The atmosphere in Calabar on Saturday,, March 23 was electrifying and the people were expectant. The African champions, the Super Eagles were in town to take on the Harambee Stars of Kenya that day in a 2014 World Cup qualifier at the U.J. Esuene stadium which was wearing a new look from the new paint of blue and white colour it was wearing.
All roads in the CanaanCity, unarguably Nigeria’s cleanest city, led to the stadium as fans, from within and outside the city trooped to the stadium. The first shock these fans received was the increase in the gate fee for the popular side to N1000, from the usual N500 before now.
Grudgingly though, the fans bought the ticket at the hiked price of N1300 and then N1500 to the unlucky ones. This price hike ostensibly caused the east and west ends of the stadium to be near empty when the match kicked off. On entering the stadium, one saw a bold banner announcing the return of Obafemi Martins, a thorn in the flesh of the same Kenyan team during the qualifiers for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa a couple of years ago.
The announcer equally did not spear any minute to tell the fans at the stadium that the Eagles were the new kings of African football and repeatedly urged them to resoundingly applaud when they turned out to loosen up and when the match was about to kick off. Every Nigerian at the stadium was expectant that the Eagles were going to make a mince meat of the Kenyan side who were at the bottom of the group with one point from their home draw against Malawi earlier.
In the absence of the Nations Cup top scorer, Emmanuel Emenike who is still down from the injury he sustained during the South African football fiesta, Coach Stephen Keshi threw returnee Martins into the fray to pair Brown Ideye upfront. Like a confident colossus, the Eagles trotted around the pitch, tossing the ball to the admiration of the expectant fans who were just waiting for when the goals would start raining.
But as seconds ticked into minutes, the Kenyans sat back in their area, preferring to go counter occasionally through their dangerous man, Dennis Oliech Oguta who was kept at bay by highly improved Kenneth Omeruo. As the game wore on, it became increasingly difficult for the Eagles who were then beginning to put every foot wrong and making faulty passes especially a jittery Ogenyi Onazi who lost control of the midfield. The Kenyans became adventurous and the referee, whose calls kind of favoured the Kenyans in the first half waltzed into the Eagles defence and in an attempt to stop the move, Elderson Echiejile collided with their attacker, Victor Wayama and the referee awarded a free kick close to the Eagles 18m box.
The resultant free kick taken by Francis Nyambura beat the Eagles wall and sailed into the far right corner beyond Vincent Enyeama’s reach. It was shocking but all you could hear from confident Nigerian fans was that the goal would bring the fire in the Eagles and the Kenyans would lick the dust when the final whistle is blown.
The Kenyans would not relent and their coach, Adel Amrouche became restless, running out of his seat to the side line to shout instructions, an action the fourth referee warned him to desist from. He was drenched in his sweat, checking intermittently on his watch to see when the whistle would be sounded to make his dream, of beating the Eagles, African champions, come true.
He got the marching order from the referee after the fourth official reported to him. Amrouche’s protest was ignored as the security men marched him out of the main bowl. Even Keshi sat bemused as the Eagles struggled to nick the equaliser which refused to come. Fans, including the Cross River State Governor, Senator Liyel Imoke were now edgy on their seats as the Kenyans were no more in a hurry to get the ball into play anytime it went out.
They got punished for it through award of yellow cards anyway. Unknown to them however, every time wasted by them was going to be added to the match to get the actual play time. So when the Kenyan players thought the match would be over in a few seconds, the referee’s time was saying something else. The pressure from the desperate Eagles who didn’t want to embarrass themselves and the entire Nigerian nation increased. Nnamdi Oduamadi, a subsititute for Sunday Mba who could not rescue the Eagles like he did in South Africa, became the messiah as he scrambled the ball into the Kenyan goal, beating goalkeeper Arnold Otieno who, before then, had frustrated every move of the Eagles attackers.
The stadium became electrified as fans shouted to roof tops, celebrating the all important equaliser that would do the Eagles a world of good at the end of the day because a loss could have pushed them down the table. And Malawi, who got a surprised away win over Namibia, could have topped the group with five points.
At the end of the match, the fans who were expecting to celebrate the Africa Nations Cup trophy that was placed at the VIP stand before Governor Imoke stormed out of the stadium thanking God that at least the Eagles were not disgraced. They could not wait to cheer the Eagles who did a lap or better still, a walk of honour round the pitch with the golden trophy held by stand-in captain, Enyeama. The effect of the near defeat was visible as the Eagles, wore long faces, strolling round the pitch with a banner saluting Governor Imoke, Cross Riverians and Nigerians for supporting them in winning the African title.
Before they went round the stadium, the stadium was almost empty as the fans had emptied into the streets, discussing loudly how the Eagles almost gave them heart attack. Both teams, Eagles and Harambee Stars left the Stadium without the usual post match conference to answer questions from the media men and women.
Keshi and Enyeama would have come for the Eagles while the Kenyans would have presented their assistant coach after the chief coach was expelled from the game. Keshi and Enyeama ostensibly didn’t want to be bugged by a barrage of unpleasant questions from the Nigerian journalists who, like other Nigerians, were unhappy with the Eagles’ poor showing.
The Kenyans shunned the event mainly because they felt they were cheated by the referee from making history and they sounded it loud and clear, promising to beat the Eagles in the reverse fixture in June. While other Nigerians left for their respective homes, the popular area boys would not let the Eagles any peace and followed them to the Transcorp Hotel abode. To them, whether the Eagles won or not, theirs was to share from the dollar rain they must have been given even for the draw and so milled around the hotel.
The poor show also showed in the much publicised Pitch Football Awards held at the Eagles hotel that night. They failed to show up while even Governor Imoke stayed away for obvious reasons and sent a representative. Some members of the Eagles technical crew led Daniel Amokachi later sauntered into the venue with Enyeama who didn’t stay too long. Match winner Oduamadi, who won both the MVP which Tom Tom placed $5,000 on and Guinness’ $2,000 for the goal scorer, peeped into the event from the door and left. Yours sincerely took a walk outside the venue to catch a glimpse of what was happening outside and ran into a convoy of three cars conveying some of the Super Eagles players who could not be identified, trying to escape from the area boys who mobbed the cars.
They must have been going to town to unwind at a club definitely. Body no be fire wood, they must have thought It took the experience of the drivers of the cars to out-manouvre the area boys but that did not stop the unidentified players to spray some wads of dollar bills to the boys, who now did a dive on the road, not caring of their bodies being bruised nor a car running over them.
The latter almost happened as an on-coming car screeched to a halt right in front of the boys who were on the ground, scampering for the money. Luck smiled on two of them who grabbed the dollar bills while the unlucky ones cursed the brothers and friends of some of the players who denied them access to the players and the dollars.