Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Tribute to Sports Heroes

Haruna Olatunji Ilerika who died two weeks ago at 59 years has been roundly acknowledged by soccer enthusiasts and analysts as Nigeria’s all time best midfielder.
As Fabio Olanipekun, former sports manager of the Nigeria Television Authority (NTA), put it, “This country has lost the best midfielder that had ever traversed the Nigerian landscape. I saw Ilerika as both a school boy and national team player. The way Maradona was the centrality of the Argentine team was how Ilerika personified the Zumratul Islamia College soccer squad. It was the same tradition he carried into Stationary Stores and the Green Eagles.”
Another prominent ex- Green Eagle, Aloysius Atuegbu, nicknamed Blockbuster for his powerful shots, succumbed to stroke last May. Apart from being a major contributor to Nigeria ’s first African Cup of Nations win in 1980, he was also a well acknowledged factor in making his former club, Rangers International of Enugu, one of Africa ’s best football clubs at the time. He later went on to coach some local clubs and also the Under 17 national team. On the day of his demise, he was on his way to Ilorin to watch a league match, prompting the Nigeria Football League to observe a minute silence in his honour at all match venues across the country. Though laudable, that gesture is not enough compensation for someone who had contributed immensely to the growth of domestic soccer at all levels.
Like Atuegbu, Ilerika was phenomenal. Before he joined the Eagles in 1971 at the age of 22, he had put his stamp on the then prestigious Lagos Principals’ Cup as his abundant ball juggling skill was largely responsible for his school’s victory. At a time when developmental football had the attention it deserved, the late soccer maestro polished his talent and soon became a star whose praises were a part of sporting folklore in Nigeria. He became an instant role model for the youth, first in Lagos and later, nationally.
The five years Ilerika spent in the national team were characterised by his unique contributions to a side whose major driving force was the hunger to bring glory to her fatherland. While he lived, he always confessed that his greatest moment was the day Nigeria clinched gold in the football event of the 2nd All African Games in 1973 in Lagos. Before that historic match against Guinea, former Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon, summoned the players to Dodan Barracks and told them pointedly that only the top prize was expected from them. Eventually, it was the late master dribbler’s pass to Oyarekhua that gave Nigeria the much needed victory. He was in the Africa 11 that played in Mexico at the time.
Sadly, however, for someone who had sacrificed much of his talent, energy and time for the nation, his post-playing years, like those of many of his peers, were spent not only in obscurity but also in courtship with poverty. For him, his later position as vice-chairman of Lagos State Football Association was a Due ex Machina, a narrow means of escape.
Considering the fact that in those days the kind of robust remuneration for sportsmen and women that exists today was lacking, managers of sports should as a matter of policy design creative ways of empowering men and women who had made this nation proud at various international fora. That would serve as catalyst for sports development here and give hope to those who have noble sporting aspirations.
Also, the often despondent conditions of many sports heroes and heroines in the country should serve as lesson for the present crop of sports personalities. After all, no responsible person should shift the task of planning for his future to others, not even the government. Adokiye Amiesimaka, ex-Green Eagle, was right in his admonition to the current generation of athletes. His words: “It is incumbent on everyone to see good times as an opportunity to prepare for more challenging times. There are some football players today who earn enough to make them millionaires in any currency. But do they realise that the time will come when they may no longer command such income? The sooner players realised that they are on their own once their playing days are over, the better.”
Ilerika did give his best to his chosen vocation and his country. For that, not even death can erase his memories from the minds and hearts of his compatriots. That surely should be the lot of whoever pursues the pride of his country with zeal.