Ibeka Ogazi: The Spirit of Okwaraji is with our team, the Eagles will win AFCON 2024

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The Sunday after our heartwarming victory over Cameroon, my friend, Peter visited me and it has been the case since the Nations Cup started, our conversation dwelt more on what was going on in Abidjan.

It was a welcome diversion that has saved me from his constant mention of Manchester United, each time we are together.

Peter is a soccer encyclopedia. How he records and stores football information in his head has always surprised me. As we navigated from one aspect of the tournament to another, Peter leaned forward, a glass of chilled Life Beer clutched firmly in his left hand.

“Do you believe Nigeria will win this Nation’s Cup,” he asked me.

Surprised that he was already talking about victory when we only managed to navigate our way into the quarter-finals, I decided to stand on the side of caution.

“Let’s just say we will hope and pray to make it through to the end…” I began to say, but Peter quickly interjected, spilling a bit of the beer in his effort to make his point.

“Me I am not hoping and praying anything again. God has answered our prayers and we will definitely win,” he said matter-of-factly.

When my friend is in his argumentative element, it does not make any sense arguing with him. Yes, I know he is a football buff, but he could be annoying when he argues. I thus decided to listen to the reasons he so strongly believes victory was already ours with three games remaining before the final matches.

“Bros”, he said, tapping me twice on the shoulder, “God no go shame us. In fact, even the gods are with us for this 2024 AFCON. You know why?

Without waiting for a response from me, he took his seat and continued excitedly, this time waxing spiritual.

“Shebi you see that boy, Ademola Lookman? O’boy, that boy na the eyes of the gods! E dey see far. Na im make me like am too much!”

I recall watching the quarter-final game and seeing all the exploits of Ademola Lookman, but what has suddenly made him to become the “eyes of the gods”, according to my friend is something that started to confuse me. But my friend has his ways of seeing what the ordinary eyes cannot see.

“Peter you don start again. What did Lookman do that only you dey see, I asked him rather innocently.

“You know say you no sabi watch game at all. The only thing wey you dey see na who score and who win. But we dey wey be say we dey look the game wey dey inside game. Na so e be.

He looked at the label on the can of beer in his hand the way a fortune teller would look at the cowries he throws on the floor during a divination and then smiled.

“You see that time wey Lookman raise him hand up? If like say you dey follow social media, you go don see am. E dey everywhere for internet now.”

He paused, apparently to ensure the impact of his statement registers.

“Remember Sam Okwaraji? That agba baller wey die for National Stadium that time?”

Of course, I remember Okwaraji. Which Nigerian above 40 years of age would no remember the man who died during Nigeria’s World Cup qualifying match against Angola in 1989?

Angola!

Now it was beginning to register! Our quarter-final game in the ongoing AFCON was against Angola!

My thoughts wandered back to that unfortunate game, and I remembered watching Sam Okwaraji slump as the match was still going on. I remembered the desperate efforts to resuscitate him. I remembered him being stretchered off the stadium. I was still in this “total recall” state when the voice of my friend interrupted my reverie.

“You know see say Lookman raise his hand the same way Okwaraji dey celebrate each time he scored goals those days? Go look that his statue for National Stadium, na as he raise hand for that statue na so Lookman raise his own after that game. Google am! You go see.”

I turned to look at my friend, wondering if something was wrong with him, but he would not even let me ask the question on the tip of my tongue.

“Na the spirit of Okwaraji dey speak so, and for that reason, the gods of soccer will not allow this cup not to come back to Nigeria.”

Peter gulped his Goldberg and surveyed me like a class teacher trying to find out from the faces of his pupils whether he was being understood. Satisfied, he continued.

“Listen, let me school you. Do you know that there are striking similarities between this team and the one that won the trophy in 1984,” he asked.

1984? How on earth could anybody be able to draw a correlation between a team playing in 2024 and 1984? I was barely 12 years old then for crying out loud!

But Peter knows everything, and with the authority of a sage, he began to educate me

“First, resilience and patriotism drove the Nigerian Green Eagles team of the 1984 African Cup of Nations. The same was noticed in the game between the present crop of the Super Eagles that took on and beat their Cameroonian opponents during the second-round knockout stage played the other day at the Felix Houphet-Boigny Stadium in Abidjan.

“Coincidentally, the 1984 AFCON, as well as the 2024 AFCON, was staged in Abidjan, lvory Coast,” he said as he relaxed to dive deeper into the tale.

Suspecting that we might have an interesting evening ahead of us, I went to the fridge, got myself a chilled can of Goldberg beer, and returned to enjoy what was beginning like a rich narrative. Although I do not see history frequently repeating itself so conveniently, the story looked like it was going to solidify my hopes of a triumphant Nigeria at the end of the tournament.

My friend continued;

“Do you know that the 1984 and 2024 AFCON games between the then Green Eagles led by Captain Stephen KESHI and his generation of Eagles against the Cameroonian national team led by Theophile ABEGA as well as the present crop of Eagles and Indomitable Lions of Cameroon both held at the Felix Houphouet-Boigny Stadium in the capital city of Abidjan, lvory Coast.

“Similarly, in the1984 edition, Chibuzor EHILEGBU, the then Bendel lnsurance of Benin winger scored the two quick goals in the 39th and 41st minutes to snatch a point for Nigeria, just as Ademola Lookman did against the Cameroonian national team during this recent blockbuster encounter. You know he scored both goals, shebi?

Let me also tell you, Rashidi YEKINI, the gangling number 9 for the Green Eagles of the 1984 Nigerian AFCON team created the assist for Chibuzor EHILEGBU during the game, the same way that the current Eagles number 9, Victor OSIMHEN, did for Ademola LOOKMAN to score Nigeria’s opening goal.

“Yekini and Osimen are both very tall players. You dey see am?

“The 1984 team, Captain, Stephen KESHI, was a defender and libero, the same position that Captain William TROOST-EKONG plays for the present Eagles.

“Captain Stephen KESHI scored his first and only goal of that tournament from the penalty spot in the 1984 game. Are you aware that Captain William TROOST-EKONG has scored his only goal so far in this competition from a penalty kick?

It was looking like de ja vu! Almost spooky. But I am beginning to enjoy it.

READ ALSO: AFCON 2023: CAF appoints Egyptian referee for Super Eagles vs Bafana Bafana

“Do you know that Yisa SOFOLUWE, one of the defence Marshalls of the 1984 AFCON team was a light-skinned defender, just like William TROOST-EKONG?

“Let me also tell you this; the Centre Referee of the 1984 AFCON game was also light-skinned and from the North African part of the continent. In the same manner, the 2024 AFCON Centre Referee was also a light-skinned North African.”

Peter swallowed a couple of gulps and looked suspiciously at his glass as if someone had mysteriously laid an invisible drain pipe into his beer, and I knew it was time for a replacement.

I grabbed another bottle for him from the refrigerator for my friend, handing it over with a mixture of awe, reverence, and renewed respect.

My hope that Nigeria was at least going to make it to the final of this year’s competition got further reinforcement. I do not believe in coincidences, but I believed Peter. I had to. He sounded so esoterically logical. More importantly, I am a Nigerian and I have to trust and believe.

Nigeria will win! I have begun to believe!

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