In the latest look back on historic moments in Irish football, Noel Spillane recalls the Republic of Ireland’s colourful journey to Nigeria for the World Youth Cup in 1999.
Flashback by Noel Spillane (Evening Echo)
From the moment Fr. Peter McCawille of the SMA Wilton told me that every day is different and no day is the same in Nigeria, I must admit I was intrigued.
The occasion was the FIFA World Youth Cup finals and the Republic of Ireland, under Brian Kerr and the late Noel O’Reilly, had qualified for the first time.
After a plethora of jabs, injections and tablets for every conceivable illness and infection under the sun, I got to spend three-and-a-half amazing weeks in Ibadan and up north in Kano on the fringes of the Sahara, and briefly in transit in and out of the capital Lagos, which has a population of over 12 million.
Our first stop-off point was basically up the road in Ibadan, a city of another 10 million people, but after the much bargaining and negotiations, we got back to Lagos for the opening match between Nigeria and Costa Rica.
From the moment we set foot in Nigeria, we had our own designated driver and an armed guard in the passenger seat. But the only way we were allowed to go back to Lagos for the tournament’s opener and get a first look at the Nigerians was to promise the driver that we would get back to Ibadan before nightfall – otherwise he would not risk his life for four football-mad Irish journalists – Paul Buttner, Emmet Malone, Karl McGinty, and myself.
Also on that adventure were Damien Lawlor and Dublin-based photographers Dave Maher and Lorraine O’Sullivan. And on the two-hour trip back down to Lagos, and the national stadium, on the only main road that connects the two cities, it was easy to see why our driver was so fearful and reluctant to oblige.
The road went through thick undergrowth/jungle on both sides and it was strewn with abandoned bullet-holed cars, trucks and transit vans that had been hi-jacked by one or other of the three tribes natives to Nigeria.
We were also informed by our splendid hosts and guardians, the SMA priests based at the appropriately-named suburb of ‘Challenge’, that up to 12 people a night were killed or murdered in the capital alone. The locals placed little or no value on life.
There were petrol and electricity shortages throughout the country, the food wasn’t the best, and trying to exchange money for the local ‘naira’ proved to be difficult too. The local currency was basically worthless and even a 50 dollar bill got you a brick of notes that were so filthy it was hard to make out the denomination of the notes, which were invariably stuck together.
The smell of tear gas was thick in the air after the opening match – think of what might have happened if the host nation had lost! There were 35,000 at that match – 34,900 of them locals – and on the way out of the stadium and back to our edgy driver and security man I got separated from the others.
Within seconds, I had this Nigerian fan dressed in green and white, wearing what seemed to be a grass skirt and carrying a spear, dancing in front of me all the way back to the car. Apparently, he was welcoming me to his country and to the football tournament, but it sure didn’t feel that way at the time.
In those days there was a lot of stress as I filed copy back to Ireland for both the Irish Examiner and Evening Echo when abroad, but this was the trip of a lifetime and one I will never forget.
Believe or not, I still have a few ‘naira’ notes and the receipts from our base at the Kakanfo Inn on Nihiniola Street in Ibadan and the Kano Durbar Hotel in Kano. I wonder are they still in business and on the tourist trail.
One of the highlights (or lowlights) was meeting Sepp Blatter, FIFA President, at half-time at one of Ireland’s game. In a hastily-arranged press conference, Mr Blatter told us in all seriousness that his dream was to bring the World Cup to Nigeria. The words were hardly out of his mouth and we had a power failure with the game delayed for over 20 minutes.
The reason given for the floodlights failure? Someone had urinated on the generator. Ah happy days!
In terms of the football, Ireland lost their first game to Mexico, then beat Saudi Arabia and Australia to reach the round of 16 where they lost to hosts Nigeria on penalties after a 1-1 draw. It was a great effort by Kerr’s team and a trip that those of us on it will never forget.
Check out previous Flashbacks from SWAI members…
Arthur Duffy on Derry City’s memorable UEFA Cup run
Philip Quinn on the night Ireland qualified for Italia ’90
*Image courtesy of Sportsfile