How Nigerian Footballers Conquered America In 1974

by Uzor Maxim Uzoatu
Nigerian football

It is a trademark of the boots of Nigerian footballers to make history. The world cannot grow tired of the exploits of the Super Eagles in the World Cup at USA 94 and the Olympic Dream Team of Atlanta 96. Well before then, back in 1974, Nigerian footballers conquered American soccer.

Here is how it happened. Some crack Nigerian footballers recruited by Howard University, Washington DC, USA won the coveted NCAA championship.

A toast to the Nigerian soccer maestros: Dominic Ezeani, Sunny Izevbigie, Muyiwa Sanya, Tunde Balogun, Yomi Bamiro and Kenneth Ilodigwe.

It was in the course of my wanderings in the worldwide web that I came across the book Rising Above and Beyond the Crossbar: The Life Story of Lincoln “Tiger” Phillips by Lincoln A. Phillips that I read the gripping story of the Nigerian heroes of the Howard University soccer team known as The Bison. The team did not lose any match before lifting the trophy, a first by an African-American university because its earlier victory in 1971 was vacated.

The Nigeria-dominated Bison team defeated crack teams such as George Washington University and Clemson before matching up with St Louis University for the finals.

St Louis scored first and was leading 1-0 at halftime. Coach Lincoln Phillips felt that his central midfielder was not living up to expectations.

According to the coach, “In the dressing room, I needed to make a change in midfield to swing the momentum. I turned to central defender Dominic Ezeani, ‘Dom, we need you to straighten out the half-line,’ I said, and instructed him to play central midfield. ‘I not moving,’ he said, which totally befuddled me. Ezeani had played midfield for Nigeria, but had accepted a defensive role at Howard. ‘All year round,’ he continued, I am playing out of my position. Coach, I am not moving.’”

Coach Phillips continues his story thus: “Early in the second half, winger Balotunde (sic) Balogun took the ball to the right side of the field and twice faked a cross, causing the defender to slide off the pitch and into the snowbank. As the defender came back, looking like the Abominable Snowman, Tunde beat him again and crossed with his right. Yomi Bamiro headed it in. It stayed 1-1 until the whistle blew to end regulation time.”

Racism was all the rage at that time in the USA, and there were placards in Busch Stadium where the match was played that read: “The Monkeys Are Here!” or “See The Monkeys Dance!”

The match then went into four overtime periods. The rampaging Bison team hit the woodwork twice without scoring. Then in a goalmouth melee, Kenneth “Kendo” Ilodigwe poked the ball into the net for the match-winner “with his gifted World Cup ’74 boots”.

Coach Lincoln Phillips concludes the story thusly: “Hundreds of students, faculty members, and administration officials jammed the Cramton Auditorium at Howard for a celebration after our win. A DJ announced each player’s name as he accepted his medal. Kendo, our match winner, was dressed in red pants, a red shirt, and a pair of red shoes. ‘FIIIIIRE!!!’ bellowed the DJ. The Washington Post had asked him immediately after he netted the championship-winning goal what he would have done if he hadn’t scored. In typically melodramatic fashion, he said he would have died.”

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