Last weekend was a twin anniversary for the excellent career of Segun Odegbami, easily the fastest striker Nigeria ever produced.
It was exactly 38 years last Thursday October 30 when the leggy striker scored the first of his 23 goals for Nigeria. It was in a World Cup qualifier against Sierra Leone at the National Stadium, Lagos.
Odegbami opened scoring in the 6-2 rout of Sierra Leone and offered assists in two other goals in the match that also marked the end of international career of his club mate and the then best left winger for Africa, Kunle Awesu.
It was the October 30, 1976 match that established Odegbami as the undisputed lead striker for Nigeria and his domineering presence in the Nigeria strike force endured for exactly the next five years.
Hear the legendary striker: “Since my coming in as a substitute for Baba Otu Mohammed in the first leg match (played on October 16, 1976), I was never in camp without tasting action.”
He was to play 42 more matches for the national team which he later captained. In an irony of fate, the same October 30 marked the last time the legendary striker played for Nigeria. Incidentally, it was also a World Cup qualifying m
atch, this time in Constantine, Algeria in 1981. In his 43 appearances for Nigeria, he scored 21 goals which remains one of the best average for any Nigerian international till date. It is surpassed only by that of his later date club-mate in the then IICC Shooting Stars, Rashidi Yekini, who scored 37 goals in 60 appearances for Nigeria.
As glorious as Segun Odegbami’s football career was, he sadly did not have adequate playing time to exhibit his skills at global level and out of the continent’s shores, at least, at grade A match level.
He was only able to play for 45 minutes in the 1980 Olympic Games duel with eventual champions, Czechoslovakia in a match Nigeria drew 1-1. He wore the unfamiliar jersey number 13 and was replaced a minute into the second half by Raccah Rovers’ Shefiu Mohammed.
On three other instances, he was close to playing at such level, but failed. The first instance would have been at the Montreal 1976 Olympics where he was set to blossom before the politically motivated boycott aborted the dream of the then Green Eagles who were believed to be in their best elements, judging from their pre tournament form and the 4-0 defeat of hosts, Canada in a friendly match.
Incidentally, it was the same Montreal Olympics that France’ Michel Platini made his international debut.
Other global figures that used the Montreal Games as springboard of international career are Spanish goalkeeper, Luis Arconada and Mexico’s Hugo Sanchez.
Odegbami’s second miss of featuring at the world level was the agonizing missing of Nigeria from the Argentina 1978 World Cup when an Odegbami inspired Green Eagles suddenly failed at home in their final duel with Tunisia.
No thanks to the famed own goal scored by a hitherto reliable defender, Godwin Odiye. Failure to qualify for Spain ‘82 at the last hurdle marked the end of the international career of Odegbami. Even today, at 62, Odegbami remains as relevant on Nigeend of the international career of Odegbami. Even ria football issues as he was 33 years ago which was almost the age he hung his boots when he played his last competitive match against Zamalek of Egypt in December 1984.
His voice cannot be ignored in any discussion of football matters, be it technical, political or point-blankly, administrative. He had made several attempts to join the class of Michel Platini and Franz Beckenbauer in transiting from the pitch to the board room.
The athletic figure of Segun Odegbami, one of Nigeria’s greatest sportsmen of all time is unmistaken. Slim, tall and often wavering as he towerly takes pacy steps. Perhaps, nothing physical has changed much in him when compared with his active playing days in the mid 1970s up to the same period in the 80s.
The only sign of aging is perhaps the thinning hairs which make him wear a clean shaven head. He has however been constantly visible in sports scenes, even years after his football career ended.
The inimitable sports commentator, Ernest Okonkwo, nicknamed him “Mathematical” for his wonderful acceleration and precision crosses from the right flank.
Standing at 1.8 metres with a leggy stature and looking very lanky, he could not have been anybody’s idea of a perfect striker in those days. Just few notable Nigerian strikers before him had that almost fragile stature. But he rose to be acknowledged as a continental soccer icon.
What impact did his tall physique had not his skill?
“They used to call me sluggish striker”’ he said while recalling his humble beginning as a club player in Ibadan, where he attended The Polytechnic, Ibadan and featured for Housing Corporation before his skills attracted attention from the bigger IICC Shooting Stars in 1974.
At the time, he was an inside left player often in jersey number 10 and a support striker playing behind the thunderbolt-shot gifted Moses Otolorin. Truly, on account of his stature, just like that of the later-day Nwankwo Kanu, he would need space to get perfect control of the ball.
But the tip-tap football that the Shooting Stars were noted for at the time, as opposed to that of kick and rush of Enugu Rangers, seemed okay for the sluggish offensive.
At least that was good enough for him for his skills to be noted when as a member of the Western State team to the inaugural National Sports Festival in 1973, he was invited to the national team under German coach, Othman Caldrer, in 1974.
He was merely like a snake that moved on rocks without leaving a mark. It would take another 48 months for Odegbami to get to national prominence.
On account of academic pursuit, he agonizingly missed the final match of the 1975 Challenge when IICC Shooting Stars lost 1-0 to Enugu Rangers.
Transformation to speedy striker Segun Odegbami will also point to any inquisitive journalist that the match against Sierra Leone was the turning point in his international career.
According to Odegbami, who was on the reserve bench in the first leg match in Freetown, the plan of the coach was to bring him in as a substitute for Solomon Oriakhi. But the plans changed following the drop in form of Baba Otu Mohammed who was featuring on the right wing.
Odegbami was brought in the 42nd minute to replace him and he was quite impressive. “During the training sessions for the return leg, Coach Father Tiko discovered I could be effective on the right wing.
“He instructed me to practice running down the flank and then pulled out towards the goal. I did this several times during the training sessions and it proved effective in the match”, remarked Odegbami.
He did not just opened scoring in the 25th minute of the match, his other crosses after leaving the left rear guards of the Sierra Leoneans stranded led to Aloysius Atuegbu scoring a brace and Kelechi Emeteole scoring another goal. For the records, the opening goal was the first of Odegbami’s 21 international goals.
From that moment, he became the speedy right winger whose effectiveness for both the national team as well as his club, the Shooting Stars, remains unrivalled till today.
Of his goals in international matches, Odegbami rates the goal he scored in Bouake against Côte d’Ivoire in a July 27, 1977 World Cup qualifier as his best. The goal was the first for Nigeria in a 2-2 draw as the Green Eagles rallied from two goal deficits.
Left winger, Adokiye Amiesimaka levelled up for Nigeria almost in the same fashion that Odegbami scored the first goal.
At the club level, Odegbami rated the goal he scored for Shooting Stars against Maghreb Fez of Morocco in the 1-1 drawn quarter finals of the 1984 Africa Cup of Champions Clubs as his best. Shooting Stars won the return leg 4-1 in Ibadan to advance 5-2 on aggregate.
Recalling some of the memorable moments he had in his playing days, Odegbami spoke of the odd timing of the 1977 Challenge Cup final match of IICC Shooting Stars and the defunct Raccah Rovers of Kano that was played Sunday morning to enable Nigeria beat the CAF deadline for registration for the 1978 Africa Cup Winners competition.
Shooting Stars won the ill-tempered match 1-0 from an Odegbami’s goal which Rovers’ officials were to contest much later after match had restarted. Rovers’ players later walked off the pitch.
According to Odegbami, he was mobbed by admirers who stripped almost to his under wears as team inches its way back to Sam Shonibare Street, Surulere where it lodged.