16th March, 2019
Twenty-five years ago, the Super Eagles made history by winning the Africa Nations Cup and debut World Cup appearance. Two years later, they became world champions during the Atlanta 96 Olympics. For four days beginning from April 26, African soccer stars, government and sports officials, sponsors and aficionados will converge in Lagos for the silver jubilee of The Class of ’94 who made it possible, Michael Jimoh reports…
On or before Friday, April 26, 2019, the presidential jet of George Weah will depart from Monrovia, Liberia and touch down at Murtala Mohammed International Airport, Lagos. The one-time World and African Footballer of the Year will not be coming for a formal state visit or some discreet diplomatic mission. The president of Liberia will be in Lagos for what has always been dearest to his heart, what gave him international renown: football.
From his base in the United States of America and about the same time, Didier Drogba, another African Footballer of the Year, will be readying for a transcontinental flight to the same destination as the Liberian president. He too will be coming for the same football fiesta.
In the same week in Dakar, Senegal, El-Hadji Diouf, also African Footballer of the Year, would have had his International Passport stamped and other relevant travel documents approved for a scheduled flight to Lagos for the same soccer event.
Not far from the Bosporus in Turkey where he lives in understated elegance in a well-appointed apartment, the Cameroonian Samuel Eto, record holder as African Footballer of the Year – three times – would have packed his bag and baggage filled, no doubt, with gifts for family and friends to meet his colleagues in Lagos where he once enchanted soccer fans with his fancy footwork at different encounters with the Super Eagles.
With the exception of Victor Ikpeba who is here in Lagos, six more African Footballers of the Year such as Emmanuel Amunike, Kalusha Bwalya, Frederick Kanute, Patrick Mboma, Kanu Nwankwo and Abedi Pele, would have made similar preparations for international flights to Nigeria for a sporting event that would be holding for the first time on any African soil. It is not hard to see why.
In April 1994, the Super Eagles of Nigeria won the Africa Nations Cup in Tunis. That would be the second time, since 1980, Nigeria won the continental soccer tournament after a 14-year interval. In June of that same year, the Super Eagles qualified for the country’s first-ever Mundial. Two years later, they performed even more spectacularly by becoming world champions after winning the gold trophy in the Atlanta Olympics in America.
Along with the visiting African Footballers of the Year and across the continent, from Abidjan to Accra and Conakry, Lusaka to Johannesburg and Yaounde, soccer heavies such as Anthony Baffore, Aboubacar Titi Camara, Kaita Kader, Lua Lua Lomana, Geremi Ngitap, Lucas Radebe and Didier Zokora, would have left their bases in Africa or Europe and America to be part of the 25th anniversary reunion of footballers some of them played and joked with on and off the pitch.
In all, 37 former soccer stars, including Super Eagles player-turned coach Austin Eguavoen, Efan Ekoku, Emeka Ezeogu, Finidi George, Ben Iroha, Austin Jay-Jay Okocha, Emma Okocha and Sunday Oliseh are expected at the event. Michael Essien will fly in from the United Kingdom. Although not an African, Nakatea Hidetoshi is expected from Japan.
What is the reason for this convergence of soccer superstars from Africa and beyond in Lagos next month?
It is none other than to participate in, according to the organizers, “A celebratory project on the most triumphal moments of Nigeria football.” And, why the celebration? It was the first time, the organizers rightly boast, “a Nigerian team qualified for the final of a World Cup, the first Nigerian team to win a National cup away from home, the first African team to be rated fifth by FIFA world ranking, the twenty-fifth anniversary of yet unequalled excellence and proof that Nigeria can get to the heights with the resources we have.”
Celebrating this dream team, The Class of ’94, is why Weah and many of his counterparts will be in Lagos towards the end of next month.
Tagged “The Class of ’94: 25th Anniversary Reunion, A Celebratory Project on the Most Triumphant Moments of Nigeria Football,” the four-day ceremony will begin, as earlier said, on Friday, April 26 and end on Monday, April 29.
In the morning of that weekend, Ogbuefi Tony Nnachetta, the man whose brain child the entire project is, onetime commissioner in Anambra state, legendary sports administrator and a footballer himself having played for UNN in his undergraduate years, will be welcoming, along with dozens of sports officials from Nigeria Football Federation, some of these distinguished guests in the opening ceremony of what promises to be one of the most important sporting events in the annals of soccer in Nigeria.
In his cream-coloured office in the second floor of Nurses House on Churchgate Street, Victoria Island, Nnachetta met and spoke with senior sports journalists on Tuesday, April 12 on how he mooted the idea for The Class of ’94, preparations and expectations for the 25th anniversary reunion and thereafter.
“The vision for The Class of ’94 has been on for many years,” Nnachetta told the journalists who were seated on the two sides of an oval conference table. There was Michael Mayaki, Ralph…Kayode Tijani…, all of them sports casters, regular sports show hosts on radio and television.
Called TN by his friends, his idea was to do a series of newspaper articles on the exploits of the Super Eagles, beginning with their campaigns in Maroc 88, then Senegal 92. It never quite jelled because, as a busy banker, TN hadn’t much time. But with the Super Eagles victory in Tunis 94, the urge to do a coffee table publication bubbled in his mind more than ever before.
Placed side-by-side are two giant roll-up banners of the original squad of The Class of ’94. Squatting in the front from left is late Rashidi Yekini, Amunike, Oliseh, Emeka Ezeogu and Daniel Amokachi. Behind them from right is Peter Rufai (Dodo Mayana)…George, Uche Okafor, Samson Siasia and Okechukwu Uche. It is impossible not to be drawn to these banners once you step into TN’s office, now a physical and life-size representation of what started as a germ of an idea many years ago.
Sow a thought, it is often said, and you reap and idea. Sow an idea, it also goes, and you reap an action. Now, realizing the magnitude of what began as an idea, of the imminent actions to take place at three or so venues in Lagos, of literally bringing together the best crop of soccer stars in Africa from all over the world to celebrate and remember the most competent Nigerian football squad ever, TN mused to the reporters “I never thought of it in such lofty terms.”
The ceremonies themselves will be no less grand right from day one, when the dignitaries will be received at the State House. The celebrations proper will begin with a reunion during which, as TN put it, “the stars will come from far and near to hold a reunion and relieve those heady days that marked Nigeria’s soccer reawakening.”
In other words, a good number of the footballers themselves will recount their experiences – on and off the pitch – before, during and after the decisive matches The Class of ’94 played in those “magical years.” This will be part of the World Media Parley and Technical Symposium with the theme: “The last 25 years: Nigeria Football 1994 – 2019.” This first segment will take place between 8 and 1pm at Eko Hotel & Suites, Victoria Island.
From the hotel by the Atlantic Ocean, guests will move down to the mainland, this time, Onikan Stadium in Surulere for the Anniversary Classic match between Class of “94 and Africa Legends X1. Although Weah is keen on featuring for the Africa Legends X1, there is concern that a crunchy tackle from his opponents or jostle for an aerial lob over may cause some unintended presidential injuries. Nobody wants a repeat of what happened during Barack Obama’s first term in office when a beefy elbow mistakenly hit his jaw during a basketball square-off. Obama went around for days as if he had a fist-size mango stuck in his mouth.
Of course, old rivalries are sure to flare up in the course of play but not as tension-soaked as it used to be when Eto would run rings around the Super Eagles defense back in time. Besides, there will be no victor and no vanquished after the match, and no trophies either.
But there will be more than enough trophies to take home or your hotel suite when, three hours later from 7pm, the visiting soccer stars, their Nigerian counterparts, NFF Supporters Club and a bevy of beauties from Nollywood meet at a Jubilee Party at, again, the cozy interiors of Eko Hotel.
Can anyone imagine what could happen when world-acclaimed soccer stars rich as the Russian mafia meet with Nollywood nymphets as beautiful as Helen of Troy?
I can smell the mélange of perfumes in the air already; glimpse the well buffed stilettoes, the gowns, the tuxedos and blazers, starched brocades and the perpetual smiles that hurt cheek muscles.
That is precisely what the organizers intend for the evening. After chasing the ball on the pitch, after all the huffing and puffing, the grunts, the inevitable and constant spitting, the players have to unwind, take in “something.” And who better to keep them company than those gorgeous actresses from Nollywood, those who can hold their champagne flute properly, give the coquettish smile and also hold a decent conversation?
The programmes on the next day will surely be less romantic but they will be etched forever in the memories of everyone in attendance. First is the public presentation of a coffee table, all-gloss publication – The Class of ’94: The Most Triumphant Moments of Nigeria Football – of which TN himself is the publisher, with invaluable help from senior journalists and writers, Sonala Olumhense and Uzor Maxim Uzoatu as Executive and General Editor, respectively.
Those who have read it insist the book “is an authoritative record of the bravery and exploits which led to this ascendancy (of soccer in Nigeria) and tells us as never published before the direct pitch-side stories of The Class of ’94.”
In a recent review, a journalist crowed about the squad and the book thus: “It is hard to think of any subsequent squad surpassing the accomplishment of The Class of ’94 anytime soon. It is even harder to think of any publication covering the same period rivalling what the publisher and editors have achieved here.”
To be sure, the coffee table publication may certainly outlive the matches and parties because, to paraphrase the inimitable Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, stories lasts the longest in peoples’ memories for the very reason that they are documented.
In that regard, TN has also put together a TV documentary – a cinematic accompaniment to the written word – of The Class of ’94 which will be “screened in Nigeria, Africa and parts of the world.” A big cinema screen premiere is also in the offing.
Overall, the projects on the Class of ’94, as TN insists, is not only “to salute our past” but to also “eloquently inspire our future, a silver lining, a silver jubilee.” The projects will, as they unfold, “cumulatively provide a large platform for reaching millions of Nigerians and other citizens of the world…This celebration is an invitation to the new generations of Super Eagles and our youth that a wide swathe of hope and excitement will travel with their every move to excellence. Nigerians will relieve the exploits, salute the doggedness and associate with worthy achievers and through those gestures ignite the nation’s commitment to supporting our emergent heroes to soar towards greater exploits and loftier patriotism.”
TN couldn’t have been more apt for, as the defensive mid-fielder of the Class of ’94, Oliseh himself once reflected about his teammates soccer victories: “We had youthful exuberance, speed, technicality, endurance and patriotism.”
Another defensive mid-fielder, Youri Djorkaeff of France mulled over the subject of patriotism after Oliseh’s declaration when his adopted country qualified for the finals in France ’98 against the Brazilians. “We have 22 players who are poets and who are playing with their feet and their hearts.”
Les Bleus went on to defeat the Brazilians to win their first-ever World Cup!
On hindsight, there is no doubt The Class of ’94 thought with their blood, as Bismarck once exhorted Germans to do. Fired by such patriotic zeal, the Super Eagles, in the end, defeated more formidable opponents one after another on the pitch, thus becoming continental and world champions in the space of just two years.
The most patriotic duty of all goes to the author and finisher of the project itself, TN and his team, starting with SO and Maxim and several others credited with their various contributions in making TN’s dream come true.
For him, The Class of ’94 “is an act of love and salute to so many persons, players, administrators, aficionados, fans, fanatics, hangers-on and spectators, who collectively swayed the tempest of the Super Eagles from Maroc 88 to Tunisia 94 and beyond to the immediate fallout of the 1996 Atlanta Olympic.”
But to Nigerians in general and the squad in particular, the entire project is a veritable documentation of those magical years in soccer history in Nigeria, especially in a country where the relevant authorities easily gloss over such significant moments in history or are just not keen enough on such important archival materials, especially now that some of the core members of The Class of ’94 are deceased and would have been forgotten.