The slew of men playing football with crutches are hard to miss when you get to the National Stadium in Lagos on this sunlit Wednesday morning. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, they train on a sandy, gritty pitch just on the left before the main bowl.
And the sight is always rapting. Men who have overcome the misery of losing one of their legs playing football with a deep-seated intimacy.
It was here that Goodluck Ogochukwu Obieze found his purpose, kiths and kins after losing one of his legs in an accident 16 years ago during a road trip from Onitsha to his village, Orlu in Imo State.
Obieze was also here on this Wednesday morning, training lightly with his teammates. Together they are called the Special Eagles, Nigeria’s Amputee Football Team.
It has been a rollercoaster journey for Obieze who is one of the senior players of the Special Eagles who are scheduled to represent Nigeria at the 2018 Amputee Football World Cup in Mexico from October 24 to November 5.
From Onitsha to the world
After losing one of his legs in the gruesome accident, Obieze was lost in the stultifying conformity of disabled life. But he felt a spark when a friend told him the story of a football team made up of people like him, amputees.
“I couldn’t believe it when my friend told me this in 2007,” Obieze told after a training session at the National Stadium in Lagos.
His people were sceptical about the move, scared of their loved one being alone in the chaotic city of Lagos on his own.
“They don’t allow me to go far because of my condition but I was not scared,” he added.
Obieze headed straight to the National Stadium when he arrived in Lagos and met one of the coaches of the amputee team whom he had spoken to on the phone before he made the journey.
“He told me they didn’t have any provision for anybody. ‘If you are here, you are on your own’ he told me,” Obieze said.
“We only train you but we don’t have any support for anybody. If you have the passion you can stay, you can see other disabled here but don’t misbehave,” the coach said according to Obieze.
He stayed. With no home in Lagos, the National Stadium became the new roof over his head. He met some other members of the amputee team there and together they played, worked and lived at the National Stadium. The popular Ojez Restaurant at the National Stadium was their favourite sleeping spot.
Obieze took to amputee football like a duck to water. Without money to get good crutches, he took some damaged ones, tied them together with ropes and got on the pitch. He impressed and within weeks, he was in consideration to represent Nigeria at the 2007 Amputee Football World Cup in Turkey.
Thierry Henry cares
After years of being fondly called ‘Igwe’ by Nigerians, Arsenal legend Thierry Henry was finally conferred with the title at an event in Lagos during his visit in December 2017.
The former France international was clad in the complete attire of an Igbo chief as part of the conferment but he immediately took everything off and handed them to Obieze. “You are the real king, a hero,” Henry told him.
Obieze is featured in the popular advert for Guinness ‘Made of Black’ campaign series which are based on the stories of how football helps Africans overcome adversities.
In his part in the ad, Obieze tells the compelling story of how football helped him found love, friendship and happiness.
As the Made of Black Ambassador, Obieze had several vis-à-vis with Henry during the football star’s visit to Nigeria.
Like every other person, Henry was in awe of Obieze’s story and took an interest.
“My experience with Thierry Henry was very great. You can see this blue jersey now, he was the one that sent it to us,” Obieze said.
“When we spoke, I told him my challenges with the team and he was very happy to help.
“The only problem I have now is that all the contacts I have, it is hard to get in touch with him. I have been writing to his manager but nothing yet.”
It was through Guinness that Henry sent the jerseys-four sets (blue, black, white and green) each with 15 jerseys, 60 in total.
“They called me that Thierry Henry sent some materials and that’s what we use to train,” Obieze said.
Henry promised more too but Obieze can’t reach him again.
“He said I should pass any information I have to him through Guinness, but the Guinness people he gave me their contact, I went there yesterday it was very hard for me to enter there. I tried my possible best, we spent almost the whole day but we couldn’t get in.”
At the time of this writing, Pulse Sports could not get any word with anyone at Guinness Nigeria despite several attempts.
Special Eagles in need
Obieze is desperate to get to Henry again as the Special Eagles are at risk of missing the 2018 Amputee Football World Cup because of lack of sponsors and funds.
“I told Thierry Henry that the only challenge that we have is to get sponsor to the World Cup,” Obieze said. .
“He said as far that we have the invitation, we must be there. I have written letters to him through Guinness. I and the Federation have been following up.”
It is unknown how much contact Obieze even has with people at Guinness Nigeria. It was a man from Sweden -known as Stefan Lovgren-whom he met at the National Stadium in 2007 that arranged the deal for him.
According to Pulse Sports investigations, Lugard too had been held spellbound by the story of Obieze and took it upon himself to capture some of his moments on tape.
The Swede has several clips of Obieze over the years which birthed the documentary created by London-based advertising agency AMV BBDO and directed by Wilkins & Maguire at production company Stink also in London.
Although he is on N716,000 ($2000) per annum as Ambassador of Made of Black, Obieze does not have direct contact with people at Guinness Nigeria, reason why he has had difficulties in reaching them.
Now or never
Nigeria have never been to the Amputee Football World Cup. They were invited to the 2007 edition in Turkey but failed to make it because of lack of funds. They have, however managed to play in a couple of All-African Amputee Football Championship tournaments- Sierra Leone in 2007, Liberia in 2010, Ghana in 2011 and Kenya in 2013.
Amputee football in Nigeria have been in total neglect, just like every other sports in Nigeria that’s not football.
Since they failed to make it to the 2007 Amputee Football World Cup in Turkey, Nigeria didn't get anymore invitation from the World Amputee Football Federation. That was partly due to the failure of the Nigerian Amputee Football Federation (NAFF) to pay the affiliation fee.
All that has changed since Isah Suleiman took over running of the NAFF in February 2018.
“The world body just welcomed us back after we did the election. That is why we received the invitation to play at the World Cup,” a source told Pulse Sports.
“When Suleiman took over office, he paid the affiliation fee that had accumulated for six, seven years.”
But Nigeria still risk the wrath of the World Amputee Football Federation if the Special Eagles fail to make to the Amputee Football World Cup in Mexico.
“Now that we have received the invitation, we must make sure we honour it,” Obieze said.
“That is why we are putting all our effort to make sure we play in the tournament. The world body has seen how passionate we are and we must not disappoint them.
“Because they told us that if we eventually miss this opportunity, they won’t be amputee Football in Nigeria. That they won’t even welcome us to the body again.”
Along with the future of amputee football in Nigeria, the lives of the players hang on this tournament. They risk losing everything they have worked more than 10 years for.
“So far it has not been so easy, but we are doing our best and my happiness is that the boys are responding,” Nwenwe Victor, coach of the team told Pulse Sports.
“The players, all of them have the passion to play, whenever you give them an instruction, they adhere to it and it makes things easy for us.”
Victor who has been with the team since 2013 believes they have the talent to match their opponents on the world stage.
It is critical times for the Special Eagles. With just two weeks until the Amputee Football World Cup in Mexico, the players have turned to crowdfunding campaigns to raise money.
A GoFundMe account has been set up to raise about N24, 000,000 ($68,000) while the players are also planning a road show to draw attention to their need.
Public Relations Officer of the NAFF, Pius Asaba says they have been left alone to source for sponsors and funds themselves ahead of the World Cup.
The NAFF is under the Paralympic Committee of the Sports Ministry.
“The ministry, they will tell you to go and source for funds on your own and when you are looking at a project like this, going to Mexico, it’s more than N40M and if you don’t get a competent company that can handle it, it will be difficult,” Asaba told Pulse Sports.
According to Pius, amputee football in Nigeria has been largely stirred by individual efforts, but that only can take them far.
“It is still an individual effort. Them coming here is an individual effort. They don’t have any payback yet, maybe in the future but for now, nothing,” Asaba said.
“The individual effort is a playing effort, for them to be here without getting any token, coming constantly to train.”
The struggle of the journey of the team was evident on this Wednesday morning. After training, several players scrambled for a pack of sachet water which was bought by one of their teammates.
“We don’t even know how they feed. Like now they have finished training, what would they have as take home. Some of them have not even eaten their breakfast and they are training,” Asaba said.
The lack of sponsors and funds for the 2018 Amputee Football World Cup is not deflating the morale of the players.
"We are not giving up on our dreams, we believe something will happen in our favour” captain of the side Emmanuel Ibeawuchi, told Pulse Sports.
The boys are leaving the stadium now after rarely subduing their thirsts with the dot of water they could get.
They walk home tired but still fizzed with the hopes of playing at the highest level of the game they dearly loved.