May 20 is a special day in Delta State. It marks the consummation of the vision of the Ifeanyi Okowa led Delta State Government to restore the heritage of the Principals Cup, a platform which gave life to Nigerian football and empowered the youth to great career heights.
Chiedu Ebie, the Commissioner for Basic and Secondary Education, described the mission very assuringly: “one key area for us is in the improvement of schools sports. To this end, one area we focused on is football, and the Principals Cup. Our focus is long term and our plan is that it will serve as a breeding ground for discovering young footballing talents bearing in mind that Delta State is known for its sporting prowess and achievements,” he said.
This resonates succinctly with the cry by veteran David Aigbovo for the return of the competition. In the days of the old Bendel State, the goalkeeper won the competition thrice, consecutively, with New Era College, Benin, went on to join the Flying Eagles in 1981 and the Super Eagles thereafter, also playing club football for Flash Flamingoes, Bendel Insurance and Shooting Stars of Ibadan with which he won the CAF Cup in 1992. He once told the Guardian Newspaper that “for our schools sports system to thrive once again, we have to go back to the basics and that means bringing back the culture of the Principals Cup”.
In clear professional approach to the task, Ebie and his team determined not to make it a burden on the state, by seeking partnership with the private sector, retaining the services of a sports marketing firm, Hideaplux Limited, and, together, secured the sponsorship and partnership of Zenith Bank by which the competition is now titled “Zenith Bank Delta Principals Cup”.
The revival kicked off in March with local government preliminaries where the winners, 19 public and 6 private schools, emerged for the zonal qualifiers which took place from May 4th to 7th. The quarter and semi finals are billed for May 15th and 16th to set the stage for the grand occasion on May 20 at the recently commissioned Ozoro Polytechnic Stadium, a venue which now is a metaphor for the power of the Okowa government to achieve possibilities even in difficult times.
The rekindled experience of the Principals Cup brings back glorious memories of life in the old Midwest, later Bendel, and now Edo and Delta States. Memories of great footballers who effectively combined education and sports to become national heroes, with many of them called into the Bendel Academicals and then to the national teams right from their secondary schools. Names like the Afejukus, Sam Okpodu, Ndubuisi Okosieme, Thompson Usiyen, Late Stephen Keshi, Paul Okoku, Bright Omokaro (10-10), Franklyn Howard, Austin Eguavoen, Humphrey Edobor, “Elastic” Friday Elahor, Clement Temile, Edema Fuludu, Late Osaro Obobaifor, the list is endless. They showed us the greatness in youth and the huge potentials of schools sport.
No doubt, sports throws up new champions, but those who lived the tradition will be excited with the return of Hussey College, Warri, and Urhobo College, Effurun, to the Zenith Bank Delta Principals Cup. Those schools, alongside Sapele Technical College, Government College Ughelli, Ika Grammar School, St Patrick’s College, Asaba, Anglican Grammar School, Ubuluku, and others bore the flag of the Delta zone in contest against schools like New Era College, Western Boys High School, Edokpolor Grammar School, Eghosa Grammar School, Immaculate Conception College (ICC) and Edo College on the Benin axis.
The 1975 finals of the competition was especially a tell tale. Benin City and Warri Township were virtually shut down when Hussey College stormed the Ogbe Stadium to defeat Eghosa Grammar School 1-0 in the final. The excitement reverberated not only across Bendel as they awaited their champion but even to Lagos area as the likes of Stephen Keshi, Henry Nwosu, Paul Okoku looked out from the windows of St. Finbars College and St. Gregory’s College for their possible opponent in the national finals.
The following year, Hussey College met their Waterloo in the hands of New Era College which paraded Bright Omokaro, Humphrey Edobor and others who progressed to become big names for New Nigeria Bank (NNB), the Flying Eagles and the Super Eagles. Algerian national team icon, Rabar Madger, once confessed that, of all defenders in Africa, he dreaded Bright Omokaro the most.
There was Prince Oritsuwa Afejuku. He started at Okpe Grammar School, Sapele, and proceeded to Edo Grammar School in 1977 to win not only the state but also the National finals of the Principals Cup. He was instantly invited into the Bendel State Academicals and scored the two goals in Academicals 2-3 defeat to Flying Eagles in a 1978 friendly to prepare the national youth team for an international competition. Still in secondary school, he was invited to Bendel Insurance where his performance earned him call up to the Flying Eagles in 1978 to team up with Stephen Keshi and other schoolboys.
He emerged the hero in Bendel Insurance’s defeat of Sotema of Madagascar in the Africa Cup of Champions Cup, which ended in penalties at the National Stadium, Lagos. He became talk of the town with everybody wanting to touch him and in no time he was promoted to the Green Eagles to play alongside Christian Chukwu, Emmanuel Okala, Segun Odegbami, Adokiye Amiesimaka (alias Chief Justice), Felix Owolabi, Muda Lawal and all those glorious compatriots.
The school boy got a huge break with a scholarship to the North Carolina University at which, in his first year, he was voted MVP of the Atlantic Coast Conference of the U.S. Collegiate Soccer competition. He ended with a degree in Business Management and Economics.
Then, there was Sam Okpodu. The mercurial winger kept opponents in trepidation. He got to Sapele Technical College to team up with Samson Ozogula (aka Zion Train) and other mighty boys to thrash all challengers to the finals of the 1978 Principals Cup, defeating Urhobo College, Effurun, in the final right in their backyard at the Warri Township Stadium.
Still in school, he was invited to join NPA FC and, later, McDermott of Warri which matched up Bendel Insurance in the final of the state FA Cup. Insurance quickly snapped him up to win the 1980 National Challenge Cup, beating Stationery Stores in the face of their passionate and deafening crowd in Lagos.
The exposures earned Okpodu an invite to the Flying Eagles in same 1978 but he was promoted in a few weeks into the Green Eagles to play alongside Segun Odegbami and was privileged, as a secondary school boy in the national team, to share room with Adokiye Amiesimaka who was then in the Law School.
Like Afejuku, football took Okpodu to the United States where he trained as a coach and became national instructor, training coaches around the world in modern methodology of the game. He was appointed head coach of the Super Falcons to win the African Women Championship (AWC) title in Warri in 2002 and subsequently led them to the USA 2003 FIFA Women World Cup.
The many veterans with remarkable career successes such as Samson Ozogula, Bright Omokaro, Late Thompson Oliha and Austin (“Cerezo”) Eguavoen who captained and coached the Super Eagles underline the power of the Principals Cup to sustain our football, shape the attitude of young persons to life pursuits, provide them opportunities to excel while also fostering friendship and unity among students across communities.
With hindsight, we now know that the slaughter of the redneck lizard and the breaking of raw eggs on the pitch do not guarantee victory in football. What it takes are commitment to training and determination to win.
Some of us who were only by the fringe of the school teams will at least remember those match days when we loaded ourselves in lorries and stormed other schools chanting songs of war like an Armada. Ask veteran broadcaster, Sonny Irabor who was the lead vocalist of ICC supporters in the late ‘60s as they chanted the name of the school’s senior prefect and top striker, “Belafonte.”