In Memory of Our Unforgettable Ambure

July 2, 2023
4 mins read

I’m writing these lines on a damp, rainy morning, this Sunday, July 2nd, 2023, in the Gegele Quarters of the city of Ilorin. It’s eleven-thirty in the morning, and we are all gathered for the Fidau prayers in memory of Alhaji Ibrahim Baba Gegele. The world of sports knew him as AMBURE. Certainly, for me, one of the heroes of footballing in the old Kwara State of my childhood.

The gathering brought together the entire Ilorin community, especially the old sports stars, members of the traditional institution, and other notables of the city. In his footballing life, AMBURE was an uncompromising defender, and people have gathered to mourn a true star of football, and a beloved son of the city, and our state.

It was Alhaji Adebayo Gambari that called me a few days ago, to inform me that our dear AMBURE had passed. It was the painful reminder of the mortality that we all share. But it was also for me an opportunity to recall truly remarkable years of growing up in the old Kwara State, and how sports in general, but football especially, assisted in creating the spirit of competition, that defined our childhood.

Remarkably enough, there was also a frightening element of warfare by other means in the footballing culture of the early years of football in Kwara State, especially between 1969 and 1972. It was within the vortex of that epoch, that AMBURE came to perform his role as a football star.

Looking back now, I think his incredible competitiveness; his strict focus on the game; his firece loyalty to his team, despite the context within which he played, exemplified his sportsmanship, and these are what marked his humanity, and in the long run, these are the values that he died with, and which the community came not only to mourn, but also celebrate.

I have written about the football stars and games of the past. These need recalling on this particular occasion. In the early 1970s, the finals of the Kwara State Challenge Cup, used to pitch the Offa Town Team, against the Ilorin Team. The games literally generated so much electricity, because losing to the other side was just not to be contemplated.

Even though Ilorin would eventually triumph by a lone goal, usually a penalty goal, scored by Moshood Olanrewaju Jaji (Jajii!), Ilorin’s captain; the Offa team used to be a very stubborn one; and the best defender in the Offa team was our unforgettable AMBURE! He harried the Ilorin strikers, defended his goalpost, and gave everything on the field!

It was the responses from the spectators, especially the Ilorin supporters, that underlined the deep animosities that those games reflected. As far as they were concerned, AMBURE was literally committing treason, by not allowing Ilorin to score, but he dared to even play for the Offa Town Team, and not Ilorin!

The remarkable irony lost to these spectators, was the fact that Ilorin’s own goalkeeper, who jumped like a cat; paaried the shots of the Offa strikers; punched balls far away from his goalpost, and carried the scars of fiercely competitive encounters between these two teams, was actually from Offa! That was the legendary Magnet Agodirin, whose facial marks were very proudly Offa!

AMBURE was at the receiving end of incredible levels of opprobrium from the Ilorin crowd : “Ambure, Iwo loje ki Ilorin oje ( Ambure you’re daring to deny Ilorin goal scoring opportunities”; “Ambure, pelu ogo Olohun titi o je Ile Baba re ni Gegele ( Insha’Allah your father’s residence will become lost to roads construction in Gegele)”; this was at a time when a spate of roads construction activities were taking place, as the city was becoming modernised as a state capital!

There were more explicitly vulgar and personal abuses, that would shake an ordinary mortal. But AMBURE seemed able to block off the extraneous noise, and he concentrated and just did his job. He had a very strong personality indeed!

Then sometime in 2015, I wrote one of my weekly columns on the football stars of my childhood, and I made a list of as many as I recalled. Except that I forgot one of the very best, Captain Dayo Ayodele. He had played for the Northern Lions, the old Northern Nigerian Regional Team and had also been included in the famous Green Eagles team that took the world by storm, in the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico.

How could I have forgotten our Captain Dayo? So the following week, I wrote an additional piece to correction the initial error. That week, the late Abba Kyari, then President Muhammad Buhari’s Chief of Staff, requested me to find out where Baba Malle, was in Ilorin.

Baba Malle was the Captain of the Northern Lions and he had led the team onto the field on the day that the Ahmadu Bello Stadium was opened in Kaduna, in 1964. The Northern Lions played against Queen’s Park Rangers of England on that afternoon, and Abba Kyari was in the stadium.

We located Alhaji Baba Malle and I connected him to other members of our Nigerian Collective, who all remembered him as a great Northern football star. He’s still alive and well in Ilorin.

Soon after writing the second piece about the football stars, we decided that they should all be invited to lunch in my house. And that was an incredible epiphany! Many of them were seeing each other for the first time in thirty-five to forty years.

There and then, we agreed that they should use the opportunity to start an association of Kwara State Football Veterans. Over the next three years, they met every week in my residence, and again AMBURE was at the heart of the association, this time as the Secretary.

Eventually, the association expanded to include many other generations of veterans, and my residence was no longer fit for purpose. They moved on, and were given a space within the stadium complex to keep holding their meetings. Ambure remained secretary till he died a few days ago.

As we interacted over the past few years, I discovered that AMBURE, the fiercely competitive sportsman, who left everything on the field of play, was actually a gentleman, who was rather shy, but who puts his all into assignments, as I’ve witnessed, as Secretary of the Kwara Football Veterans.

My greatest omission about his life, was that I never had the opportunity to have a discussion with him, on how he ended up representing Offa, at that time in his sporting career. But looking back now, I think whatever might be the reason for his choice, played well for our inter-communal wellbeing, in the long run.

AMBURE chose to play for Offa while Magnet Agodirin kept goal for Ilorin. And by those defiant acts of sporting fidelity, they invariably taught lessons about fair competitiveness, while also rising higher than the petty prejudices around them.

It was a heartwarming tribute to his pioneering endeavour, that the old stars were out in their numbers to celebrate him today, but I was very equally happy that a team also came all the way from Offa, to offer their tribute to an Ilorin-born player, who gave everything to Offa’s team, in those old days of football rivalry between the two communities.

May the Almighty Allah forgive Alhaji Ibrahim Baba Gegele, our most beloved AMBURE, his shortcomings. And may He grant him Aljanna Fir’daus. Amin.

Ilorin, Sunday, July 2nd, 2023.

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