Senior Sports Editor
LIVERPOOL produced a grand spectacle on Sunday — transforming the city into the epicentre of world football’s greatest love story — as a red human wave of more than 750 000 people filled its streets to provide a fitting welcome to the heroes of Madrid after their conquest of Europe.
The famous English port city is also the home of the Beatles, the Grand National annual horse race and the most successful football city in England with its two major teams, Liverpool and Everton, winning a combined 27 Premiership titles, 12 FA Cups, 10 League Cups, six European Cups, one European Cup Winners Cup, three UEFA Cups and 24 FA Charity Shields.
Watching that extravaganza on Sunday, as Liverpool saluted its latest group of heroes, it was difficult to see any possible connection between this famous English port city and a high-profile international friendly match between Nigeria’s Super Eagles and the Zimbabwe Warriors in Asaba on Saturday.
The Super Eagles yesterday started their preparations for that match with two training sessions at the Stephen Keshi International Stadium in Asaba, where the man who captained them at the last World Cup in Russia, John Mikel Obi, one of the key players already in camp.
The most exciting Nigerian youth player, Villarreal winger Samuel Chukwueze, is also in camp after a brilliant debut season in La Liga in which he was named alongside Barcelona’s Ousmane Dembele, Real Madrid’s Vinicius Jr, Atletico Madrid’s Rodrigo Hernandez and Valencia’s Gonçalo Guedes on the illustrious list of the 12 best young talents in the Spanish top-flight league.
The 20-year-old Chukwueze has been compared to Arjen Robben when the Dutch flying winger was coming to the peak of his athletic powers.
Highly-rated Leicester City midfielder Wilfred Ndidi, who last year was linked with a possible move to Liverpool, joined the Super Eagles camp yesterday.
The Warriors are expected to leave for Nigeria on Thursday for the international friendly match two days later, which will kick-start the Super Eagles’ serious preparations for the AFCON final in Egypt next month, and the celebrations for the 70th anniversary of Nigeria’s senior national football team.
The Warriors will be marking half-a-century since the first group of national team players from this country plunged into a World Cup qualifier against Australia in Mozambique in 1969 with the contest needing three matches, after two draws in the first two contests, to provide a winner, with the Aussies eventually emerging triumphant.
The international friendly match will also come in the month and year in which this country will also mark 90 years since its first international football match in June 1929 against the visiting English amateur team during their tour of Southern Africa, which the visitors won 4-0 and 6-1.
But, what is the connection between the Nigerians’ 70th celebration of the Super Eagles, whose festivities start with the match against the Warriors, and the city of Liverpool still celebrating the arrival of a sixth European Cup on its doorsteps after the Reds’ 2-0 win over Tottenham Hotspur in Madrid on Saturday?
Well, the city of Liverpool was the first port of call for the Super Eagles back in 1949, when the first group of players to make up the Nigerian senior national football team went on their maiden tour.
And, in sharp contrast to what the Super Eagles have become today, a giant football nation that features regularly in the World Cup finals, the pioneer group went on their first tour of duty without boots for all the travelling players.
One of the English teams lined up to play against them even refused to do so, until the Nigerians got boots, and the visitors were soundly thrashed 8-0 in that game.
“By 1948, efforts were underway to form a national team built around players discovered at the Governor’s Cup,’’ the Africa Is A Country website says.
“Early star players in the national team were Dan Anyiam (Lagos UAC), Peter Anieke and Teslim Balogun (both of Lagos Railway). Nigeria’s first national team was named the UK Tourists, and after a few, unofficial warm-up games, went to the UK.
“The team had no shoes. The team boarded the RMSS Apapa on 16 August 1949 for a playing tour of England and arrived 9 (in) Liverpool 13 days later. The players who made the trip were goalkeepers Sam Ibiam (Port Harcourt), Isaac Akioye (Hercules, Ibadan) and defenders Justin Onwudiwe (Lagos Railway), Olisa Chukwura (Abeokuta), ATB Ottun (Lagos Marines), Isiaku Shittu (Lagos UAC), John Dankaro (Jos), Hope Lawson (Lagos Marine), Dan Anyiam (Lagos UAC), Okoronkwo Kanu (Land & Survey).
“Forwards — Mesembe Otu (Lagos Marine), Peter Anieke (Lagos Railway), Sokari Dokubo (Lagos Railway), Godwin Anosike (Lagos Railway), Tesilimi Balogun (Lagos Railway), Titus Okere (Lagos Railway), Etim Henshaw (Lagos Marine) and Edet Ben (Lagos Marine).
“Etim Henshaw was the team captain, making him our first ever national team captain. Teslim Balogun was the star.
“Nigeria’s first ever official game was against Marine Cosby, which we won 5-2.
“During the next game, against an Athenian League XI, the English refused to play if the tourists didn’t wear boots.
“The Tourists wore boots and lost, 8-0.
“The third game, which was generally agreed as the best, was a 2-2 draw with a Corinthians League XI. At the end of the tour of nine games, the team’s record was P9, W2, D2, L5. All five losses were with boots on.
“After the tour, Teslim Balogun was signed by Petersborough United, becoming the first ever Nigerian football export.
“On the return voyage home, the UK Tourists took on the new name, Red Devils, and stopped in Freetown, Sierra Leone.
“During that stopover in Sierra Leone, Nigeria played her first official game against another country, defeating Sierra Leone 2-0 on 8/10/49.’’
Interestingly, on their return home, the Super Eagles even assumed a new nickname, Red Devils, and considering what that now represents in world football — Manchester United — their transformation could not have ended with a more inappropriate name to the English city that first received them on their arrival there.
There will be celebrations in Asaba on Saturday, nothing as big as what unfolded in Liverpool on Sunday, but from travelling with no boots at the beginning, to winning three Nations Cup titles, this has been a good 70-year-old journey for the Nigerian Super Eagles.