October 15, 1987. The Nigeria Under 20 National Team was facing Canada in game they ‘were sure to win’, and start the journey to the Final of a tournament Nigeria was attending for just the third time – the FIFA U20 World Cup. This was in Chile.
To understand the importance of this game you need to understand the background: Nigeria had qualified for a FIFA event for the first time in 1983, when the U20 team joined 15 others in Mexico for the 3rd Edition of the U20 Cup, but fell short of qualifying for the knock-out stages.
In 1985, Nigeria made it a double: the U16 side made it to, and won the inaugural FIFA tournament at that level, and the U20 team made it two in a row at a FIFA tournament when they qualified for the event in Russia. Then they also landed on the podium with a Bronze medal, defeating hosts Russia via penalty kicks in that medal game.
So, 1987 was supposed to be the year the Nigeria U20 team add that title to the FIFA U16 Championship that was annexed two years earlier. And the reason for optimism was there for all to see: the team was chock-full of talent – every spot on the team had a talented footballer in both the starting and the reserve positions. And then there was the midfield ‘trinity’ of Ikponwosa Omoregie, John Ene Okon, and Etim Esin. Nothing could go wrong, Brazil would fall this time!
Our football arrogance didn’t start today.
Why the particular focus on Brazil? The South Americans were the undisputed kings of the game, and they had handed out 2-0 and 3-0 beatings to the Flying Eagles in the two previous Championships: 2-0 in ’83, and 3-0 in ’85. Now the Samba Boys would pay. It was just pure providence that the first game would be against the same Brazilians: by the time we beat the South Americans – who were defending Champions, the world would know we have arrived. It didn’t happen.
The wizards of Brazil won 4-0. The (perceived) ‘best Nigerian team ever’ to the U20 World Cup had been handed the biggest Brazilian burn.
But despite the heavy defeat, the arrogance of the Nigerian fan did not abate: the consolation was that it’s okay to lose, because ‘It is Brazil’. Canada were next, then Italy – those ones played out a 2-2 draw; ‘if the Italians could not defeat the Canadians, then they cannot be that good’ was the reasoning.
Then the day came.
October 15, 1987. Nigeria versus Canada. Within five minutes of kickoff, John Ene Okon had the ball in the net. That’s it! These are our Flying Eagles! Alas, that celebration didn’t last too long, the plucky Canadians were level within a minute. But the Flying Eagles managed to score another goal, Adeolu Adekola found the net with a minute left in the first half.
Then the goals dried up. But as apprehensive as the fans back home were, it was still ok; a win is a win. All the young Eagles had to do, is secure the win, defeat Italy, and qualify for the knockout stages, we can then take it from there. That also didn’t go according to plan; in the 88th minute, disaster struck.
Ladi Babalola, a defender and one of four Julius Berger players in that team, had the chance to clear the lines for Nigeria, but wanted to play the ball out of defense to midfield. The unthinkable happened, he lost the ball, and Canada equalized. Nigeria hopes went out the window.
Now this is where the influence of Joe Erico on Nigeria football was felt, albeit in an unscripted way. The former Nigeria goalkeeper was well known for the stylish football his teams play. His defenders do not blindly balloon the ball out of defense; playing from the back had been in existence before Pep Guardiola started coaching, Erico insists on it, Babalola had internalized it, and it had made him one of the best young defenders in Nigeria at the time.
That is not the only thing different about Erico’s teams. His strikers neither rush nor panic when in the opponents box, the instructions were clear, “dribble the defender, you either get past him, or he fouls you and concede a penalty” Erico’s teams were a joy to watch.
Then there is the whistle. Erico was not one of those coaches that yell from the sidelines; he communicates with is players by whistling. There is a note for every instruction, and once, when he was coaching a new team against his former team, and he whistled, both sets of players turned to receive instructions.
That is the magic of Joseph Erico.