Sitting at the Onikan Stadium two Sundays watching the first Lagos derby in years between top-flight debutants Ikorodu United and MFM FC, I could not help wondering what a different atmosphere it would have been were Stationary Stores FC somehow involved in the clash. It was a fine match in the end, but history takes time to build. During the game I was seated next to the irrepressible football aficionado Godwin Dudu Orumen, who like me is a strong supporter of Bendel Insurance FC of Benin, and he told me a little story once told him by Nigeria great Segun Odegbami which pretty much put things in perspective for me. In 1978 when the exciting young Bendel Insurance put together by Alabi Aisien won the Challenge Cup, they met Odegbami’s IICC Shooting Stars in the semi-finals and beat them 2:0. At about that time the Green Eagles were in camp and Odegbami got some ribbing from Chairman Christian Chukwu who teased him, saying: “Why una let those small boys beat una like that?” Chukwu’s Rangers, at a time they were almost invincible, then met Insurance in the final and fared even worse, losing 3:0. Odegbami was waiting for him when he returned to camp. He had hidden under his blanket pretending to be asleep when Chukwu entered the room and he ‘woke up’ to gleefully ask “Eh Chairman, na wetin happen, why una allow those small boys mess una like that?” The Nigerian Professional Football League has a rich history and it tells a thousand stories. Unfortunately, most of its secrets are buried in the struggles of the giants that made us fall head over heels with the local game, and we must find a way to bring them back.
Back in those days, Rangers and IICC virtually owned the national team, while Insurance had players who were hardly known outside Benin City. After that incredible run though the Vipers became an authentic Nigerian heavyweight. That match more than any other cemented my love for Insurance that lasts till this day, although we are – painfully – currently in the lower tier. Almost 39 years later, I remember how I followed the match that day and where I was. Bunched together behind our house prefect’s cubicle, I and a number of other junior students listened to exciting commentary from a transistor radio as the great Ernest Okonkwo cranked up the fever as the Vipers thrashed the Flying Antelopes, with Henry Ogboe scoring a brace.
I for one have only ever loved one football club, and that is Insurance… Up Bede!!! So deep is my history and affection for this club that I have remained unflinching in my support decades after I found myself in the Delta half of what used to be Bendel State. Maybe I should now be supporting Warri Wolves or maybe I should help resuscitate Ethiope FC of Sapele (later NNB), the small town where I grew up. However probably because of reasons of that “first cut”, I remain a proud fan of the club that made the likes of Felix Agbonifo, Khadiri Ikhana, Francis Moniedafe, Leotis Boateng and lately Osaze Odemwingie.
Hopefully, someday soon we will back in the top-flight and the old rivalries will resume between the trident of Rangers, Shooting Stars and Insurance, clubs that still have loyal supporters living in countries around the world. There can be no denying that this would help fuel the recent efforts to make the league great again, by attracting more fans and consequently sponsors and advertisers.
However fans of the Vipers must press the Edo state governor, His Excellency Adams Oshiomole, to help raise the club again. I hear he is not interested in football and such is the fate of our clubs that how they fare is usually down to the preferences of the governor of the day. Maybe next week I will articulate a case on why Edo State needs Bendel Insurance in the NPFL and how this is good for the state’s economy, maybe that way I can sway the big oga at the top to support the club. To be clear, I am not a supporter of government bankrolling clubs, but I am also not one who supports the strangulation of a strong brand like Insurance that still enjoys relatively strong support from Nigerians globally. If the government cannot run this club competitively, then the thing to do is to sell it off to a competent and interested private investor or consortium of investors. The Nigerian league is gathering momentum once again and this is as good a time as any to get Insurance back on its feet.
As mad as this may sound, with Insurance missing from the top-flight, I have opted to support one of our biggest foes Rangers International this season. So nostalgic have I been of what our league once was that these days I yearn endlessly for any bit of its history I can keep. I am even very pleased with the work coach Khadiri Ikhana (a legendary Insurance defender), is doing at Shooting Stars. My interest in the NPFL has been helped in no small way by the fact that I have never been caught in the flight to European football and the seemingly unwavering support for their clubs by Nigerians. First I am too proud to live the dreams of other men. Second, simple economics tells me that I am impoverishing myself by abandoning my domestic game and enriching other societies instead. Third, I want to pass something to my children, something successful and Nigerian, stories that make them realize that they are not in this world as passengers or cheerleaders.
It is commendable that the tenacity of the League Management Company has helped the NPFL find some stability in recent years. This season has taken off brightly and hopefully many more Nigerian fans will be swayed once again. The atmosphere at the Onikan Stadium was great, people came with friends and family, including little children, to enjoy the live entertainment. However our conversations on the two clubs did not run too deep because their histories will take time to build. Instead we turned to the stories from the league as we once had it. Clearly there exists a void that I believe can be filled if somehow we can find a way to make the likes of Rangers, IICC, Insurance and Stores into title contenders once again. There needs to be a conscious effort by all stakeholders to push for the return of these big brands, giants of our game around whom endless stories are told. That should see the NPFL attract more fans from a latent support base and lead to the sort of success we all hope for.
Tell us you NPFL story
Lots of Nigerian football fans have exciting stories to tell from their time as avid followers of the domestic league in the 70s and 80s. Email me the best of your stories, or share them with us through your comments under this story on the This Day website. Let’s hear them and who knows, we could do a special on them.