According to some of the country’s football legends, winning the Africa Cup of Nations is the pinnacle for every footballer from the continent.
The excitement, the bounce-backs, roller-coaster drama which comes and goes from minute to minute, until the full-time whistle sounds and history is made, still seems just like yesterday to these stars, who won the AFCON in 1980, 1994 and 2013.
The Super Eagles will once again hope to feel the rush of the adrenaline they last felt 11 years ago in South Africa, when they won the Africa Cup of Nations title for the third time.
With just nine days to the kickoff of the 34th edition of the AFCON in Ivory Coast, PUNCH Sports Extra recalls how some of the past winners felt after claiming the continent’s football showpiece trophy.
Ogenyi Onazi, a member of the team that conquered the continent in 2013, the country’s last AFCON win, said the victory in South Africa remained his biggest achievement.
“It’s something that every member of that team remains proud of. There are so many great players in this country who didn’t win the AFCON. So, it’s an honour for me to be counted as one of the few Nigerian players to have won it. It’s a pride for me,” he said in an interview with The PUNCH.
“The AFCON medal ranks top among all the titles I have won as a footballer. I have won other titles like the Coppa Italia with Lazio and the Lithuanian League title but the AFCON remains the biggest ever.”
Christian Chukwu, who etched his name in country’s folklore, when he became the first Nigerian to lift the Africa Nations Cup on March 22, 1980, said he felt like a king after touching the glittering trophy.
“It was jubilation everywhere and it was the first time I was able to ride a horse around Lagos streets with the crowd cheering; I felt like a king.
“President Shehu Shagari gave us houses, cars and some other gifts. We were on top of the world.
“There is nothing like that, even though we did not make enough money back then.
“The feeling of winning the AFCON for the first time will be there forever,” Chukwu, who was captain of the then Green Eagles, said.
According to Kadiri Ikhana, another member of the 1980 team, the victory on home soil is an experience he will never forget.
“I can only remember how happy we were and the true love we shared in camp. We went out to have fun and enjoyed ourselves and I think we partied till about 2am before we went to bed,” Ikhana said.
“It was a wonderful day and it is a day I will forever remember in my life. We took lots of wine to celebrate the victory and I returned home very late, and believe me, that was something I had never done before in my life. I think it was a day to be recognised and remembered.”
Slyvanus Okpala, who was just 18 then and was the second youngest member of the team, recalled how he cherished the gifts showered on the players after winning the trophy.
He said, “I was in secondary school when I was called to the national team, I was also the captain of the U-20 side, I never knew I would make it to the AFCON but I had joined the national team since 1978 and was already going for screening.
“It was a fantastic reception, with gifts everywhere. The first television my parents and my family members watched in our house was the one that were given to us as a gift. The first freezer and fridge we had in our house was also given to us by Thermocool, amongst many other gifts. It was wonderful for someone from a poor family to get to that height. I would walk on the streets and people would be chanting my name.
“All the gifts given to me, I gave them to my parents except the car, which I drove around.”
Goalkeeper Emmanuel Okala was also thrilled to have been part of the team.
“It was a very happy moment; everybody, including our President, Shehu Shagari, was very happy.
“After the victory, we got a lot of gifts, even Chief MKO Abiola held a party for us, where he gave us gifts; many other people also gave us gifts. My people were happy that their son was part of the people that made Nigeria proud. We were surprised at all the gifts showered on us because it had never happened like that before. Even the President was at all our games and was also a frequent visitor to our team hotel.”