“It is hard to forget someone who gave you so much to remember”
As the continent of Africa celebrates the greatest feast of football for the 34th time in the coast of Ivory also known Côte d’Ivoire from January 13th to February 11th 2024, it was at the same venue four decades ago that Nigeria’s first soccer ambassador, the late Muda Lawal made history as the first player to feature at five successive editions of the continental fiesta. It is fittingly proper to remember the heroes of the game and Christian Chukwuemeka Chukwu MFR who was duly recognized by the Confederation of African Football (CAF) in 2008 as the sole awardee of the CAF Legend Award is one of such distinguished protagonist of the game as a player, manager and administrator.
It was the late National Sports Commission boss, Chief Alex Akinyele that alluded that spectators who clapped for the athletes actually have a longer clapping cycle than the athletic cycle of the athletes, this indicates that sports is a medium that involves and integrate participants at various levels and in different roles, this is about Christian ‘Chairman’ Chukwu a legend who has been involved with the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) as a player, captain, scorer, Chief Coach (as deputy to a Technical Adviser) and a substantive Chief Coach who participated in three editions as a player from 1976 – 1980 earning bronze twice before the icing on the cake aftermath the disappointment of the 1978 All Africa Games soccer silver medal losing to the Algerian Fennec Foxes before exacting the pound of flesh in Lagos before the appreciative President Shagari and the adulating home fans in 1980 against the gifted Algerians that represented the continent with pride in two successive World Cup at Espana 82 and Mexico 86, easily recalling them being the victim of the Disgrace of Gijon in 1982 that prompted FIFA to ensure that subsequent last round of matches in a group are played simultaneously. He equally participated in three editions as either an assisting Chief Coach or leading Chief Coach with a further double bronze in 1992 and 2004 sandwiching the Tunisian 1994 ultimate Gold prize earning a brace of gold medals and a quartet of bronze medals in half a dozen appearances. As one of the exclusive few that made the AFCON what it is today, it is expedient to further showcase his invaluable contribution to the growth of the game in Nigeria cum the continent.
Prior to the emergence of the Chukwu skippered Eagles, the nation’s sole appearance at AFCON in 1963 ended in losses to Egypt and Sudan, but his led set ensured the two losses were reversed at the second appearance 13 years after in Ethiopia. Popularly known as the Chairman, a moniker bequeathed on him by the ace late commentator – Ernest Okonkwo, he also led Enugu Rangers to five out of the six Nigerian Federation Cup triumphs, four times as the captain and once as the Coach on his way to an impeccable League and Cup doubles on three occasion in 1974, 1975 and 1981 not forgetting the 1977 African Cup Winners’ Cup title at the expense of a strong Cameroonian Canon Sportif de Yaounde parading the greatest African goalkeeper of all time in Thomas Nkono that eliminated Enugu Rangers on penalties at the semifinal stage of the more prestigious African Cup of Champions Cup a year later in 1978 before lifting the trophy for the second time after dispatching the Guinean defending Champions – Haifa FC, the same team that inflicted a final defeat on Chukwu led Enugu Ranger in 1975 enroute a record matching four successive final equaling the feat of TP Mazembe (1967-1970) and further matched by the successful Egyptian Al Ahly sides of 2005-2008 and 2020-2023. The victorious 1980 Green Eagles conceded just a solitary goal against the debuting Tanzanian Taifa Stars (who could only make a return to the AFCON almost four decades later in 2019 as another Nigerian legend – Emmanuel Amuneke ensured the return as the Manager) and as the Captain of the victorious 1980 Nigerian side he equally emerged as the best player of the 12th edition just as his deputy Patrick Olusegun Odegbami emerged the joint top scorer for the second successive edition. It is instrumental to note that the other two Nigerian who emerged as AFCON best players were Rashidi Yekini (1994) and Augustine Okocha (2004) which happened under the stewardship of Chukwu as the Chief Coach. He was firm in wielding the big stick on the trio of Celestine Babayaro, Yakubu Aiyegbeni and Victor Agali for flouting camp rule in 2014.
It was not out of place that his biography as written by Ogechukwu Ajuzie was memorably dubbed ‘The Field Marshall’ for someone that was an Air Officer in the then Biafran Air Office, after all the second Nigerian indigenous Chief of Air Staff, the late Colonel Alao Shittu could have become a Field Marshall as the COAS, Chukwu personified leadership as outside the captain’s band, he was the putative leader at club and country level a trait picked up by the late Stephen Keshi whose Chukwu’s great ability also greatly impacted on and also conferred the CAF Legend award in 2009 a year after Chukwu was honoured, and as vivdly captured by a man who should know better having succeeded him as the National Team captain, Chief Segun Odegbami and his vice (yes vice as the national team captain and vice in IICC the arch rivals of Enugu Rangers) who met him for the first time half a century ago in 1973 referred to him as someone that “played his football with poetry, played with elegance and beauty, his life is not poetry but prose which is the simplicity of writing, full of humility without big sounding words, hence a combination of poetry and prose”. In a country in dearth of literature materials on her legends most especially sporting icon, it was a rude shock that the launch of his biography at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs (NIIA) in Lagos attracted a sparse attendees at the same time about 447 or 1,142 related and unrelated delegates crowded Dubai for the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 28), thankfully President Tinubu has put a stop to such shenanigans with the recent travel slash! If the launch of the biography was outside the country, I am doubly sure that the hall in whatever hemisphere bare Nigeria would have been brimming with estacode chasing officials, a stark reminder to the SWAN organized seminar sequel to the France 98 World Cup in Lagos where no official showed up either from the Football Association or the Sports Ministry like a typical wedding complete with the bridal train without the bride! Who can forget the evergreen picture of President Shagari’s famous cap and the white handkerchief complete Chukwu’s green Adidas stripped track suit (a meme that adorned the famous overhead bridge separating the National Stadium and the Teslim Balogun Stadium like the famous Lokoja confluence town where Rivers Niger and Benue intersects. The geopolitics of sports which is increasingly on the role of sports in international diplomacy made the NIIA a veritable choice as the institute already recognized these sporting heroes with a wall of fame. Chukwu and his teammates pulled out of the 1976 Montreal Olympics because of South Africa a feat repeated 20 years after in the 1996 AFCON hosted by South Africa, the two events on the altar of international politics using sports as a non-violent weapon of mass destruction.
With his best given to the nation, the nation deserves to give him the best, the Dutch have just immortalize Dennis Bergkamp with his jersey number 8 on a commemorative Eight Euro bank note (Eur 8), bank note as printed by The Royal Enschede printing company for his 90th minute goal against the Argentines at the Quarter Final stage on the 1998 World Cup in France. Christian Chukwu and this 1980 sets deserve to be immortalized for the price they paid for the prize. If the Lagos National Stadium could not be renamed after the Commonwealth Gold medalist Emmanuel Ifeajuna after several clamour, why not rename it after Christian Chukwu who I cannot recall has any sporting monument named after him.
Great Chukwu. Greater Captain. Greatest Centre Back.