My column of March 12, 2015 had carried the title: “ILORIN: ‘MARK ONE, ONE’. It was a historical tour-de-force on football and the great players of the 1960s and 1970s in Ilorin. It was a piece that many people, especially from Ilorin, favourably responded to, because it brought back memories of times past, to paraphrase the French writer, Marcel Proust. While the many players I mentioned in that piece were very delighted, and one of them, Baba Ali, made copies and bought extra copies of VANGUARD to distribute amongst his colleagues, there was also the fact that I did not remember many of the great stars of that period. A week after that piece appeared, I returned home to Ilorin and received a call from Mr. Dayo Ayodele, better known as CAPTAIN DAYO! He wondered how I forgot him in the pantheon of footballing heroes of those years. And frankly, how could I have forgotten CAPTAIN DAYO? He was certainly one of the very best players from Northern Nigeria! He played for the Northern Lions and was in the Northern Lions team which played against Queen Park Rangers to open the Ahmadu Bello Stadium in 1964. And was one of eight Northern players invited to camp of the Nigerian national team, in preparation for the 1968 Olympics Games in Mexico City. He was to remain a major figure in football in Ilorin and Kwara, after the 1968 creation of states.
A generation of stars
In response to his call, and several other contacts of appreciation I received on the back of that column, I decided to host these old superstars to lunch and an evening of reminiscences, during one of my visits to Ilorin. Luckily, we pulled that through this week, on Monday evening. It was a remarkable evening of recollections and reunion, for people I watched play football, from about the age of eight. In all, ten of these players showed up, and they represented about three generations of footballing in our neck of the wood. CAPTAIN DAYO is now 73 and Isiaka Akanbi (TERROR), one of the best defenders of his time told me he was 72 years old and I was delighted that his defensive partner for the Ilorin town team, Sidiq Abdul, who was MY favourite defender was able to show up. There was Moshood OlanrewajuJaji, JAAJII, the captain of that generation of footballers and certainly the most flambuoyant! Adekunle Akande, played for the Tate & Lyle football team, my local favourite and was a well-known dribbler. He was delighted that I hosted the group because, as he confessed, he had not seen his contemporaries in the past forty years! I spoke about Ibrahim Gegele, the famous AMBURE in that piece in March. He was the one that I would not have recognized, but in the period since I wrote about him, we have regularly spoken and he was also present at the gathering.
The younger generation who played in the famous Kwara and Nigerian Academicals was represented by Isa Salami, LANKY, who packed a wonderful short and was an ex-international as well as Rasheed Gbadamasi, BAIYE! He played in the generation of Lamidi Lawal, the goalkeeper, for Kwara and Nigerian Academicals; Busari Ishola, Captain of Kwara and Nigerian Academicals; Ahmed Yahaya, ATINGA, who died a few years ago; Musa Abdullahi Koto, coach of Nigerian cadet teams, who also died recently after a protracted illness; Salihu Ojibara; the late Baba Eleran, one of the most popular Nigerian players of the Academicals generation! AbdulKadir Alanamu, was both a player and goalkeeper and was understudy of the great Inuwa Rigogo, in the old Northern Nigeria.
From this distinguished group, I learnt that Alhaji Salawu Gidado, FLYING CAT, the goalkeeper of Northern Lions, is very much alive and is in fact an indigene of Ilorin as is Alhaji Abdulmalik “BABA MALI”, the Captain of the Northern Lions, who is still very much alive in Ilorin today.
After the tuck into the sumptuous lunch of pounded yam, vegetables, fish and chicken, the old generation of players decided that the group should begin to meet regularly and a resolve was also made to contact the other veteran players, who are all over the city and Kwara state.
Labours of heroes past
They would attempt to affect the direction of football in the community and also assist each other to come to terms with life as they age, in a country that does not seem able to live by the words of its National Anthem, that: “The labours of our heroes past, shall never be in vain”. These distinguished ex-footballers served Nigeria in the prime of their lives, at a time when giving selflessly was seen as the natural way to live. As they have aged, they are living in a country that does not appreciate memory nor reward efforts given selflessly.
I felt happy that I could be the person that facilitated the coming together of people who inspired my generation to strive to give our best to our communities and country. I will certainly trace up BABA MALI and his contemporary, FLYING CAT, whenever I return to Ilorin. I was told that BABA MALI has a rich collection of pictures from the 1950s and 1960s and I am sure he would also have a rich repertoire of tales we can tuck into to inspire the younger generation.