Before #NigeriaToTheWorld and the late Dora Akunyili’s ‘Good People, Great Nation’ campaign and all the other contrived attempts designed to capture Nigeria’s importance to the black nation, there was Paul McCartney and Festac ’77. Scholars of popular culture would recall that band on the run, Sir McCartney’s most acclaimed post-Beatles work was largely recorded in Lagos, when McCartney was seeking new beginnings in an exotic locale. The album would become the best-selling studio album in the UK and Australia in the year of its release, 1973. The oil boom years would culminate in the ’77 Festival of Arts and Culture, which saw artists like Stevie Wonder, Miriam Makeba, Mighty Sparrow and Gilberto Gil perform on the field. In a sense, that captures the essence of Lagos as the capital of a newly minted and culturally dominant country. Going unnoticed are two trips to the country of perhaps the most iconic footballer in the world, Pelé.
Lagos, January 1969
Pelé, the footballer christened Edson Arantes do Nascimento and named after Thomas Edison, burst onto the world scene as a 17-year-old at the 1958 World Cup. A hat-trick in the semi-finals against Sweden let the world know what was coming. was looming and Brazil’s eventual triumph in the cup validated their promotion. Pelé’s failure and general reluctance to leave the Brazilian league until he came out of retirement to spend time with the New York Cosmos is often cited by those seeking to diminish his greatness on the grounds that the greatest footballer of his era He never tried his luck in any of the world’s big leagues, but his political importance to Brazil at its height led to riots among fans when European giants tried to buy him out and his designation as an “official national treasure” by President Janio Quardros to prevent him from will move abroad. This designation formed the potential for commercial gold for Santos, who in ways that would make Ed Woodward lick his lips, was able to tour the world with Pelé in tow for the highest bidder.
One such offer came in the form of an African tour in 1969. Matches had been booked in Nigeria, the Congo, Algeria, Mozambique and Ghana. The Lagos match was organized at the behest of the Nigerian Football Association, which paid Santos £11,000 to play an exhibition match against the national team, the Green Eagles. In true Nigerian fashion, a debate over the usefulness of such spending took place with Chief AB Osula, the NFA Vice President, arguing that the country was getting a bargain and that it also offered an opportunity for Nigerians to see I peeled in person. The match would end 2-2 with a brace from Pelé and goals from Muyiwa Oshode and Baba Alli for Nigeria.
Benin, January 1969
The then Military Governor of the Midwest Region, Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Ogbemudia, was famously a keen sports fan. Ogbemudia, whose popularity in Edo politics remains unparalleled, was responsible for the construction of the multi-purpose Ogbe Stadium and the National Museum in Benin. Ogbe Stadium, now named after Ogbemudia, opened with an exhibition match between Santos and an all-star team from the Midwest. While Santos was in the country for the Lagos game, Isaac Okonjo, in his capacity as president of the Midwest Sports Council, announced a committee tasked with raising funds for the game. They were able to enlist the help of the FA in negotiating a fee of £6,000 while Santos squeezed it into his schedule, flying back to play after trips to The Congo and Mozambique. Upon his arrival in Benin, Pelé and Santos were treated like pop stars. They announced their arrival with visits to Ogbemudia and the Oba of Benin. Despite a disputed 3:30 p.m. start, the stadium opened at 10 a.m. and filled to capacity by 2 p.m., leading fans to form groups outside the stadium. Santos won 2-1 and Pelé failed to get on the scoreboard, which caused the disappointment of the traveling fans.
Lagos, February 1976
As far as colonial legacies go, Nigerian sports clubs and members are enduring relics of a past in which Western influence became mainstream. Places like Ikoyi Club, Lagos Lawn Tennis Club, Lagos Motor Boat Club, and Lagos Polo Club were founded by foreigners seeking to facilitate interest in the activities they enjoyed in their home countries. In fact, Ikoyi Club membership was exclusive to expatriates until the 1950s. The Lagos Lawn Tennis Club was the setting for one of the definitive images of the mecca that was Lagos in the 1970s. In February 1976, Arthur Ashe, best known for being the first black man to win a Grand Slam title and then the reigning Wimbledon champion, he came to Lagos to participate in the $60,000 Lagos Tennis Classic tournament, part of the World Championship Tennis (WCT) professional circuit series. Halfway through the game, a group of soldiers ran down the field declaring the game over and threatening “What are you doing? We are in mourning. You are making money. Are you all crazy? Please go. Please go.” Chaos ensued as fans dispersed as players were ushered into the locker room.
The tournament owed part of its existence to a US State Department goodwill trip in 1970 where Ashe and Stan Smith, the inspiration behind arguably the most enduring iconic sneaker silhouette of all time, visited Lagos. with Ashe emerging with a renewed sense of vigor in the discharge of what she felt. it was his duty to promote the sport and its potential on the continent. Like other prominent black athletes his age, Ashe understood the use of his platform as a tool for social justice. When he was denied a visa to travel to South Africa to play in the 1970 South African Open, he mounted a sustained campaign against apartheid. Ashe lobbied the World Championship Tennis (WCT) professional circuit series to make Lagos one of their outposts, resulting in the execution of a 5-year deal for the Lagos Lawn Tennis Club to host an annual series of tournaments in Lagos. The 14 World Tour players chosen to participate in the debut tournament in Lagos were Arthur Ashe (USA), Tom Okker (HOL), Dick Crealy (AUS), Harold Solomon (USA), Jeff Borowiak (USA), USA), Brian Fairlie (NZL), Eddie Dibbs (USA), Ismail El Shafei (EGY), Wojtek Fibak (POL), Karl Meiler (GER), Bob Lutz (USA), Stan Smith (USA), Erik Van Dillen (USA) and Dick Stockton (USA) while Nigeria’s top two tennis players Lawrence Awopegba and Yemisi Allan earned wild card entry. While this was going on, Pelé had arrived in Lagos in his role as Pepsi brand ambassador to take part in an exhibition match and a series of soccer clinics designed to help spread the gospel of soccer and also strengthen the long-standing bond between the soft drink company and the soccer industry. As an interesting aside, the Pepsi Football Academy, which initially operated as an independent football academy which, upon receiving backing from Pepsi, morphed into a series of football schools spread across the country that would produce future Super Eagles stars such as Mikel Obi, Sunday Mba and Elderson Echiejile.
For the superstitious among us, any Friday that falls on the 13th of the month has come to be seen as an omen of bad luck. This superstition has inspired a 19th century secret society, an early 20th century novel, a horror movie franchise, and two very difficult to spell and pronounce terms, paraskavedekatriaphobia and friggatriskaidekaphobia, which describe the fear of this supposedly unfortunate day. The day of February 13, 1976, fell on a Friday and its reputation for negative energy came to life when the Nigerian head of state, General Murtala Mohammed, was shot in his black Mercedes Benz while stuck in traffic on his way to headquarters. from the army from home. . This marked the launch of a coup attempt led by Lieutenant Colonel Bukar Dimka. Dimka began addressing the nation on the radio citing corruption and Mohammed’s inadequacies as a leader that required his ouster, but fear of reprisals from Mohammed’s loyalists confined Dimka into hiding before he was eventually arrested in the southeast. .
As news of the attempted coup spread, Pele’s tennis entourage and team, both based at the Federal Palace Hotel on Victoria Island, were told to stay put to mitigate possible instability. . The following week, an exception was made for tennis stars to leave the country due to travel restrictions, while Pelé was forced to wait until the restrictions were lifted before he was allowed to travel in the guise of an aviator.
My interest in this story was inspired by a biography of Pele I received when I was seven years old which suggested that Pele had inspired a ceasefire between the warring factions of Nigeria and Biafra. Like most things involving Pele and an age plagued by poor documentation, this story has grown, propagated through the generations, and failed recent scrutiny tests. According to the writer, Olaojo Aiyegbayo, whose work I relied heavily on in writing this article, his research into contemporary newspaper accounts failed to validate this story. He posits that Ogbemudia’s opening of the Sapele Bridge to allow Biafrans to travel from Biafra to Benin to watch the match has fueled the ceasefire account when, in fact, the bridge was opened on the day of the match to lessen the payment burden. of the fans. His work on the Arthur Ashe story was also helpful.