When Pele Came to Nigeria (Twice)

Posted on

Before there was #NigeriaToTheWorld and the late Dora Akunyili’s ‘Good People, Great Nation’ campaign and all the other artificial attempts designed to capture Nigeria’s importance to the Black nation, there was Paul McCartney and Festac ‘77.  Scholars of popular culture would recall that Band on the Run, the most acclaimed of Sir McCartney’s post-Beatles work was largely recorded in Lagos as McCartney sought new beginnings in an exotic locale. The album would go on to become the top-selling studio album in the United Kingdom and Australia in the year of its release- 1973. The years of the oil boom would culminate in 77’s Festival of Arts and Culture which saw artists like Stevie Wonder, Miriam Makeba, Mighty Sparrow, and Gilberto Gil perform in the country. In a sense, that captures the essence of Lagos as the capital of a freshly minted and culturally dominant country. Flying under the radar are two trips into the country by perhaps the world’s most iconic footballer, Pele.

Lagos, January 1969 

Pele, the footballer christened Edson Arantes do Nascimento and named after Thomas Edison had burst onto the world scene as a 17 year old at the 1958 World Cup. A hat trick in the semi finals against Sweden let the world know what was coming and Brazil’s eventual winning the cup validated his rise. Pele’s failure and overall reluctance to leave the Brazilian league until his emergence from retirement for a spell at the New York Cosmos is often cited by those who seek to diminish his greatness on the basis that the best footballer of his age never tried his hands in any of the world’s big leagues but his political significance to Brazil at his peak would see fans riot when European giants sought to buy him and his designation as an “official national treasure” by President Janio Quardros to prevent him moving abroad. This designation formed the potential for commercial gold for Santos who in ways that would make Ed Woodward lick his lips were able to traipse the world with Pele in tow for the highest bidder. 

One of those bids came in the form of an African tour in 1969. Matches in Nigeria, The Congo, Algeria, Mozambique and Ghana had been booked. The Lagos match was staged at the behest of the Nigeria Football Association who paid Santos £11,000 to play an exhibition match against the national team, the Green Eagles. In true Nigerian fashion, a debate was held over the utility of such expenses with Chief A.B. Osula, the Vice Chairman of the NFA arguing that the country was getting a bargain and it also offered an opportunity for Nigerians to see Pele in the flesh. The match would end 2-2 with Pele grabbing a brace and Muyiwa Oshode and Baba Alli scoring for Nigeria. 

Benin, January 1969

The then military governor of the Midwest region, Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Ogbemudia was famed for being a huge sports buff. Ogbemudia whose popularity in Edo politics remains unparalleled was responsible for the construction of the multi use Ogbe stadium and the National Museum in Benin. The Ogbe stadium, which is now named after Ogbemudia was launched with an exhibition match between Santos and an all star Midwest team.  While Santos were in the country for the Lagos match, Isaac Okonjo in his capacity as the Chairman of the Midwest Sports Council announced a committee tasked with the brief of raising funds for the match. They were able to enlist the help of the FA  in negotiating a £6,000 fee while Santos accommodated it in their schedule, flying back to play after trips to The Congo and Mozambique. Upon their arrival in Benin, Pele and Santos were treated like popstars. They announced their arrival with visits to Ogbemudia and the Oba of Benin. Despite a mooted 3.30pm kickoff, the stadium was opened at 10am and filled up by 2pm, leading fans to form clusters outside the stadium. Santos won 2-1 and Pele failed to get on the scoresheet, causing disappointment for the traveling fans.

Lagos, February 1976

As far as colonial legacies go, Nigeria’s members and sporting clubs are long-enduring relics of a past where western influence became mainstream. Places like Ikoyi Club, the Lagos Lawn Tennis Club, the Lagos Motor Boat Club and the Lagos Polo Club were founded by foreigners who sought to facilitate interest in the activities they enjoyed in their home countries. In fact, Ikoyi Club’s membership was exclusive to expatriates until the 50s. The Lagos Lawn Tennis Club was the setting of one of the definitive images of the mecca that was Lagos in the 70s.  In February 1976, Arthur Ashe, best known for being the first black man to win a Grand Slam title and then reigning Wimbledon champion arrived in Lagos to participate in the $60,000 Lagos Tennis Classic tournament, a part of the World Championship Tennis (WCT) pro circuit series. Mid-game, a group of soldiers ran on the court declaring the game over threatening “What are you doing? We are in mourning. You are making money. Are you all mad? Please go. Please go.” Pandemonium ensued as the fans dispersed while the players were led away to the dressing room. 

The tournament owed part of its existence to a 1970 US State Department goodwill trip where Ashe and Stan Smith- the inspiration behind arguably the most enduringly iconic sneaker silhouette of all time visited Lagos with Ashe emerging with a renewed sense of vigour in discharging what he felt was his duty to promote the sport and its potential on the continent. In line with other prominent black athletes of his age, Ashe understood the use of his platform as a tool for social justice. When he was denied a visa to travel to South Africa to play in the South African open in 1970, he mounted a sustained campaign against apartheid. Ashe lobbied the World Championship Tennis (WCT) pro circuit series to make Lagos one of its outposts resulting in the execution of a 5 year agreement for the Lagos Lawn Tennis Club to host an annual series of tournaments in Lagos. The 14 World Circuit players drawn to participate at the debut Lagos tourney were Arthur Ashe (USA), Tom Okker (HOL), Dick Crealy (AUS), Harold Solomon (USA), Jeff Borowiak (USA), Brian Fairlie (NZL), Eddie Dibbs (USA), Ismail El Shafei (EGY), Wojtek Fibak (POL), Karl Meiler (GER), Bob Lutz (USA), Stan Smith (USA), Erik Van Dillen (USA), and Dick Stockton (USA) while Nigeria’s two best tennis players, Lawrence Awopegba and Yemisi Allan were granted wildcard entry. As this was going on, Pele had arrived in Lagos in his role as a Pepsi brand ambassador to partake in an exhibition match and a set of football clinics designed to help spread the gospel of football and also fortify the longstanding link between the soft drinks company and the football industry. As an interesting aside, the Pepsi Football Academy- initially operating as an independent football academy which upon receiving backing of Pepsi morphed into a series of football schools spread across the country would produce future Super Eagles stars like Mikel Obi, Sunday Mba and Elderson Echiejile. 

For the superstitious ones amongst us, any Friday that falls on the 13th of the month has come to be viewed as being a harbinger of bad luck. This superstition has inspired a 19th-century secret society, an early 20th-century novel, a horror film franchise and two very hard-to-spell and pronounce terms—paraskavedekatriaphobia and friggatriskaidekaphobia—that describe the fear of this supposedly unlucky day. The 13th day of February, 1976 fell on a Friday and its reputation for negative energy came to life when Nigerian Head of State, General Murtala Mohammed was shot in his black Mercedes Benz while stuck in traffic on his way to the army headquarters from his home. This marked the launch of a coup attempt led by Lt. Colonel Bukar Dimka. Dimka took to addressing the nation by radio citing corruption and Mohammed’s inadequacies as leader as necessitating the overthrow but the fear of reprisal by Mohammed’s loyalists confined Dimka into hiding before eventually getting arrested in the South East. 

As news of the attempted coup spread, the tennis entourage and Pele’s crew which were both based at the Federal Palace Hotel in Victoria Island were told to stay put in mitigation against potential instability. The following week, an exception was made for the tennis stars to leave the country in the face of travel restrictions while Pele was forced to wait till the restrictions were lifted before he was permitted to travel disguised as an aviator. 


My interest in this story was inspired by a Pele biography I received as a seven-year-old in which it was suggested that Pele had inspired a ceasefire between the warring Nigerian and Biafran factions. Like most things related to Pele and an age rife with poor documentation, this story has grown, spreading generations while failing recent tests of scrutiny. Per writer, Olaojo Aiyegbayo whose work I relied heavily on in writing this piece, his research of contemporaneous newspaper accounts failed to validate this story. He posits that Ogbemudia’s opening of the Sapele Bridge to enable Biafrans travel from Biafra into Benin to watch the match has fed the ceasefire account when in actual reality, the bridge was opened on match day to lessen the paying burden on fans. His work on the Arthur Ashe story was also helpful.