Emeka Obasi

St. James Anglican Cathedral, Oke-Bola, Ibadan was home of melodious tunes rendered by a fascinating bunch of choristers. Festus Bolaji Okubule was always early there for Sunday service, in the early 1960s.

Okubule was a referee and also a delight to watch. What he did not know was that one young man, Edward Babatunde Esan, who also worshipped at St. James, looked up to him. That was what lured the latter to refereeing.

Esan said: “I had been coming across referees but the one that impressed me most was Okubule. Both of us worshipped at St. James, Oke-Bola, Ibadan.”

Esan was at Ibadan Grammar School, a good right winger and well known face in the Thermogene Cup for schools in the Western Region. He had come across many referees but Okubule was different.

“Before Okubule, I was used to seeing older men as referees but he was mobile and agile. I decided that at the end of my career, I would join him,” Esan told me in 1992.

Okubule passed on in Lagos recently just after celebrating his 80th birthday. Esan rose to become a Professor at Babcock University.

Okubule was not just a referee, he worked at Guinness, Nigeria. The duo got dutifully engaged and were able to combine both worlds effectively.

This became obvious when Okubule excelled at the FIFA Under 20 Championships, Mexico ’83. He thus became the first Nigerian to handle the whistle in a FIFA tournament. That was also the first time Nigeria would take part in the competition.

It was interesting to find Okubule pick the whistle when Holland faced Brazil in a group D match hosted by Guadalajara. The game ended 1-1 and the two other teams in that group were Nigeria and USSR.

While the Nigerian took care of that game, Referee Ramirez of Brazil oversaw Flying Eagles 1-0 defeat of the Soviets. Tarila Okoronwanta scored the lone goal. Patrick Udoh manned the posts in the absence Wilfred Agbonavbare who arrived after his school certificate exams in Benin City.

Okubule was at the centre for the second time during the USA versus Holland duel in Puebla. He also served as linesman in the following matches : Poland against Cote D’Ivoire, Czechoslovakia versus Austria and Argentina/Holland.

At the end of the first round, six of the 12 referees were asked return to base. Okubule was one of the excellent six. His two African colleagues, Bernard Grah of Cote D’Ivoire and Morocco’s Mohammed Larache did not make it.

CAF president Ydnakatchew Tessema was elated.

” This is a testimony that our referees in Africa are as competent as the very best from anywhere in the world and without prejudice, they should be given their regards.

” By this showing, all I can say is that Mr. Okubule should keep up the performance for the benefit of his African brothers,” Tessema said.

Okubule bared his feelings. ” To be among these 12 is a personal victory for me. The more so when I am the only African among them. I am happy that I didn’t let Africa down.”

The quarter finals match between Argentina and Holland in Leon made headlines. Okubule was one of the linesmen. The Dutch struck first in the 4th minute. Argentina drew level and got the winner in the dying minutes.

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The winning goal came through a free kick awarded by the referee, an Englishman. While the Argies celebrated, their opponents went after the referee who was nearly mauled.

Okubule’s profile kept rising. In 1986, he officiated at the African Nations Cup in Egypt. Unfortunately, the Green Eagles did not qualify.

In Cairo, Senegal defeated debutants, Mozambique 2-0. Papa Fall and Jules Bocande scored making Senegal the only team to win two games consecutively in the group stage, at Egypt ’86.

The Teranga Lions who defeated the Pharaoh’s 1-0 in the opening match did not make it to the next round. Egypt ended up as champions after defeating Cameroon in the grand finale.

The first Nigerian referee at the African Nations Cup was Sunny Woghiren. It was at Egypt ’74. The hosts beat Zambia 2-1.

Okubule, badged by FIFA in 1974, was known as ‘Show Boy’. His first international cap came in 1978 at the World Military Sports Championships in Kuwait. He also served on the board of the Nigerian Football Association.