Felix Owolabi Akinloye was simply doing his thing as an emerging Green Eagle. In one away game which Nigeria won, legendary commentator, Ernest Okonkwo, got so carried away that he quickly found a name for the left winger. That was how Owo -Blow emerged as a name and remains with the star till date.
Dr. Owolabi took me down memory lane. “The name Owo-Blow came into reckoning through Ernest Okonkwo of blessed memory. An excellent radio commentator, a man with commanding voice. In one of our matches outside Nigeria, we were celebrating victory in the hotel. Uncle Ernest sluggishly walked to me and said ‘Owo, I love the way you bulldoze your way and blow the ball like a caterpillar,” the veteran revealed.
Names and Owolabi have come a long way. His full name is Felix Owolabi Akinloye. Owolabi is just his middle name because other members of the family bear Akinloye. That middle name took the shine off the others and has continued to blow him to greater heights. And fame took him from the North to Southern Nigeria before exposing the man to the world.His first remarkable grand finale match was at the Kaduna ’77 National Sports Festival. Owolabi had been chosen to represent the host state from Kaduna Rocks. In the battle for gold, Imo State Trojans, led by former Enugu Rangers defender, Harrison Mecha [Mecha okpukpu] snatched victory. East Central State Spartans had won gold in the first Edition, Lagos ’73 and retained it in 1975.
On the loss to Imo, Owolabi said : ” The Imo State team at that time was a more matured side. They were a combination of players from Spartans of Owerri and P and T Vasco Da Gama, Enugu.” He was talking of seasoned legs like Kevin Onwana, Alphonsus Dike, John Nwadioha, Sydney Ugorji, Amadi Nwokocha and Tony Ukeachu. Some of them also came from Sharks, Port Harcourt.
Owolabi won laurels. After picking bronze with the Eagles at the Ghana ’78 African Nations Cup, he lifted the trophy in 1980 when Nigeria bagged the first of their three cups. He was at the Moscow ’80 Olympic Games and quit on a high note in 1992, winning the first CAF Cup with Shooting Stars of Ibadan. He was leading scorer of the 1984 Africa Cup of Champion Clubs [now known as CAF Champions League] with five goals. Sadly, he missed the final and Shooting Stars lost.
This man, full of humility, has a lot of stories to tell even as he remains grateful to sports journalists and commentators like Okonkwo and Ishola Folorunsho. He refers to them as uncles. Owolabi is still blowing and his stories are worth reliving here.
It is pretty difficult to forget the 1984 clash between Shooting Stars and Tonnerre Kalara of Yaoundé. It was in the second round. The Cameroonians were old customers. They won the first African Winners Cup in 1975. The Oluyole Warriors dethroned them in 1976. That was the first time a Nigerian soccer team would win a continental title. Tonnerre had Roger Milla in their line up.
It was a different setting in 1984.Cameroun had won the African Nations Cup for the first time earlier in the tear. They beat Nigeria 3-1. That Eagles’ lone goal came off the cleats of Mudashiru Babatunde Lawal. Tonnerre had about five members of the Cote D’Ivoire ’84 squad. They were Lui M’Bassi, Michel Bilamo, Charles Toube, Ernest Lottin Ebongue and Bertin Olle Olle. Some of them had qualified the Indomitable Lions for the Los Angeles ’84 Olympic Games.
Tonnerre arrived Ibadan full of swagger. Shooting Stars dazed them with four goals. They could not believe it. Owolabi got a brace, Segun Odegbami and Rashidi Yekini completed the humiliation. The losers had to dig out an excuse. They alleged that Shooting Stars used juju. It sounded stupid that instead of accepting defeat, they looked for a soft landing to pacify their supporters back home in Yaoundé.
Owolabi had a good day and has not forgotten. He said : ” That match provided one of my most memorable goals. I scored two of the four goals but my second goal was a solo effort right from the left flank of the half way line. Unbelievable but it happened. I went past four opponents and used the outside of the leg to put the ball where the goalkeeper was blocking. Am sure he was expecting my usual pull out.”
With a 4-0 first leg advantage, Shooting flew to Cameroun to secure qualification. It turned out to be war. The hosts did everything outside the book to win. The Nigerian embassy uncovered a plot to poison food meant for the players. That was how they changed their feeding pattern. The Ahmadu Ahidjo Stadium was filled. The Nigerians had to contend with the crowd, the opposing team and the referee.
Owolabi and his mates were prepared and took the battle to Tonnerre. Odegbami scored. The referee disallowed it. Yekini shamed him and put the ball in the opponents net. Again the referee was shameless. He ruled against the goal. Then the Camerounians tried to make the referee happy. He awarded them two questionable penalty kicks. Then two more goals were manufactured to make it 4-0.
The referee did not make use of his watch after the fourth goal. The man was bent on delivering the game to the hosts. Proceedings went beyond regulation and overtime. Suddenly, he woke up and called for penalty kicks. Both teams were still at par after the mandatory kicks. It entered sudden death. Muda did it for Shooting. Fans started trooping out. The referee was not done yet. He wanted Tonnerre to take another kick after Muda’s decider. Owolabi, knowing the law would have none of that. The visitors left in wild jubilation.
That was the day Shooting Stars chairman, Alhaji Lekan Salami, was forced into the loo. He just could not bear the poor officiating. He was still in the toilet when someone went to inform him that the match had long been decided. This was the same man who had promised to match Tonnerre bomb for bullets in Yaoundé. Alhaji had not seen such criminal officiating all his life.
Shooting later got to the finals of the competition but lost home and away to Zamalek of Egypt, the team they had beaten in the African Winners Cup semi finals on the way to victory in 1976. In 1984, Owolabi was the leading scorer with five goals. In the first leg final in Cairo, Gabonese referee, Jean Fidel Diramba gave the winger a yellow card in the 72nd minute. The implication was that he would miss the second leg in Lagos.
The second leg without Owo-Blow was useless. Odegbami who had not played due to injury after the semis with Semassi Sekode of Togo was hurried into action. The match was taken back to 3.00 pm from 4.00 pm. In Yoruba language, Zamalek were likened to albinos. Playing in the sun was believed to put them in disadvantage. Many forgot that the Egyptians had Emmanuel Quarshie, a Ghanaian who had three goals to his name.
Ogbein Fawole scored an own goal against his team. Keeper Raymond King looked like a slave when he went into his net to retrieve the ball. Wakilu Oyenuga lost a penalty. This was a team that lost 2-0 in Cairo and needed three goals without conceding any to win. It ended 3-0 aggregate for the Egyptians. The team was disbanded by governor Oladayo Popoola of Oyo State.
In the next eight years, Owolabi was all smiles. Shooting won the first CAF Cup donated by Chief Moshood Abiola. He was a coach/ player and the team relied on him. In the semi finals against CA Bizertine of Tunisia, the Oluyole Warriors lost 2-0 in the first leg. They needed three goals to qualify. The second leg was long gone and fans were disappointed. Then Owolabi brought the stadium back to life. He scored two quick goals through corner kick. Gordon Osusu converted a penalty to make it 3-0.
Shooting Stars defeated Nakivubo Villa of Uganda to win the Cup. The Ugandans had beaten Iwuanyanwu National of Owerri in the semi finals of the 1991 Champions Cup. Uganda had also stopped Nigeria in the semi finals of the Ghana ’78 Nations Cup. Owo -Blow was on the losing side. And he recalled the experience in Ghana.
“There was a lot of politics in Ghana. The Black Stars felt threatened by Green Eagles and we scored them first through Odegbami in the first half. They made sure the match was played under floodlight. After our goal, they resorted to switching off the lights intermittently. Ghana equalized late in the game through Willie Klutse. We were the better side,” Owolabi explained.
It was in March 1978 and General Kutu Acheampong had become unpopular. He wanted to use that competition to boost his image. He invited Osei Kofi, one of the players to Osu Castle and promised to give them mansions in Dansoman if they won the cup. A Ben Acheampong had won the Nations Cup in 1965 with the Black Stars, scoring three goals just like Kofi.
Ghana beat Uganda in the 1978 final to win the cup for keeps. They never got the houses promised. Acheampong was sacked in June 1979 and executed. Nigeria won bronze. Owolabi and the Green Eagles won the Cup in 1980 and got houses and cars from President Shehu Shagari.
Owolabi relishes all these stories and is ever willing to share them. He also cherishes his family. “My father was footballer. My children play football. The first son plays for Croydon FC in England. The second was playing for his school, Federal University of Oye Ekiti while the baby of the house is also good at Adeleke University. My wife did not marry me because I was a star. I think she married me with hope in God that we could be a play maker and a match maker. Besides, I don’t see her as a wife. I see her as my mother.”