FIRST TIME: Nigerian Team Went to UK in 1949 – They played bare-footed
By BANKE AKINLAJA:
It was in 1949 when strong Nigerian football team – the first ever to leave West Africa and, who played nine matches in five weeks against top English amateur side, went on a month’s tour to Europe. In all probability, many of our present generation are not familiar with most of these heroes. This team played an important role in the history of the Nigerian national football team.
The early colonizers were from the merchant classes, a social class which tended to be more brazen than the aristocratic, polo-playing settlers of east and southern Africa. Football was developed in order to evoke a sense of national pride within the host population as well as deflect criticisms about the way the country was being run. The Football Federation of Nigeria was established as a white-led organization, and rumours abounded about the corrupt practices of the board; for example, hiring all the best indigenous players to prop up their own civil service and industrial teams.
The current Super Eagles got where they were today because of the pioneering efforts of some players who are long forgotten. Before the present Nigerian football players, there were the UK Tourists. It was a team of barefooted magicians carefully selected from various clubs and sections. The players, aged between 20 and 29, were made up of two teachers, two clerks, seven railway employees and members of the Nigerian Marine Department, an offshoot of our own Royal Navy. They were to represent the country in their first ever outing friendly match in a European country.
The 18-man squad comprised of goalkeepers Sam lbiam (Port Harcourt), Isaac Akioye (Hercules, lbadan); Justin Onwudiwe (Lagos Railway), Olisa Chukwura (Abeokuta); ATB Ottun (Lagos Marines), Lsiaku Shittu (Lagos UAC); John Dankaro (Jos), Hope Lawson (Lagos Marine); Dan Anyiam (Lagos UAC), Okoronkwo Kanu (Land & Survey); 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).
The discretionary practice of selecting these footballers from the best schools and professions for the tour enabled the white administrators of Nigerian football to show off the excellent ‘civilising’ effects of their presence in the colony. They were selected to go on the tour to see how they would fare against some of England’s leading amateur teams and representative sides.
Nevertheless, it is concluded that there were some positive elements to this tour, since it led to the ‘Europeanisation’ of Nigerian football, which enabled them to play professionally in football boots, when previously, they were barefooted amateurs. The legacy of the continued development of Nigerian football enabled the national team to qualify for their first ever World Cup Finals in 1994, some 45 years after their first football encounter outside Africa.
The team was led by the NFA Chairman, Captain D.H. Holley, who was the team manager. On August 16, 1949, the players dressed in grey trousers and olive green blazers with a badge emblazoned with the initials NFA and with ‘United Kingdom 1949’ woven underneath, were seen off by a large crowd that included the Bishop of Lagos and many important African and European personalities. There was also a message of support from the Governor-General, Sir John McPherson.
The players travelled third class by sea for the two-week voyage. They had to run round the deck four times every morning to keep fit. On board were the greatest heroes of the time, whom many will only have heard of in folklore and oral tradition. With post war Britain still under rations, the visitors brought plenty of their own supplements of yam, oil, rice, jam, pepper, dried shrimps and hams.
The players arrived on 29 August, 1949, at the Port of Liverpool and met by John Finch, a former Fulham forward, who had been appointed as the coach. On disembarking, the players and the officials were interviewed by the BBC. They also listened to instructions from their manager, Captain D.H. Holley.
The commentator explained that ‘a telegram from the Duke of Edinburgh gave them a hearty welcome,’ while the players embarked on a training session with their coach, John (Jack) Finch, the famous Fulham football star.
There was also a welcome message from the Duke of Edinburgh. They were scheduled to play nine matches in the four weeks they were to stay in the United Kingdom.
Off the field, the Nigerian squad was put in the very capable hands of Andrew T. Ralston, representative of the Football Association, to ensure all the arrangements ran smoothly. Ralston knew more about the amateur game than most and in a bygone age as a player and official of the London Caledonians, he was a great friend of the Dulwich Hamlet club.
His efforts throughout the tour enabled the visitors to train at the Arsenal, Everton and Darlington grounds and attend some top flight First Division matches at Stamford Bridge and White Hart Lane.
The players walked out, barefoot, for their first match against Marine Crosby at Liverpool. In this first match, the Nigerians won 5-2.
This match, in front of 7,000 supporters in Liverpool, assumed particular significance as Liverpool had been the scene of ‘anti-Black riots’ in August 1948. White mobs, encouraged by the National Union of Seamen’s campaign to exclude black seamen from British ships, attacked hostels and clubs that catered for black seamen.
In front of a crowd of 7,000 spectators, the NFA team, playing barefoot, showed their ability to move the ball where they wanted and to shoot with great speed and strength. Their next encounter was against Bishop Auckland, where they lost 2-5.
Culled from: HISTORICAL Flashback, The Nigerian National Memoirs (WEDNESDAY JAN.9 – TUES. FEB.5, 2013).