BY AFOLABI GAMBARI
Heroes of Nigeria football have endured so much deprivation at different times. It often seems normal. After all, Nigeria herself hardly reckons with its heroes in any endeavour, let alone celebrates them. The lackadaisical attitude has become so legendary it has been taken as the norm, even though it is in all ways abnormal. Christian Chukwu is not just another hero. He is an icon, one of the few such still left in that category. At a time Nigeria was in dire need of sporting glory in 1980, ten years after the nation had ended a fratricidal war and was still pursuing the task of national reconciliation, Chukwu had led the then Green Eagles to African Cup of Nations glory right in front of tens of thousands fans at the National Stadium, Lagos with millions of others watching on television as Nigeria defeated Algeria resoundingly in the competition’s final. “Chairman”, as Chukwu was known to football fans, left no one in doubt of his leadership qualities as the competition wound down. Befittingly, he became the first captain of the national team to hold aloft Africa’s most prestigious trophy. Chukwu had earlier in 1977 led Enugu Rangers to African Cup Winners glory, a second of such feat by a club in the country, after IICC Shooting Stars of Ibadan won it the year before. It cemented his legend status with the local fans in Enugu and he would be revered for many years after, alongside his mates. He was later to enter the ranks of few coaches in Nigeria who took their expertise to foreign lands when he was engaged to tinker the Kenyan national team, Harambee Stars. The recognition earned him Enugu Rangers’ coaching job upon his return home and he would later handle the team in an on-off capacity as situation demanded. Although he had been assistant coach to Dutchman Clemens Westerhof in the Super Eagles during the team’s glorious years culminating in Nigeria’s first World Cup appearance in 1994, Chukwu finally got his time as chief coach in 2003 to go through a somewhat turbulent time that saw Nigeria win bronze at Africa Cup of Nations, Afcon finals in 2004 in Tunisia but failed to qualify for the 2006 World Cup finals in Germany, leading to his controversial sack and a journey to virtual obscurity. Intermittently, though, he resurfaced; but not for more than mere advisory duties at the national team set up. In the end, he seemed to embrace a safe return to Enugu where he felt welcome by Rangers’ hierarchy. There he was until reports emerged in March this year that he had been diagnosed with an undisclosed ailment. The reports soon took sensational dimension. The media feasted on it to no end in order to attract the attention of relevant authorities to Chukwu’s plight. Business mogul, Femi Otedola, was the first to get attracted and he virtually desperately sought a link to the ailing hero who the reports said required urgent treatment in the United States He gave $50,000 (about N18million). Otedola was applauded by Nigerians. There was a sudden twist to the story with a statement by the Enugu State Government claiming that Chukwu had been “hale and hearty and is not in any immediate danger.” Although Rangers FC Chairman, Davidson Owumi, would give no details on the development, close associates of the club who volunteered comments said Chukwu’s ailment had been “exaggerated”, arguing that he was only “slightly ill but recuperating, though in a hotel somewhere in town”. Curious! Thanks to the social media, however. Photos released by members of Chukwu’s family soon went viral. He was, after all, in a bad shape, barely able to walk without being aided. Otedola re-ignited his move to generosity. He dispatched an aide to Enugu with the cheque. Surprisingly, Enugu State Governor, Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi was at Chukwu’s home to witness the cheque presentation, in company of President of Nigeria Football Federation, Amaju Pinnick. A frail-looking Chukwu beamed to the cameras as he soaked in the gesture, including, interestingly, a job offer for his son by the Enugu Governor. After all the denials, Chukwu was finally deemed ailing and needing rescue! Talk of one saved by fate. All the foregoing has since brought to the fore the need for a sustainable endowment fund to cater for the need of former football heroes and indeed athletes that have served Nigeria meritoriously. Certainly, the huge demand involved has made it gone beyond the capacity of the perennially cash-strapped football federation and indeed the Federal Sports Ministry. Perhaps, it is time corporate organisations and well-heeled individuals were co-opted in shared humanity based on trust.
Afolabi Gambari, Journalist, Environmentalist, Social Commentator Lagos, Nigeria Tel: +2348064651922, +2348116706849