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‘Chairman’ Christian Chukwu: In love with football, beloved by laurels

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TO MANY followers of the Nigerian football, the name Christian Chukwu, brings memory of the captain of the men’s national team, Green Eagles, rechristened Super Eagles, lifting the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time. Winning the tournament on home soil added more colour to it. The Green Eagles beat Algeria 3-0 in the finals played at the National Stadium, Surulere, Lagos.

Popularly called ‘Chairman’ in his playing days, a moniker Chukwu got from late ace sports commentator, Earnest Okonkwo, for his commanding and leadership style on the field of play. Okonkwo gave players new names to reflect certain outstanding or defining characteristics in their lives. Chukwu’s nickname said it all about his attitude as a player.

Chukwu was part of that generation of Nigerian footballers that launched the men’s national team into continental reckoning. A chapter in the Nigeria football history that Chukwu maintains footballers played with passion and love for country.

The Chairman’s generation reminds you of an era, when bulk of the players in the national team were from the domestic league. The stadia across the country filled on match days, the fan base huge as today’s followers of foreign leagues. Chukwu, who was the first footballer to captain both a club and the national team in Nigeria came into limelight in the early 1970s when he played for Enugu Rangers International (Flying Antelopes) before being invited to join the Green Eagles.

The Enugu State born tactician regarded as the most successful skipper in Nigeria of his time, attended Christ Church Primary School Uwani, Enugu: National Secondary School, Nike, Enugu. He joined East Central State Academicals and won National Cup. Thereafter, he joined Rangers International Football Club, Enugu, becoming the club’s captain in 1974.

Under his captainship, he led Rangers to win the Challenge Cup four times in 1975, 1976, 1981, and 1983 respectively. His resilience and tireless nature helped the Club win the Africa Cup Winners Cup in 1977, becoming the second Nigerian club-side, after IICC Shooting Stars of Ibadan to win a continental championship. He was the longest serving captain of  Rangers 1974-1981.

In 1985, he was appointed coach of Rangers International Club. The same year, the Nigeria Football Association took him over to assist the national coach of the national Under 17 team, where he worked under Bala Shalakin as an assistant to Brodericks Imaseun to win the maiden edition of the global tournament in China.

He later joined the ASESA Warriors of Enugu as coach and took the club from Division Three level to Division One. The club sponsored him to attend a coaching course in Germany. Thereafter, he worked with Clemens Westerhof as an assistant coach from 1989-1995 during which the national team won the African Nations Cup for the second time in Tunisia in 1994; the same year they went to the World Cup for the first time in the United States.

He had a coaching stint with SAFAFC, a Lebanese First Division Club and took them off relegation.  He would later take up his first national coaching assignment when he was appointed head coach of Kenyan National Team – Harambee Stars. In 2004, he was appointed Chief Coach of Super Eagles of Nigeria. He led the Eagles for African Nations Cup, where they won a bronze medal.

Chukwu, who was named 1980 AFCON Best Player, left for his father, who called him vagabond for daring to opt for a career in football, Chukwu would have ventured into another career than football. “My dad could not believe that all I wanted to do was to play football and make a career out of it. It was unbelievable to him. He was not happy. However, at a certain stage when it was clear I had no other plans, he calmed although he was still against it.

He tried to allow me have my way especially after playing in the Academicals and joining Enugu Rangers. When I joined Rangers, my mother who had supported my dad now changed. She gave up and tried to encourage me to do what I felt was good for me. It was still a little bit difficult because my dad was still not happy.”

Lifting the Nations Cup in 1980 remains evergreen in Chukwu’s memory Chukwu, “We had come so close to winning the trophy in the past. We won bronze in Addis Ababa, another bronze in Ghana. When we won the Nations Cup, we were due for the trophy. When the tournament came to Nigeria in 1980, we said we would not let this opportunity pass us by, and with God on our side and the new government coming in to give us the support, we were able to achieve the ultimate result. It was a great feeling lifting the cup.”

Chukwu frowns at the manner of football administration in Nigeria and points at over-monetisation of the system as the bane of development of the sport in Nigeria. The system, he noted, has prevented real football technocrats, many of whom have no financial muscle, from getting involved in the process.

“Everything in Nigeria is money, otherwise, there are technocrats who can contest and win votes in the elections. Now, people with little or no knowledge of football management are the ones contesting and winning positions on the board because they have the money to throw about. Beginning from the sales of form, how many people can afford to buy it. People like you and I cannot go close to it because we don’t have the wherewithal. And if we cannot afford it, that means we cannot contest.”

For winning Nigeria’s first Nations Cup, he was awarded the Member of the Order of the Niger (MON), alongside other members of the team.

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