Monday, December 15, 2008

Adieu, Haruna Ilerika

IT was with profound shock that myself and members of my family received the news of the passing on of Alhaji Haruna Ilerika, former Stationary Stores FC of Lagos and Nigerian Green Eagles Centre-forward player as beamed by a Lagos-based private television station on Thursday, December 4, 2008 on its 9.45 p.m. news bulletin. The harsh reality of Ilerika's demise dawned on me when the television news clip showed how the casket was lowered into mother earth by the Islamic clerics and officials at Atan Cemetery Yaba, Lagos and I exclaimed: "Why Ilerika?"

Indeed, my interaction with the master dribbler dates back to the 1971/72 football season when he joined the Stationery Stores FC of Lagos, after a brief stint with the defunct Metal Construction Football Club (Apapa) after having led the Zumratul-Islamiya Grammar School , Surulere to victory in the 1970 Principals' Cup football competition for secondary schools in Lagos State at the Onikan Stadium.

On Saturday May 22, 1972, Alhaji Ilerika shared the line-up of Stationery Stores FC in a 2-2 drawn friendly match with Dundee United FC of Scotland with team captain late Mr. Augustine Offuokwu ("mazeli"), goalkeeper Peter Fregene, defender Daniel Ajibode, midfielder Sanni Mohammed (now in Ghana), Akintayo Aro, Yomi Peters, Jibrin (Ghanaian player), the then school-boy sensation Harvey Awotoro, Tanko and another player coached by late Stores FC Ghanaian born Mr. Dodoo Quartey and Lagos State Sports Council assigned Coach the late Mr. Jide Johnson who passed on in 1985. Coach Quartey took over the mantle of coaching from Coach Peter 'Eto' Amaechina.

Undoubtedly, the crowning glory of late Alhaji Ilerika's football career came on Thursday January 18, 1973 when Nigeria defeated Guinea 2-0 in the final of the second All Africa Games at the National Stadium, Surulere, Lagos along with prominent players such as goalkeeper Emmanuel Okala (Rangers FC Enugu), Sanni Mohammed (Stores FC Lagos), Morton Owolo (Sharks FC Port Harcourt), late goalkeeper Eyo Essien (Bendel Insurance FC Benin), Sunday Oyarekhua (Police FC Lagos), late Mathias Obianika (Rangers FC Enugu), Sylvester Egborge (Bendel Insurance), Kenneth Olayombo (Nigerian Army FC Lagos), Dominic Ezeani (Rangers FC Enugu), Sam Ikedi (Bendel Insurance), Anthony Ottah (Bendel Insurance), late Yakubu Mambo (Stores FC), Sunny Izebhigie (Bendel Insurance), Anthony Igwe alias "World No.2" (NEPA FC Lagos but previously a Stores FC player), Gideon Njoku (ACB) FC Lagos), team captain Victor Oduah (Bendel Insurance) and Godwin Achebe (Rangers FC Enugu). The team was coached by Mr. Jorge Penna (Brazil) with late Chief Shola Rhodes (Senior Advocate of Nigeria) as overall team manager.

On the vexed issue of reward for dedicated service to our fatherland Nigeria, it is only members of the aforementioned gold medal winning team who can confirm whether or not some rewards were promised the players at that time by our political and sports leadership but which have not been fulfilled to date, to the chagrin of the footballers. My humble advice is that it is never too late to reward hard-work and dedication.

In the intensive preparations/camping for the 1980 football Cup of Nations tournament hosted by Nigeria, the Chief Coach, late Brazilian Professor Otto Gloria and his assistant Professor Calleso were reportedly very impressed with the natural talents and dribbling skills of late Chief Ilerika which fitted well into the Brazilian philosophy of entertaining football but the camping/logistics arrangements did not quite favour the midfield maestro hence he did not make the team which eventually won the cup.

After playing a prominent role in the 1981 African Cup Winners Club competition which Stores FC narrowly lost 2-1 to Union Douala FC of Cameroun on Saturday December 5, 1981 at the National Stadium, Surulere, Chief Ilerika moved on to the team's technical bench and many Stores FC supporters were happy that their beloved player was now an "official" of the team. Of course he was rewarded with the 1982 National Challenge Cup Gold Medal after Stores FC defeated Niger Tornadoes of Minna, Niger State by 4-1 on Saturday, October 30 1982 (see The Guardian newspaper, Friday, October 31, 2008, page 14 - "The Real Flamingoes").

When in August 1992, I was admitted as an Associate Member of the Lagos State Branch of the Sports Writers Association of Nigeria (SWAN) and I sought Chief Ilerika's support in updating me on football matters, he assured me of his cooperation at all times especially as I have over the years proved to be a genuine and authentic Stores FC supporter and I often marvelled at his accommodating nature and disposition. He did not carry the air of an "international soccer star" and never insisted on "previous appointment" before granting me audience.

On Wednesday August 26, 2006, I called at the Borno Way Ebute-Metta residence of late Chief Ilerika to clarify some matters of "Urgent football importance" and luckily, he was available at home - this was after I had concluded a meeting with some officials of the Lagos State Board of Internal Revenue at No. 20, Jebba Street, Ebute-Metta, together with one top Executive of a Lagos Island-based Cooperative Society. As usual, I was better educated and enlightened after the discussions.

What has now turned out to be my last personal interaction took place on Thursday August 12, 2007 at the Agege Stadium/Pepsi Football Academy Training Ground where late Chief Ilerika, Coach Amusa Shittu (alias "Bulldozer") - who was coach/player when NEPA FC of Lagos won the National Challenge Cup in 1970; together with Pepsi Football Academy Director Coach Kashimawo Laloko and Mr. Segun Adenuga, Sports Journalist/former Team Manager of Stationery Stores FC of Lagos were conducting screening exercises for young footballers for some competitions. The main purpose of my trip to the Agege Stadium was to seek Chief Ilerika's assistance in screening some young footballers who are my contacts with a view to enlisting their services in local clubs if they are found suitable to which he agreed without any hesitation whatsoever.

When one of the private radio stations in Lagos announced some months ago that Chief Haruna Ilerika had successfully performed the Holy Pilgrimage to Mecca, I was happy that he had been able to fulfill one of the five pillars of Islam and as we mourn his departure from this rather temporary world, I join the immediate and extended families, Stationery Stores supporters, the Lagos State Government and the entire Nigerian nation in praying that Allah in His infinite mercies should grant the Master Dribbler Aljanat Amen. Adieu, Haruna Ilerika!