September 04, (THEWILL) – The football community in Nigeria, especially the generation familiar with the exploits of the then Green Eagles, as the Nigeria national men’s football team were previously called, was thrown into mourning in the week just ended following the demise of two illustrious strikers of that team, Sunny Oyarekhua and Thompson Usiyan.
They both died during the week and it was another mournful period for sports especially given the proximity of their passing and the nature of how they both met their demise. It was a reminder that they were the kinds of strikers the country no longer has many of.
In his days playing for Nigeria, the prolific Oyarekhua scored 17 times in 28 appearances between 1971 and 1976. He began with a debut goal in his very first cap in a friendly match against the Upper Volta in 1971. So clinical was he in front of goal that he finished the 1973 All-Africa Games as the highest goal-scorer as part of the Nigerian winning squad.
The striker also played for Nigeria at the 1976 African Cup of Nations finals in Ethiopia. Although he turned into a career policeman after leaving football, Oyarekhua recently retired as the Assistant Commissioner of the Osun State Police.
On his part, Usiyan, was part of the Nigerian Olympic soccer team which boycotted the 1976 Olympics. As a contemporary of Oyarekhua, Usiyan made several appearances for the Nigeria national team. He also scored in his debut, a friendly match against Kenya in 1976. Usiyan played alongside Oyarekhua at the 1976 Ethiopia AFCON. He won a silver medal with the Nigerian squad at the 1978 All-Africa Games in Algiers.
However, he also played professionally in the United States of America and holds the NCAA Division I career scoring record. Part of his professional career included playing in the North American Soccer League, Major Indoor Soccer League, American Soccer League and Continental Indoor Soccer League.
Segun Odegbami, an icon of Nigerian football from that era penned a tribute to eulogise the memories of the two lethal strikers who have now been separated by death. In his touching piece on Oyarekhua, Odegbami recalled: “Sunny Oyarekhua was Nigeria’s most prolific goalscorer in the national team for the years that he was there.
“Unfortunately, by the time the team returned from the African Cup of Nations in Dire Dawa, Ethiopia, in 1976, Nigeria had identified a fresh pair of legs to strike for the national team – Thompson Usiyan. He took over from Sunny at the Championship.
“By the time he was done with the national team in 1976, he had amassed a goal-chest of 17 goals in 28 international matches for Nigeria, the highest by any player at the national team level up to that point.”
Of Usiyan, Odegbami wrote: “In my humble estimation, Thompson was the most gifted striker in the history of Nigerian football…extravagantly skillful like Jay-Jay Okocha, but more lethal.. with his greatest weapon being his ability to shoot or bend the ball from a standing position with precision and power whilst surrounded by defenders.”
While Oyarekhua was said to have died from a deterioration of his health after previously suffering a stroke, Usiyan died in his base in the United States with his family around him after losing his battle with Colon Cancer.
Odegbami gave a chilling summary of the deaths that have come to that golden generation of Nigeria stars in his piece.
“Of the 1976 to 1978 members of the national team too many have passed on, each with their own painful story – Joseph Erico, Kelechi Emeteole, Ogidi Ibeabuchi, Alloysius Atuegbu, Adekunle Awesu, Mudashiru Lawal, Kenneth Olayombo, Samuel Ojebode, Haruna Ilerika… and so on.”