AHIA MGBEDE: 40 Years After, Ekeji Recalls Why He Missed AFCON 1980 Finals

Pat Ekeji

As Nigerians are celebrating 40 years of Green Eagles first Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) victory in 1980, Dr. Patrick Ekeji who was an integral part of the squad few months before the final, recalls events that led to his exit from the team.

Speaking with THIS DAY yesterday, Dr. Ekeji who rose to become the country’s chief sports officer as Director General of the National Sports Commission (NSC), attributed his exit from the Green Eagles as ordained by God.

“I was an integral part of the team and was always in the ‘possibles’ line up. It never crossed my mind that I will not be in the team to play in the 1980 Nations’ Cup for Nigeria,” recalled Ekeji.

As a fresh graduate from the University of Nigeria Nsukka (UNN), Ekeji was hot for both Enugu Rangers and the senior national team. He was shuttling between Enugu and Lagos for Rangers and the Green Eagles respectively.

He recalled that after Rangers lost the 1978/79 league title chase and were beaten 3-0 in the final of the 1979 Challenge Cup in Lagos by Bendel Insurance FC of Benin, Coach P.O.C Achebe got eased out of the Rangers job.

“I thus became a Coach/Player for Rangers. It was during this period that I met one of the young Brazilian coaches then NFA Chairman, Sunday Dankaro recruited for Nigeria. Carlos Alberto Parreira along with Head Coach, Otto Gloria and a Fitness Trainer, Carlesso were brought into the Green Eagles team to compliment the jobs of Nigerian coaches like Isiaka Yakubu and John Zagbai.

“But along the line, Carlos was seconded to Rangers to help organize the teams ahead of the West African Football Union Cup semi final clash with Police of Senegal team. While working with Carlos, I just discovered that he brought a refreshingly different aura to the team. It was even better than what we were getting at the Green Eagles camp.

“ This was what made me, as one of the senior players in the Eagles to report my observations of Carlos’s technical competence to both Isaac Akioye who was NSC director and Eleyae Awoture the NIS boss at the time. I wanted Carlos drafted to the Green Eagles,” Ekeji also recalled.

However, his suggestion leaked to Otto Gloria as Head Coach who didn’t take kindly to it.

“I just noticed that Otto Gloria was no longer using me among the ‘Possibles’ anymore. He started to sideline me as punishment for dare to suggest bringing Carlos Alberto Parrieira to Green Eagles for his competence,” alleged the ex international.

Ekeji said when he could not stomach it any longer, “ I just walked up to Otto Gloria to tell him I wanted to decamp and he obliged me with a handshake.”

Ekeji said he had to reactivate a scholarship for a Master degree programme in Germany that was barely a month to expiration.

He said he had no regrets for his reports about the competence of Carlos Alberto Parreira because the coach proved his worth later by leading Brazil to win the World Cup in 1994.

“Looking back now, I think my not playing in the AFCON 1980 and getting all the largesse handed out to my teammates by the Federal Government was ordained by God.

“Though I missed those benefits but I gained more through the Masters degree programme as it prepared me more for some of the roles I later played in the nation’s sports.”

Ekeji who rose to the exalted position of Director General of the National Sports Commission, believes that that AFCON 1980 victory opened doors for subsequent honours Nigeria picked up in the game at both continental and global levels.