Christian Okpara, a writer with The Guardian reflects on Bendel Insurance’s days of little beginning and prospects in Nigerian football
One of the biggest upsets in Nigeria’s football history happened in 1978 at the National Stadium, Lagos. The setting was the national Challenge Cup, which was the most glamorous cup competition in West African football. The gladiators were African champions, Enugu Rangers, which had the bulk of national team players and Bendel Insurance, made up of young school leavers, whose only claim to fame was that they defeated the more illustrious IICC Shooting Stars in the semifinal of the competition. And then, they had Alabi Aisien and belief in their ability.
Aisien, a young, upcoming coach, who previously managed Rangers neighbours, Vasco Da Gama, was thought to have no chance against the legendary Eto Amaechina, who, the year before, led Rangers to win the Africa Cup Winners Cup.
On paper, Insurance was outclassed by the star-studded Enugu Rangers, led by a coach, whose pedigree dwarfed that of Aisien. Aside from being Rangers coach, Amaechina was also part of the national team set up. He was feared by his opponents, and, even referees.
That was a Rangers team that faced Insurance on that sunny day at the Sports City, Surulere. It was a match that somehow changed Nigeria’s football landscape, as it threw up new stars for the Green Eagles.
What worked for Bendel Insurance in 1978, which are what followers of the club say the current side have lacked for so long, are quality administrators, good welfare scheme and sincerity on the part of the officials.
In Coach Aisien, Bendel Insurance also had a flambouyant manager that was tactically second to none. Writing in his tribute to the late Coach Amodu Shaibu, former national team captain, Segun Odegbami, described Pa Aisien as one of Nigeria’s most erudite and knowledgeable coaches of the late 70s and early 1980s.
Odegbami said Aisien was a genuine ‘professor’ of football, whose true worth was shielded by the effect of the rapid turnover, continuous depletion and dilution of quality football administrators at that time. Complete outsiders eventually took over the game’s administration and have not surrendered ever since.
“Alabi was one of a number of gifted and knowledgeable first generation coaches, whose intellectual depth and understanding of football were ignorantly not exploited enough to drive and sustain proper football development in the country. ‘Professor’ Alabi Aisien was an absolutely brilliant man, a deep thinker, very eloquent, well cultured, passionate and thorough. That was the man that took Amodu under his wings as his assistant coach in Mighty Jets FC of Jos in the late 1980s or early 1990s. It was on this rock that Amodu built his foundation,” Odegbami recalled.
In the 1970s up to the early 1990s, Aisien bestrode the Nigerian football firmament like a colossus, who knew perfectly the ingredients that when put together would result in a sumptuous soccer meal. In Eto Amaechina of Enugu Rangers, Chris Udemezue of Ranchers Bees, Austin Ofokwu of Stationery Stores, Monday Sinclair of Sharks, Isaac Nnado of Spartans and Adegboye Onigbinde of Shooting Stars of Ibadan, Aisien had great company.
Perhaps, one event that brought the erudite Aisien to public attention was his ability to lead a very young Bendel Insurance Football Club of Benin to that 3-0 defeat of the legendary Enugu Rangers, which had nine regular members of the Green Eagles in its lineup.
Enugu Rangers, in 1978, was invincible. The team embodied everything that was dreaded of Nigerian football. The team had won the African Cup Winners Cup, the second Nigerian club to win a continental trophy.
Bendel Insurance, on the other hand, was the ultimate underdog. It was in the league, with its biggest claim to fame up to that Challenge Cup final in 1978 being beating Mighty Jets of Jos to win the 1972 Challenge Cup and the league in 1973.
These victories were achieved before Enugu Rangers and Shooting Stars of Ibadan held Nigerian football by the jugular, exchanging titles as if they were the only teams in the land. But unknown to many, Bendel Insurance, helped by the grassroots development programme instituted by Governor Samuel Ogbemudia, was gradually building a strong team of young school leavers under the wings of Aisien.
Before arriving in Benin, Aisien was the coach of the dangerous Vasco Da Gama, which was a serious thorn in the flesh of city neighbours, Enugu Rangers.
Aisien arrived in Bendel Insurance in the middle 1970s and went about getting the best legs from every corner of Midwest to the Benin team. The result was that by 1978, Insurance had such deadly stars as Henry Ogboe, Chris Ogu, Sylvanus Oriakhi, Solomon Etoroma and Anthony Oviawe. There were also Francis Moniedafe, Kadiri Ikhana, Rufus Ejele, Leotis Boateng, George Omokaro, Agwo Nnaji, and Prince Afejuku.
Enugu Rangers of the 19780s was known for the English brand of football characterized by long balls and to neutralise it, Aisien adopted the possession type short passing game, which meant that the ball was always on the feet of Bendel Insurance players.
The outcome of such tactic was that half way into the game, Rangers’ players were panting and short of breath. Insurance hit the Nigerian champions three times, with Peter Egharevba’s free kick beating Emmanuel Okala for the opening goal. Henry Ogboe scored the second goal and also wrapped up the game seven minutes to the end with the third goal.
That game signaled the arrival of Bendel Insurance as the third arm of the quadruplet, who ruled Nigerian football. The others were Rangers, Shooting Stars and Stationery Stores. There were also other big names in Nigerian football like Mighty Jets of Jos, Raccah Rovers of Kano, Water Corporation of Ibadan and Standard of Jos.
Apart from breaking the stranglehold Rangers and IICC had on Nigerian football, the FA Cup win also brought the Insurance line up to national reckoning, with those of them, who were not already in the national team, fast tracked into the squad.
However, the memory of Insurance’s rise to glory has so faded that the club, in recent times, have dangled between the elite league and the backwaters of Nigerian football.
Insurance were first relegated to the lower division of Nigerian league at the end of the 2007-08 season, after finishing last in the league. They regained their position in the 2019 season, but after just one season, they went down again.
They won promotion back to the NPFL on the penultimate day of the 2022 season and since the beginning of the 2022/23 season, they have taken the league by storm with five victories and one draw in six games to sit atop Group A of the abridged Nigerian Professional Football League (NPFL).
Can the Benin Arsenal sustain such high performance to the end of the season? Some stakeholders in the club believe they can if the owners maintain the current level of support to the team. They also reminisced on the glory days of the club and things that made Insurance such a huge success in the 1970s, 1980s and the early 1990s.
The Guardian recently met with Pa Alabi Aisien in Benin, where he barred his mind on the recent events in Nigerian football, among other things. He also believes that he still has a lot to offer Nigerian football even in retirement.
He said, “when you talk of Bendel Insurance, it brings back memories of the good things we did in the good old days. But again, the question is, do we learn from history.”
Even in retirement, Aisien still follows events in Nigerian football, which ‘unfortunately, is not growing the way it should.’
He said, “When I look at our football today, I wonder if we are developing; and if we are developing, at what rate? Is it commensurate with what obtains in other countries? We seem to take two steps forward and five steps backwards.
“But all is not lost. By the special grace of God, when you stay long in darkness, you begin to see. I think we have stayed long in the dark and it is now time to come out and look for ways to move forward.
“I passed through the crucible of Nigerian football and I think some of us should be consulted when things are going wrong. I have been looking forward to the day I will have a one-on-one with the NFF people to tell them where things are going wrong.
“We have been fluctuating and it behooves on the relevant authorities to harness the country’s resources and look for solutions to the problems. ”
One of the main players in the 3-0 defeat of Rangers in 1978, Francis Moniedafe, is also saddened by the current state of the team. But he believes things could be made right by the administrators.
He said: “I want to say a big congratulations to Bendel Insurance on their return to the NPFL, which is where they belong going by their pedigree.
By virtue of its name, Bendel Insurance brings back some synergy to the league together with Rangers and IICC. “Playing for Bendel Insurance was a dream come true for me, because I grew up watching the likes of the late Victor Oduah, Sebastian Brodricks and Tony Ottah, who played before me.”
Moniedafe, like so many of his peers in the glory days of Nigerian football, was scouted through a grassroots development programme that ensured that no talented youngster anywhere in the Midwest was allowed to waste.
Another of such talented youngsters is Prince Oritsuwa Afejuku, who was seen as one of the players with the fastest transition in the national team set up.
The Itsekiri prince, who began playing football when he started primary education at Council Primary School, Sapele, was still in secondary school when he was invited to the junior national team, the Flying Eagles in 1978. He played in that team for just one year before he was drafted to the Green Eagles alongside Henry Nwosu and Sylvanus Okpalla in 1979.
The Green Eagles then had such strong characters as Christian Chukwu, Aloysius Atuegbu, Muda Lawal, Segun Odegbami, Adokie Amiesimaka, Felix Owolabi, David Adiele, Best Ogedegbe and Emmanuel Okala. But with such luminaries in the team, the young Afejuku was not daunted, as he set about carving his own path in the team.
However, his sojourn in the senior national team was short-lived, as he had to abandon association football in Nigeria in search of the Golden Fleece in the United States of America.
Reminiscing on his football career and the path he has taken since the day he first met with the legendary Coach Alabi Aisien, in 1978, Prince Afejuku told The Guardian that he was lucky to have come when Nigeria gave merit the right of place in the scheme of things.
“I started playing youth football with a team called 11 Brothers. Then, I was in secondary school at Okpe Grammar School. What we did was to play against other youth teams in our community and sometimes, we went to neighbouring towns to engage their teams.
“In 1977, I moved to Edo Grammar School with which I won the national Principals Cup and was chosen to represent Nigeria in an international competition. I was also playing for the Bendel State Academicals, which was a formidable force in youth football in Nigeria.
“In fact, it was after a game against the Flying Eagles in 1978, which we lost 2-3, that Coach Radovic invited me to the Flying Eagles in 1978. I scored the two goals for Bendel Academicals in that game. My team mates in the Flying Eagles were the late Stephen Keshi, Sylvanus Okpalla, Bright Omokaro, Edema Benson, Lucky Imafidon, Franklin Howard, Henry Nwosu, Sam Igwenagu, Idris Musa and Humphrey Edebor, among others.”
Prince Afejuku was barely two months old in the Flying Eagles when Bendel Insurance invited him to join the team, which was then the reigning Challenge Cup kings.
The lad, barely out of his teens, was initially scared of rubbing shoulders with the big boys in the Benin team, but Coach Alabi Aisien assured him that there was nothing to fear.
“Coach Aisien believed that if I was good enough to play for Nigeria’s junior team, I should be able to play for his team. He took me as his son, which made it easy for me to fit into the team.”
From playing against school boys on the streets of Warri and Sapele, Bendel Insurance thrust Prince Afejuku into continental football, where he rubbed shoulders with such African giants of the game as, Roger Milla, Djonkeb Bonaventure, Rabah Madjer, Lakhdar Beloumi, Ekramy Ahmed, Mahmoud El Khatib, Olleh Olle and Emmanuel Kunde, among others.
Prince Afejuku, who still relishes those heady nights at the National Stadium, was in the Bendel Insurance team that represented Nigeria in the African Cup of Champions competition.
“My most memorable game in the Africa Cup of Champions Cup was our match against Sotema of Madagascar. We beat them 2-0 in Madagascar, but they came to Lagos to defeat us 2-0. It ended on a penalty shootout and we won at the National Stadium in 1979.
“In the Bendel Insurance team were, David Adiele, the late Felix Agbonifo, Christopher Ogu, Peter Egharevba, Leotis Boateng, Kadiri Ikhana, George Omokaro, Francis Monidafe and Henry Ogboe, among others. After that match, the late Patrick Okpomo said if I could play for that Insurance team, I could also play for the Green Eagles. That was how he drafted me, Sylvanus Okpalla and Henry Nwosu to the Green Eagles.
“But I did not stay long in the Green Eagles, because I got a scholarship to study and play at North Carolina State University.”
Prince Afejuku recalls that even when he was schooling in the United States, “Bendel Insurance usually sent flight tickets for me to come and play in important matches. I will fly in on Friday, play on Saturday or Sunday and fly back to the US on Sunday.”
He picks the game between Bendel Insurance and Sotema of Madagascar as the best moment of his career. ‘‘The game was very emotional. It was also the match that made it possible for me to play for Nigeria. So, it is the high point of my career.
“You know after that game, when I came back to Benin, I was the talk of the town. Everywhere I went, people wanted to touch me. Most of the people did not know that I am Itsekiri. They thought I was Igbo, because of my name, Afejuku.”
To Prince Afejuku, Bendel Insurance’s match against Canon Sportiv of Cameroun, in 1979, was a sad moment he would never forget. “We lost the first leg in Yaoundé 0-1 and everybody believed we would turn the tide in Benin. But we played goalless with all the support and money promised to us.
“I remember lying on the ground crying, when Chief Obaseki came to console me. He told me that I did well and gave me the exact amount of money promised us for a win. We lost that match and he still gave me the money. I was in tears because we lost and I was still rewarded. I was happy and sad at the same time.”
Looking at the current state of Nigerian football, which is highlighted by failing to qualify for Qatar 2022 World Cup, Prince Afejuku says officials’ insincerity and misplaced priorities are the bane of the country’s football.
‘‘When we were playing, there was no money, but we were contended with what we had. The administration was good and the encouragement was good, we really loved playing the game. But now, it is like we are going backwards.”
To turn things around, he advises politicians to leave football for footballers to run, saying, “the politicians have come to kill the game. They should face their politics and leave footballers to organise the game.
“A situation where you say you are managing a club and you do not pay the players’ salaries and their entitlements shows that you don’t understand the game. You don’t pay players for months, yet when they want to go to other clubs you demand so much money to clear them.
“Another issue dragging us backwards is the animosity among the administrators. It is not getting us anywhere. People should allow peace to reign in our football.”
Prince Afejuku also heaps some of the blame on the attitude of Nigerian players. “One thing I have discovered is that the current players misplace their priorities. They want to emulate Kanu Nwankwo and Cristiano Ronaldo, but they lack the discipline to be professional players. They don’t know what it takes to reach such heights.
“You see the way they dress… their hairdo even when they have not done anything. They concentrate so much on being fine boys. You can only be a fine boy when you have achieved something in your career.
“Another thing working against our football is the attitude of our managers. When you promise to pay a player N10 and at the end of the day, you don’t pay him, you are killing his morale. You can’t expect him to perform a miracle on the pitch. The management has not realised that they are killing the game.
“I want the Interim Management Committee (IMC) to ensure that clubs fulfill their obligations to players. That is the only way to get the best out of them.” He advises managers of Bendel Insurance to adhere strictly to the agreements they have with the players, saying that being honest with the players will drive them to strive for glory.
Fortunately for the current Bendel Insurance team, the government of Edo State, owners of the team, has pledged to adhere strictly to the details of the agreements with the club’s players and officials.
The government has also pledged to make Bendel Insurance a model of professional football for other Nigerian clubs to emulate. Speaking during the recent unveiling of the team’s jerseys and sponsors, Edo State Deputy Governor, Philip Shaibu, said the current administration wants to leave a legacy that would be difficult for any successive government to jettison.
He said: “When we were sworn in, the governor said we must redefine governance and also return sports to what it used to be in the days of Ogbemudia. We started with facilities and now Edo has some of the best structures you can find in Nigeria.
“For the first time in the history of football, we are here to unveil jerseys and shirt sponsors of these jerseys. The sponsorship for Bendel Insurance’s jersey is worth N50 million. That is what Sterling Bank is paying to advertise its product on the jersey. What we are doing with insurance.
“Bendel Insurance are the first club that will not be washing their jerseys after each match.
“From this season, every player will have two jerseys in each match. So, fans that come to watch the matches have the chance of taking jerseys home after the game. And it is interesting to note that the money we spend on the team is not up what the previous managers spent and yet they owed players several months salaries.”
He challenged the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) to make the country’s club football professional, saying that that would only happen when the letters of the law governing the game are adhered to the last word.
“We must sanction every erring club, player, referee or other officials. Let the rules grow the game so that we can get true champions at the end of every season,” he said.
To Governor Godwin Obaseki, bringing Bendel Insurance back to limelight is one of the ways his government is creating employment and hope for the youths of Edo State.
He said: “We cannot organise tomorrow without focusing on the youths. What we are doing is getting the private sector involved in sports. The confidence that made Sterling Bank to invest in our teams is because of the governance we put in place. When we came in, I gave my deputy the full authority to turn around sports in Edo State.
“What we have tried to do is introduce a new ethos into sports, a new governance arrangement where there is transparency in how we arrange sports. We rebuilt the Samuel Ogbemudia Stadium and built 20 other stadiums across the state. We have shown the world that we are renewing sports in Edo State.
“One significant event is that we are getting corporate bodies to take their brands to support our own brands. By the end of this event, you will see other corporates looking for ways to partner with us. We are aware that no brand will associate its brand with something that is not good. And we, as Bendel Insurance, must ensure that we live up to expectations. What is happening here places enough responsibility on Bendel Insurance and I can assure you that when you top the league, other brands will be scrambling to sponsor you. And then, we will no longer be talking about N50 million.
Imagine if this sponsorship is replicate across all the clubs in Nigeria, there will be so much money in our league and the players will remain to play in the local competition. I wany to throw a challenge to all managers of Nigerian football: you have to change the way you manage the sector. That is the only way to attract the corporates into the game. I want to reiterate that our emphasis is on the people and we are happy that sports is not in the exclusive list. So, we are happy to say that we will continue to invest our hard-earned resources in sports and the youth.”
Bendel Insurance started their campaign in the abridged 2022/2023 NPFL season with a 2-0 away victory over Akwa United at that Godswill Akpabio Stadium, Uyo. They have also won three more games and drawn one.
Current Coach, Monday Odigie, believes the away wins have set the tempo for a glorious season for the Benin Arsenal.
The coach begins: “NPFL is a big and tough League. Irrespective of the result in our favour, we will go back to work on our weaknesses and strengthen the boys mentally. “We will go back to prepare better ahead of stronger challenges we expect to meet,” Odigie said.