FOOTBALL is a game of passion. To some, it is a religion. So passionate is football that in 1969, two countries, El Salvador and Honduras, went to war over their qualifying matches for the 1970 Mexico City World Cup. The conflict, called the ‘Soccer War’ or ‘Hundred Hours War’ was a spill-over from disagreements and violence on the football field.
In the first game played at Tegulcigapa on June 8, 1969, host, Honduras won 1–0, and there was violence. In the second leg played seven days later in San Salvador, the host won 3–0, and greater violence. On June 27, 1969, the day of the play-off match in Mexico City, El Salvador broke off diplomatic ties. It won the decider 3-2 at extra time.
After the riots on the field fuelled by existing tension between both countries, on July 14, 1969, El Salvador with 1,000 aerial forces, poured 30,000 soldiers into Honduras.
The latter fought back with its 23,000 soldiers and an effective 600-aerial forces. El Salvador lost 900 soldiers and civilians, while Honduras lost 2,100 in a vicious war that lasted 100 hours. A July 18, 1969 ceasefire brought it to an end. In the World Cup proper, El Salvador was eliminated in the first round after losing their first three matches.
When I was a child, a football hero Nigerians identified with was a policeman, Sunny Oyarikhua. He played for the Police Machine football club and the national team and was the country’s goal-scoring machine. Sometimes on my way to school at the Araromi Baptist School, Moloney Street, Lagos, I would run into Oyarikhua in uniform coming from the opposite Race Course end, and would join other school kids clapping and shouting “Oyarikhua! Oyarikuhua!! Oyarikhua!!!”
Initially after flashing his legendary smile, he would urge us to go on to school so we will not be late. But we would refuse and see him off to the gates of the Police Headquarters in Moloney, where he would wave and disappear while we gave a final shout and start going to school. He was our idol.
Segun ‘Mathematical’ Odegbami, one of the greatest footballers in Nigerian history and a sports expert said of Oyarikhua: “He had pace and power, always at the right spot at the right time in the box, pouncing on loose balls and ‘burying’ them behind opposing goalkeepers. He was so consistent that many football fans described him as a goal-scoring machine. He had the nose for ‘smelling’ and scoring goals.”
In the bloody days of military dictatorship when any form of gathering not approved by security forces was declared illegal, the pro-democracy movement, the Campaign for Democracy, CD, decided to hold a press conference at the Nigeria Union of Journalists, NUJ Lighthouse, Adeyemo Alakija Street, Victoria Island. The regime declared it illegal and banned it. When I arrived the venue with CD leader, Dr. Beko Ransome-Kuti, the street had been occupied by a long line of police vehicles filled with armed policemen.
Just before the press conference commenced, we got information that the police had disembarked and was about storming the venue. I led some journalists and activists to confront them. We met on the corridor of the press centre, and I froze. Leading the police charge was Oyarikhua! I shouted to my team to stop. I told them this was our childhood hero, Sunny Oyarikhua. How do we tell our children that we fought a man who gave so much to our country, including ensuring Nigeria won the football gold medal at the 1973 Second All Africa Games?
With teary eyes, I told him that I knew the Nigeria Police Force has little or no honour, and doubtlessly a very poor public image, but I did not realise the force is so useless that it would send its best known public face on a dirty mission to stop Nigerians from expressing themselves. Oyarikhua seemed stung, he turned round and sprinted out, followed by his men. Within minutes the entire police contingent had disappeared.
The next time I met Oyarikhua was in 2000 when he appeared before the Lagos State Civil Disturbances Tribunal. I was a member of the tribunal and whispered to the Chairman and members that this was Sunny Oyarikhua, a national hero. He was treated with the respect deserving a man who contributed so much to our national development.
Then, on September 3, 2021, I read Odegbami’s column in the Vanguard Newspapers that Oyarikhua had suffered a stroke, is bedridden and, “now unable to walk or talk audibly and is slowly being drained of life. He needs help.” There was a photograph of Oyarikhua in a not too tidy surrounding.
I sent a message to Odegbami: “Is it not worth asking the Police to take adequate care of Oyarikhua? Should we do a fund raising for him?” Odegbami replied he is open to suggestions. Fellow Nigerians, if neither the Police nor our brother, the Sports Minister, Sunday Dare, responds positively to Oyarikhua’s situation within four weeks, please let us raise funds for this national hero.
The man who replaced Oyarikhua as the goal-scoring machine for our national team was Thompson Usiyen. In the 1975 Second National Sports Festival, Usiyen from Hussey College, Warri appearing for the Mid West Academicals, played only in the last match as a substitute, scored a much needed goal and mesmerised all with his dribbles. The nation was struck: who is this? It had found a replacement for Oyarikhua!
But my family had known Usiyen before the nation discovered him. No, not on the football field. Some of my immediate and extended families lived at 44, Obalende Road, Lagos (‘Okonkwo’s compound’). Then living on the first floor was the Usiyen family, and Thompson, a cousin, used to visit. My late brother married one of our Usiyen neigbhours.
Sports analyst, Godwin Dudu-Orumen described Usiyen as: “The best striker ever to play for Nigeria. He could create chances for himself, dribbled well, headed well and could shoot with either foot. He was very skilful and technically gifted.” After two years of scoring goals for Nigeria, Usiyen decided to score one for himself by accepting an American scholarship to study and play in that country.
Usiyen’s departure created a big gap in the national team which could not be filled for about a decade. Dudu-Orumen argued like many Nigerians that: “His (Usiyen’s) absence from the Green Eagles v Tunisia (match) in the second leg of the WC Qualification game in Lagos was probably the one big reason Nigeria didn’t make the World Cup in 1978.”
Tragically, on August 31, 2021 in America, Thompson Usiyen fell to an eternal goal by colon cancer.