Football made a lot of difference during the Nigerian Civil War. While Biafra had no active national team, some names that were qualified to be fighting wearing the Sun badge turned up doing battle for Nigeria in the field of play.
The prominent ones among them grew up in Jos playing as Academicals. Sam Garba Okoye had captained the Nigerian School team to defeat their Ghanaian counterparts home and away, for the very first time in 1965. Tony Igwe was born in Barkin Ladi. Peter Anieke scored in Accra and again in Lagos against Ghana.
Austin Ofuokwu and Sam Opone were senior players who also hailed from the Mid-West Region, like Anieke. They stayed behind in Lagos and were joined by Tony Igwe. Okoye remained in Jos all through the crisis.
Anieke relocated to Lagos at the end of the 1965 season. He was in the Plateau team that lost yet another Challenge Cup final, to Electricity Corporation of Nigeria [ECN], Lagos. After the game he chose to move on. At that time, Israel Adebajo, was doing great things for Nigerian football with the formation of Stationery Stores Football Club.
Anieke, from Ogwashi Uku, took the right decision. Following the pogrom in the North, Plateau which qualified for the Challenge Cup final again in 1966, could not raise a team to confront Ibadan Lions. The Jos side was walked over because most of the team came from the Eastern Region and had left for their respective homes to escape massacre.
Opone also known as ‘Zagalo’, became captain of the Green Eagles, taking the place of Godwin Achebe who had been commissioned as a Biafran Army officer. The quartet of Okoye, Igwe, Ofuokwu and Anieke became prominent members of the Nigerian national team and took part in the Mexico ’68 Olympic Games. It was the country’s first time and they came out with respectable results.
The best they got was a 3-3 draw with Brazil. The Eagles lost to Spain and Japan respectively. The Japanese went ahead to bag a bronze medal in soccer. And until Nigeria eventually won the Olympic soccer title at Atlanta ’96, they enjoyed the luck of playing in the same group with eventual Olympic medalists.
More than half 50 percent of the Nigeria squad to Mexico could communicate in Igbo which was one of the languages spoken in Biafra. Paul Hamilton, an Ijaw from Sagbama, lived in Onitsha playing for Ikpeazu Redoubtables. His Igbo was fluent with Onitsha dialect. Sebastine Brodericks -Imasuen was also a big -time Redoubtable. His Igbo, flawless.
Some stars who had played for Nigeria before the Civil War were engaged in battle as Biafran soldiers. Achebe ended up at the School of Infantry. Luke Okpala, Chukwuma Igweonu and Ernest Ufele saw battle from Azumini to Owerri. Two players who would later play for Nigeria after the war, Dominic Nwobodo and Patrick Ekeji, played their part too.
Nwobodo was part of the commandos led by Brig. Conrad Nwawo and later Col. Timothy Onwuatuegwu. His elder brother, Chris, died fighting to recapture Owerri. Ekeji tried the Air Force but ended up with the Signals and fought in the Mid-West.
Anieke, Igwe, Ofuokwu and Skipper Opone made Stationery Stores great. The Adebajo Babes lifted the Challenge Cup in 1967. They went ahead to win again in 1968 and became the first Nigerian team to play in the CAF Champions League.
All four players retired and remained relevant. Anieke left Stores for ECN which changed name to NEPA. He rose to coach the team before retiring as a Supervisor with the Electricians. Later before he passed on, Anieke, nicknamed Eusebio, built a house in Iba, near the Lagos State University [LASU].
Igwe, better known as ‘World Two’, left for the United States in 1975, two years after winning All Africa Games soccer gold at Lagos ’73. He also became a coach. His three children, Kelechi, Chioma and Amaechi are also good footballers. Amaechi played for the United States Under 20 team. Igwe was born on December 24, 1945. Garba Okoye, arrived two years later, on December 22.
Okoye also chose coaching, taking the Plateau State team to the Kaduna ’77 National Sports Festival. He was not lucky like the others. The Challenge Cup trophy eluded him. The closest was in 1972 when his two late minute goals gave Mighty Jets a 2-2 draw against Vipers of Benin. A replay was ordered. It became the first time the Challenge Cup final was played outside Lagos. Vipers won 3-2 in Ibadan. He died in a crash along the Keffi -Akwanga Road on July 29, 1979.
Ofuokwu became the first to win the Challenge Cup as a player and later as a coach. He won with the Flaming Flamingos in 1967 and again in 1968 as player. In 1990, Stores won again with Ofuokwu as coach.
Opone moved to the North as a coach. His best was as assistant to Argentine, Alex Dominquez, when Ranchers Bees of Kaduna played in the finals of the Africa Winners Cup in 1988. The team lost to Club Athletic Bizerte of Tunisia.