radiance availing only to naught in obfuscating the paraphernalia of  severe life’s buffeting all too  visible in the all-encompassing facets of their persona. It was a sorry sight to say the least.

On similar vein of interactive experience, I recall my intimate personal encounter with the legendary Haruna Ilerika described by Segun Odegbami in a befittingly deserved appraisal, as the most distinguished school boy player in the annals of secondary school soccer in Nigeria – just as Sam Omatseye the distinguished columnist and chairman editorial  board of The Nation newspapers – describing him in deservedly superlative terms – exalted him to giddy heights as the greatest footballer in the annals of Nigerian soccer – over-rating him even far and above the one and only Thunder Tesilimi Akanni Balogun, the all-time legend of Nigerian soccer.

My first and last personal encounter with Ilerika was in the late 90s, even though we had lived in the same Ebute-Metta area in Lagos state, for over three decades. The day in question I was at the Adekunle Bus-stop right in front of  the petrol station near the Third Mainland bridge – with a childhood friend who was also a primary school mate during our pupilage at Apostolic Church primary school in the same Ebute-Metta area.

All the while, I had noted –  though with cognitive fix of unconsciousness – a figure emerging  from the other side of the lane on Herbert Macaulay street. He was obviously coming from Bornu Way family house of his father, where he then resided and even lived there after, throughout his sojourn on earth.

As the figure in question approached, while I was enwrapped in the conversation with my friend, “Baba Haruna”, my friend suddenly uttered in momentary interruption of the hitherto progressing conversation as he stretched forth his hand in conjoining exchange of greetings with the waiting hands of the soccer legend.

“That’s Haruna Ilerika,” my friend and ex-classmate revealed to my utter disbelief, as the soccer genie, dribbling wizard and magician; hero of the 1976 Nations Cup in Ethiopia otherwise Known as the battle of Dire-Dawa— the motivating dynamo of Stationery Super Stores of golden memory and generalissimo of the 1973 All Africa Games… struggled with a handful of people to catch a Danfo bus arriving handy on the spot. For moments that looked almost like eternity I was literally transfixed.

Close to 25 years following his retirement from active soccer, llerika languished in the dungeon of excruciating life’s buffeting until Fashola–cum-Tinubu  genius of humanitarian empathy, availed via an official appointment even if belatedly; as a redeeming messianism.

And just as the ex-soccer magician was beginning to savour his salutarily transmogrified fortune, the sardonic spectre of cruel death, riding on the wing of a devastating liver problem struck; thus dispatching him the ultimate way of all mortals. Now imagine if the redeeming opium, even as belated, has not availed as a countervailing respite to the grimmer option of absolute non-remembrance.

Ungracious spectacles as hitherto witnessed – which may have been entrenched and notoriously systematized as a compensatory code of national appreciation, again finds poignantly living exemplification in Peter Anieke, the soccer wizard – like Sam Opone and Segun Olumodeji of the Stationery Super Stores – hero of the history making Green Eagles at the Mexico Olympics and also member of the squad that engaged the Pele-led Santos FC into a 2-2 draw at the famous Onikan Stadium in February 1969.

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Teeming mass of readers, who by whatever means, were opportune to access the edition of The Nation in question would have gleaned from that piece – even as sketchy as it were – sufficiently informative hint to vivify in poignant clarity, the accomplished exploit and conquest as had earned him – through his popular appellation of Eusebio – the equalitarian parity with Eusebio, the Portuguese legend of African extraction, who beheld the firmament of global soccer like a colossus.

To be sure, the picture be held on that page of the interview  was certainly not Peter Anieke-resplendent as he was in those days – in his trademark radiance, confidence, boisterous streak and bravura, agile spring, versatility and lively bounce.

No. Certainly no – in the sepulchral imanation, grotesque mournfulness, apparitional scare, chimeric re-creation and buffeting of wicked fate, expressed in the disproportionately overweening mass of flesh and tissues tethering to an abnormal behemoth obesity obfuscating the original facsimile identity of the true Peter Anieke, as he writhed in terrible pains.

Can you imagine the revulsive angst and anguish as might in righteous indignation, have spurred such celebrated symbol of soccer acclaim to bilious rejection of the trade that fetched him fame – for which he would vow without compunction, to deflate any football brought into his house by any of his children.

Going through a historical magazine sometime ago, I remember having been greeted with the pitiable plight of Pa Sam Ibiam, first goalkeeper of the national team, then known as the Red Devil; and also a member of the popular U.K. tourist –  first Nigerian national team to go on playing tour of the U.K. in 1949.

At over 85 years of age, no one remembers him. Today he languishes in the limbo of total forgetfulness, devoid of any signal gesture of appreciation or courtesy befitting a hero, patriot and ambassador of his exalted status – not even due defrayal of his entitlement as a retired public officer in the state’s sports ministry, where he served. Just initiate any discussion on soccer, Pa Ibiam would quickly cut in that it doesn’t tickle his fancy.

Yet, the import of Sam Ibiam’s case consists – as it bears pertinent need to emphasize – in his iconic symbolism as the only member hitherto living – of the history-making U.K. tourists of 1949. In this would we see for those who care to know – the doting old man as a rich mine of treasure, and a living antiquity of an infinitely monumental proportion. This we, however, fail to see true to our familiar pattern of character.

Today, neither are they seen nor for them, any empathic identification of whatever hue. In all these, one thing is however certain; and this is an aspect to which I give it to Nigerians as deserving of great kudos. I mean the crocodilian lachrymal that was bound to awash the honorific elegy in the ultimate advent of death.

The signal culture of ingratitude to our sports hero as notoriously waxed already to behemoth dimension in the particular hemisphere of our own nation-space becomes more particularly galling in the context in which such code of compensation is seen as standard metaphor writ large in other spheres of national endeavours.

Reason for this is not far-fetched. Sports today is the only universal language, with a transcendental supranational over-reach – cutting across race, tribe, sex, and creed. Whereas Karl Marx, the communist ideological progenitor did once describe religion as the opium of the masses – today, the world of sports, football in particular, has beaten religion to it, and hands down too. It has taken the centre-stage far and above religion – as the dominant opium of the masses.

The furious zeal and zest with which the average man on the street identifies with foreign leagues, clubs and football stars is simply amazing to say the least.  It’s better witnessed or seen than imagined. Words indeed fail to adequately express it.

Yet it would surprise you to know that the greater chunk of these soccer confessors and devotees comprise the stark illiterates who elevate their fanatical identification with the exotic alien foreign league beyond giddy religiosity – which the more accentuates the upper hand opium of soccer in the contemporary order – above the Marxist postulated opium of religion and its supra-national transcendentalism as the only universal language intelligibly understood by all, irrespective of tribe, nationality, race, colour, sex, creed or religion.

In the past such was the scenario, even in the hemisphere of the indigenous Nigerian league, oozing as it were then, with remarkable vigour and vitality.

The magic to this is not far-fetched. It would be found in the committed patriotism of the Peter Aniekes. the Haruna Ilerikas, the Segun Olumodejis, the Sam Opones and co. These are exemplary role models who in their days, swot out their heart, for love of the game and sheer love of fatherland. Today, it’s a shadow of the good old days. Dedication, patriotism and the likes has gone to the dogs, if not vanished into thin air. How else could it have been with our notorious code of national appreciation, as exemplified in the disappointing metaphor of the Peter Anieke treat?

What inspirational appeal does this project to the present generation who are ready to extract even more than their pound of flesh – even with their tardy disposition to national call – comfortable as they are, in the habitat of their familiar foreign post. Peter Anieke must not die or else, Nigeria would be worse off for it.

•Johnson is a writer and journalist.

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