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'Nigeria's footballers have made a massive contribution'


I'M LOOKING forward to taking my seat just before 5 o'clock on Saturday (June 2) to watch England take on Nigeria at Wembley.

I know it's a World Cup warm-up and there's nothing at stake but not only is it the first time the Super Eagles have appeared at Wembley for 24 years but both teams will want a morale-boosting win before they travel to Russia. It's also a good chance for me to take stock of just how much Nigerian footballers have contributed to the game in our country.

The current Premier League is graced and enriched by the likes of Victor Moses, Alex Iwobi and Kelechi Iheanacho among many others but there were pioneers from years ago who paved the way for them - and the story begins with a man nicknamed "Thunder".

Teslim Akanni Balogun was born in Lagos in 1927 and after making a reputation as a striker with a ferocious shot on his left foot (he got the nickname, according to legend after he hit a drive so hard it went through a goalkeeper's stomach!) he became the first Nigerian to play football in the English leagues when he signed for Peterborough in 1955 and later, QPR where he scored 3 goals in 13 appearances.

Not only did 'Thunder' become Nigeria's coach for the 1968 Olympics Games in Mexico , he also has a stadium named after him in Lagos.

In terms of the top flight, we should raise a cheer for John Chiedozie who burst onto our 'Big Match' screens in the 1970's while tearing up and down the wing for Leyton Orient before being snapped up by the then First Division Notts County before signing for Tottenham where he was brought in to provide the crosses for Clive Allen. Many who watched John felt he didn't always get the protection he should have had from refs at the time and often some of the more industrial full backs could only stop him by kicking him.

The 1970's also saw a generation of players growing up in Britain who either arrived here as children or were born here. Ade Coker was born in Lagos but moved to London and in 1971 was signed for West Ham. His debut - coming into the team for the injured Geoff Hurst no less – saw him score in a 3-1 win over Crystal Palace. One of the other scorers that day was Clyde Best and the "Big Match" cameras caught yet another pacy attacking winger who was doing wonders for Nigeria's burgeoning reputation for exporting players of flair, speed, athleticism and skill.

Another landmark was the first hat trick in the top division by a Nigerian and that honour goes to Efan Ekoku who made Premier League history by being the first to score four goals in a match when Norwich thumped Everton 5-1 away in 1993.

When it comes to prolific scoring Yakubu Ayegbini deserves a mention – he managed four Premier League hat tricks and inspired a song "Feed the Yak and He Will Score" - and he often did. Virtually a goal every other game for Portsmouth, Everton, Blackburn, Middlesbrough and Leicester. His 95 strikes makes him the highest scoring Nigerian in Premier League History- and just a few goals behind the highest scoring African- one Didier Drogba.

Every player I've mentioned appeared for the Super Eagles or were qualified to do so.

WORLD CUP BOUND: The Super Eagles

But I said I wanted to mark the contributions of Nigerians to football in our country so I want to mention Benjamin Odeje . He didn't make Nigerian football history, he made English football history.
Like Ade Coker, Benjamin was born in Nigeria but came to Britain with his parents and settled in south east London. It was soon clear that young Benjamin was quite some player. He acquired the nickname "Pele" for scoring 400 goals – yes, 400- in just three seasons at the end of the 1960's in schools football and in 1971 was selected to play for England schoolboys at Wembley.

When the whistle blew for kick off against Northern Ireland schoolboys, "Benny" as he was known to his friends at South East London Secondary school became the first Black player to represent England at any level.

As Ben looks back on that ground-breaking time, he recalls that his strict Nigerian mother refused to come and watch him at Wembley - "She reckoned football was a waste of time and I should be getting a proper education!". He played four more times and though he was scouted by Chelsea and on Charlton's books he didn't play professional football.

He experienced racist abuse not just from opposing fans or players but from his own team.

As England and Nigeria's top players meet up on Saturday – for just the third time ever- it's worth remembering the contribution the likes of Ben Odeje and "Thunder" Balogun have made to the rich and not always glorious history of football in this country.
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