Perusing the list of 59 Coaches applying for national team positions as released by the NFF, a name stood out, but it wasn’t Finidi George, rather it was Haruna Ilerika.
It took a while to confirm it wasn’t an error by the FA communication department because the name, although, with very little prominence Today remains crucial in the illustrious history of Nigerian football.
But soon as the air was cleared on the matter, it became necessary to remind those who may have forgotten so soon that in 2008, Nigeria lost a football gem.
Haruna Ilerika was and is still regarded as the greatest dribbler the Country has ever produced – debateable?
In an article written seven years ago, Ex player and 1980 Afcon winner, Adokiye Amiesimaka captured the importance of the legend of Ilerika in an article as non has or has been seen.
Amiesimaka wrote in remembrance of the former player; two years after his death, and how so soon his name had almost gone into obscurity.
That story began thus:
On Thursday, December 4, 2008, one of the most gifted ball-dribbler Nigeria ever produced died – the iconic crowd-pleaser, Haruna Ilerika.
The fact that, only two years after such a legend took his last breath, he hardly had a mention in the Nigerian press to commemorate the anniversary of his eternal exit, speaks volumes about our attitude towards our heroes.
Let me recall a brief tribute I paid to his life and work a few days after I heard about his demise. I gave it the heading ‘’Unforgettable Haruna Ilerika’’. I will be delighted to have your views about the best way to keep his memory alive.
I was engrossed in Barack Obama’s “Dreams from My Father” when my phone rang. It was 3:24am on Thursday, December 4, 2008, and the caller’s identity was hidden. Why would anyone call so early in the morning and not want to disclose his identity? I ignored it.
A few hours later, at 8:40am, it rang again. This time the caller’s identity was displayed and it was Yomi Opakunle. “Hello.”
“Good morning, CJ. This is Yomi.”
“How are you, Yomi?”
“Not so fine. Haruna Ilerika is dead. He was ill. I hear it was a liver problem. I saw him only two weeks ago! Do you have Josiah Dombraye’s number? Kindly inform him of this sad development.”
Yet it was such a bright and sunny day. The sun was dutifully awake in the east and was on its day- long crawl to the west, just as it has done since the dawn of time.
The streets were still busy with people going about their business.
The ubiquitous “Okada” riders were still weaving dangerously through traffic, not mindful of their safety. Nothing seemed to have changed.
However, Haruna Ilerika had died. In fact, Muda Lawal and Alloysuis Atuegbu, his other midfield contemporaries in the Green Eagles sometime in the ‘70s, were dead too.
As there is an entrance to a theatre, so is there an exit.
As each one plays his part on the stage of life and exits, he leaves behind lessons that others may learn from. In this regard, Haruna Ilerika was no exception.
To say that as a football player he was exceptional is a gross understatement.
If there was any schoolboy in Lagos in 1969/1970 who was sheer magic and electrified spectators in the Principals’ Soccer Cup, it was Ilerika.
Even though I was only in Form 1 (now called JSS1) at CMS Grammar School, Bariga, Lagos, I vividly recall that thanks to Haruna Ilerika, his school was one of the most dreaded secondary schools in Lagos.
Diminutive though his size was, as a player he was of considerable stature. Usually clad in oversize shorts, he could so expertly dribble the ball with his natural left foot that he was the toast of musicians, including the great Ebenezer Obe, and there were songs in his praise, pleading with him to have mercy on his opponents.
Nicknamed “Master Dribbler’’, and “Tailor’’, his popularity soared in 1971 when he joined Stationery Stores of Lagos, probably the most prominent privately-owned club in the football history of Nigeria, with arguably the most passionate supporters in the country.
From there, he was invited to the senior national team, helping Nigeria win gold in the second All Africa Games ‘73 in Lagos, and bronze in the African Nations Cup ’76 in Ethiopia.
Those who lived in Lagos those days will recall that no club in Nigeria idolized players quite like Stationery Stores.
Supporters of the club went to great lengths to make their players feel more appreciated than their contemporaries in other clubs.
They were prepared to give goods and services to such players free of charge: accommodation from landlords; beef from butchers; TVs and stereo sets from electronics dealers, etc.
However, Ilerika was known to complain that services of national team players of his era were not sufficiently appreciated by their country.
“Well done boys, the nation is proud of you”, was their only reward for the 1973 All Africa Games performance, he grieved.
I am thankful for the privilege of seeing Ilerika play between 1969 and 1976.
Unfortunately, our poor record- keeping habits mean that many younger lovers of the sport are denied what was quite an experience.
Over the years I also found him to be down to earth, open, and very articulate.
Only a player of uncommon humility like Ilerika would admit, without any hint of malice or regret, that he did the laundry for his older colleagues when he was first invited to the national team in 1971.
Unfortunately, the adulation of fans in Stores made many members of the club blind to the harsh reality of life out of the limelight.
They were simply not prepared for their retirement. It is instructive and a matter of great concern that the same holds true for many of our star players today.
When family squabbles and inadequacies of management started tearing Stores apart, many players, including Ilerika, found themselves ill-prepared to adequately fend for themselves.
The diminished stature of the team, coupled with prolonged disputes over entitlements, meant that players who had passed their prime but had neither reasonable investments nor alternative skills, faced very hard times.
In the December 2007 edition of Complete Football, Ilerika was quoted as follows: “It is just now that the former Lagos state governor, Bola Tinubu, and his successor, Raji Fashola, are helping me out. If not for their support, a national hero like me would have lived like a pauper.”
Until his demise, he was vice chairman of the Lagos State Football Association. Haruna Ilerika was simply lucky.
But it does not have to be so.
While there are too many former stars wallowing in misery and penury, there are not too many Tinubus and Fasholas around.
Even as one concedes that everything is by God’s grace and that everyone needs occasional assistance because of the vicissitudes of life, it is incumbent on everyone to see good times as an opportunity to prepare for more challenging periods.
There are some football players today who earn enough to make them millionaires in any currency.
Do they realise that the time will come when they may no longer command such income? Are they level- headed enough to invest cautiously and wisely?
Unpredictable market fluctuations may make stocks and shares rather dicey, and there may be no wisdom in dumping huge sums of money in an account, as Austin Okocha painfully found out a few years ago.
There is always relative assurance in land and buildings.
In addition, those who can squeeze out the time should acquire skills that may be handy when they retire from active football.
What is not acceptable is the notion that because they were once regarded as a star or played for their country, others owe them a living.
That is why I also believe that, honourable as service to country may be, every player should insist on fair and adequate recompense for such service and should not be deceived by any empty talk of “patriotism”.
With his uncommon talent in football, Haruna Ilerika left fond moments etched on the memory of those who knew him and, from his life experience, lessons that all may benefit from.