In the history of Nigerian football, there existed an almost indispensable left winger who was fierce and result-oriented. He is Dr Felix Owolabi, a son of Inisa in Osun State. He was nicknamed Owoblow, a sobriquet, which graphically depicts the force and speed with which he touched and kicked the round leather to the opponents eighteen yards. With his skills and prodigy, the then Green Eagles outside left department was tight and impregnable to the opponents, however obstinate they posed. It was Owolabi’s thunderous shot he fired at the Algerians goalkeeper which resulted in the third goal eventually scored by the very mobile Muda Lawal at the final of the 12th African Cup of Nations that Nigeria hosted and won in 1980. Before that historic tournament, which changed the status of Nigeria in African nay world football and turned the 22 players to heroes forever, Owolabi, who was born in November 24 1954, had also won for the country a gold medal at the West African Football Games in which the eagles humiliated the neighbouring Benin Republic with seven unreplied goals. He was also at the All African Games in Algeria where the eagles and the hosting country played at the final. Algeria won with a lone goal but not without stirring a dust of controversy alleging an undue home advantage against the hard-fighting Nigerian side. That was in 1978, the year Owoblow joined the then IICC Shooting Stars of Ibadan from the Racca Rover, Kano, now Kano Pillars. Before then, he was already a star footballer bearing “Commander” nickname for his no-nonsense disposition to football and total control of the game. God of football graciously blessed him early. As a kid under the care of his guardian in Kaduna and a pupil of the Government Secondary School, Dutchena, now in Katsina State, Owolabi was a member of the Kaduna Rock side. Therefrom, he gained admission into the Katsina Teachers Training College and joined the Nasarawa FC through which he was representing the then North Central at the national competitions, including the bi-ennal National Sports Festival. Unknown to many football followers, Owolabi was also a track athlete; hot in 100 metres, 200 metres and 4×1 relay race. His football wizardry caught the eyes of scouts and instantly earned him a call up to the eagles camp in 1977 as a player of Racca Rover. Owolabi revealed that he could have played his first African Nations Cup hosted in Ethiopia in 1976 save for his school examinations. But since 1977 when he eventually made it to the eagles camp, he remained not only a consistent player but also a regular till he called it quit in 1982 after the ill-fated Libya 82; that is, the African Nations Cup hosted by Libya where Owolabi captained the eagles. He featured at three nations cups in 1978, 1980 and 1982. In this interview with Tunde Busari, Owoblow gave a vivid account of his nations cups nostalgia, particularly that edition he won alongside his teammates inside the overflowing National Stadium, Surulere on March 8, 1980 Excerpts
Can you recall your build up to the 12th African Cup of Nations which your team won for Nigeria to become the first Green Eagles to have achieved that feat?
Preparation for that tournament was key to the result which we recorded. Then football administration was in the hands of genuine lovers of football. I am talking of Mr Amadike, Chief Lekan Salami, Madam Rangers and a host of others who could sacrifice anything they had for football. Our preparation involved our play tours to different countries like Brazil, Norway, Sierra Leone. We invited Cameroon for a friendly in Nigeria.
Which of the countries you toured made the most impact on your team, leading to your triumph?
Of course, that was Brazil. Our camp in Brazil brought a transformation to the team. And I must say that we were all happy for that experience because it formed the background to our exploits at the tournament.
Before you go further, who was your coach?
Coach Otto Gloria, a Brazilian, was our coach. But I must, for the sake of fairness, say that Father Tiko groomed us until he had to return to his country because of old age.
Was there any difference spotted in the two coaches?
That is correct. They were both hardworking and very practical in their respective approaches to the team. The area of difference was in the styles of games. Coach Otto Gloria taught us the Brazilian samba style as against Father Tiko’s different style, which was suitable to Nigerian fans. In fact, when we started the nations cup matches, the fans were not impressed by our performances.
How did it happen?
It was so because the fans were used to what is called kick-and-follow style of game. They were used to see our goalkeeper Emmanuel Okala or Captain Christain Chuckwu sending a long pass to the attack from the defenceline and getting the ball into the opponents net. I think you understand that style. But Coach Otto Gloria changed to a different style. He introduced how we should plan our attack from the defence through the midfield to the net of the opponent. He taught us short and accurate passes and how to create spaces to make the passes effective and retain ball at the expense of our opponents. We returned to Nigeria and stuck to that style, despite the fans agitation for the old physical style. That new style was too dull to them. All the fans needed were goals. How you scored the goals was not important to them. But I think Brazilians football culture take into cognizance the need for fans to have value for their ticket fee during matches. Spain is also noted for that style today.
How was the competition among the players in the camp?
The contest for positions on the field was very stiff. In one position, there were seven players. If you were given the shirt to play in a match, you know that you couldn’t afford to put up an average performance. You know the number of other players waiting for the same opportunity. So, you must be the best at all time to retain that shirt. That was the time when about 100 players would be invited to the camp. There was no way a player would turn himself to a nuisance to the team by feeling too big to play to instruction.
Where were you camped in Lagos?
That was the Trade Fair Complex along Badagry Expressway. We received decent treatment that made us feel indebted to the nation.
Who were your room mates?
Aloysius Atuegbu and Muda Lawal.
Can you recall your matches up to the final?
We played our first match against Tanzania; we beat them 3-1. Fans were not impressed. Our second match was against Cote d’Ivore, 0-0. We beat Egypt 1-0 in our third match. It was eight-team tournament then. Our results did not convince our fans that we could progress in the tournament. Our next match, which was the semi-final, was against Morocco. Morocco played their first round matches in Ibadan. So, they came to meet us in Lagos, our centre. We beat them 1-0, and I scored the lone goal from 35 metres and at 34 minutes into the match. Algeria also played their first round in Ibadan and met us at the final in Lagos.
What happened to you and the team in the morning of the final, in terms of your mindset due to your not- too-impressive results to the final?
We were calm; we were all focused; we were positive in our thoughts for the match. This spirit was further helped by the surprise visit of President Sehu Shagari to our hotel. That visit looked quite unbelievable but that was what happened. There was no motivation bigger than that, as far as I was concerned. The president came some hours before the match. He ate breakfast with us. He joked with us and promised that if we won the cup, all of us would be very proud that we played for Nigeria. He beat all the existing protocols and took pictures with us. In his words, he said, “you just go and win the cup for me. I will do something you will never regret you played for Nigeria.” These surprise words from the president fired us into action to beat Algeria 3-0 against fans’ expectations. And he fulfilled all his promises. Peugeot 504 first set of the PAN (Peugeot Automobile of Nigeria) from Kaduna factory. Each of us received one. Each of us also received a duplex at Festac Town. Also, each of us became recipient of the National Honour of the MON (Member of the Order of the Niger). The honour thereafter was overwhelming. We received royal treatment everywhere we went. I thank God for counting me as one of the lucky heroes.
How significant was that victory to you?
It was not even about an individual. That victory was much more significant to the country at that time.
It was the occasion which brought out the true unity among Nigerians after the civil war that ended 10 years earlier. It was also the first achievement of President Shagari’s admnistration because the president was just three months in the office. I later understood why the president was pleading that we beat Algeria. You could see how happy he was when he was handing the trophy to our captain, Christain Chuckwu. Nigerians unity was demonstrated even on our way from our hotel to the stadium. Old and young people were following our bus and praying for our victory.
When you filed out from the tunnel and saw the crowd, were you personally not intimidated?
Never! I took the match as ordinary. I didn’t see anything other than victory. I was excited to see that large spectators; I was very confident that we were going to win. President Shagari’s commitment had given us the confidence we needed to beat Algeria and become heroes forever.
You seem to have a soft spot for the late Muda Lawal, your roommate. Can you let us into your relationship?
Muda Lawal was more than my roommate. Our third partner was Odiye. We were inseparable. Muda was a unique player every coach would want to work with. He was the finest player I have ever seen. He was full of energy. He would tell you that nothing is impossible. He was everywhere on the field and playing with smiles. I learnt from him. One important thing I learnt was his attitude to football.
What was it?
Did you know that whenever we were paid our allowances, he would first buy booths from the money before he would buy any other thing? Before a match, he would bring out four different booths to pick the one that he found most suitable for the match. He was also the first player I saw polishing his booths before a match. Let me just say Muda was not an ordinary player. Till date, we have not seen a midfielder that controlled the field as Muda did easily and admirably.
Have you an advice to the eagles in Cote d’Ivore for the nations cup?
They should know that it is an opportunity to wear that green and white shirt. They should, therefore, appreciate God for that. I pray they play up to expectations. I wish they give their best to bring the cup home. Nigerians should say good things about them for the sake of the country. Football is that cord which binds Nigerians, and we should always be mindful of it. We should speak in one voice to support these boys.