Baba Otu Mohammed: Mighty jet winger who dribbled three Christians in a row
Nigerian football lovers, who were privileged to listen to the legendary radio commentator, late Ernest Okonkwo from the early 1970s to late 80s will not forget the name, Baba Otu Mohammed. A great dribbler, Baba Otu, as he is fondly called, remains one of the best finishers in Nigeria’s football history. He was an integral part of the then Green Eagles team that reigned supreme in Africa in the late 70s and early 80s. His days saw the Green Eagles winning the nation’s first continental medal, a bronze, at Addis Ababa ’76 Africa Nations Cup, where Baba Otu emerged as the tournament Best Right Winger. Though, Baba Otu hails from Bebeji Local Government Area of Kano State, he was born and brought up in Ghana. He had his post elementary education at Kumasi Secondary Technical School, where the seed of his soccer career was planted, watered and nurtured to stardom.
In late 1960s, when the government and people of Ghana asked Nigerians residing in their country to go, he and his parents relocated to Nigeria.“Before that era of ‘Nigerians must go,’ I had featured prominently for Ghana Academicals team against Nigeria,” Baba Otu recalled in an interview with The Guardian during the week. “The annual Academicals Games between the two countries actually gave me the platform to launch myself into the national team.” The growth of academicals, a synonym for school-boys football, opened up a new generation of players who went on to dominate the scene for years. Baba Otu Mohammed epitomized the super-stars of that era. He was worshipped, particularly in the North Central for his skills. On arrival in Nigeria in 1973, Baba Otu Mohammed easily bulldozed his ways into the star-studded Mighty Jets FC of Jos, where he formed a great strike force with the likes of Sam GarbaOkoye, SuleKekere, LayiwolaOlagbemiro, Ismail Mabo and the Atuegbu brothers.
Then, the city of Jos was a breeding ground for some of the most celebrated footballers in Nigeria with the likes of Christopher Udemezue, Peter Anieke and Tony Igwe making big headlines. Perhaps, one match many Nigerian soccer fans will live to remember was the Challenge Cup final between Mighty Jets and The Flying Antelope, Rangers of Enugu, in 1976. Mighty Jets had made numerous failed attempts to win the FA Cup in the 50s and 60s, and all eyes were on Baba Otu, who was fresh from the Nations Cup in Addis Ababa to make history, though Rangers with its star-studded players were favoured to win. The Flying Antelopes did, but in a hard way in Lagos.
“On that particular day, the National Stadium in Lagos was filled to capacity,” Baba Otu reminisced. “There was tension in both camps, but I was calm because our people back home were looking up to me to deliver the cup. We tried our best, but it was so painful we lost it to Rangers,” he lamented.
Then, one major factor driving Nigerian football was the existence of the late Ernest Okonkwo, one of the rare breed first class radio commentators in the 1970s and 80s. Okonkwo had the flair of bringing to life any football event he was covering to his listening audience. He was as animated as he was adept at holding his audience captive. With Okonkwo on radio commentary, there was never a dull moment. The Challenge Cup final between Mighty Jets and Rangers was heading to close with The Flying Antelopes leading when Baba Otu had one rare opportunity to give the fans something to take home. This was how Ernest Okonkwo captured the situation on radio commentary. “He beats Christian Chukwu; he beats Christian Madu and he beats Christian Nwokocha. This man has beaten three Christians in a row. Who is this man? He must be a Muslim… Oh, he is Baba OtuMohammed.”Though Mighty Jets lost the match, the fans who came from different parts of the country went home satisfied with the performance of Baba Otu Mohammed.
Before then, he had led Mighty Jets to the semifinal of the 1973 African Cup competition, and was on the verge of winning it for Nigeria. He recalled: “That was the same year Lagos played host to the first National Sports Festival. Some of us were in the Benue/Plateau team preparing for the festival. Then, Might Jets was to play the semifinal of the African Cup competition against a club in Zaire, but our people were more interested in the National Sports Festival. So, we couldn’t go to Zaire, and Mighty Jets was walked over. In the National Sports Festival, we (Benue/Plateau team) lost to East Central State in the final.” Known for his flair and speed in the outside right, Baba Otu later formed a strong bond with the late midfield maestro, MudaLawal, KunleAwesu, Sunny Oyarekhua, HarunaIlerika, Joe Erico and Emma Tetteh in the Green Eagles squad of 1976 to win the nation’s first continental medal, a bronze in Addis Ababa. They defeated Congo PR 3-1 aggregate to qualify for Addis Ababa ’76. In the Nations Cup proper held in the city of Dire Dawa, the Green Eagles defeated Zaire 4-2, beat Sudan 1-0, lost 1-3 to Morocco and drew 1-1 with Guinea. In the second phase, Nigeria again lost 1-2 to Morocco and beat Egypt 3-2 to finish third in the final classification behind Guinea and Morocco, hence the bronze medal.
The Atlas Lions of Morocco won the title, but Baba Otu and the gang returned home as heroes. While Baba Otu was voted the Best Right Winger of the tournament, KunleAwesu emerged as the Best Left Winger. Looking back to his schoolboy playing days in Kumasi and career in Mighty Jets, Baba Otu, who is currently the General Manager of Mighty Jets FC, said the NFF would do the nation’s football a great favour, if it can revive football competitions among schools. “It was in school football competitions that players like Stephan Keshi and Humphrey Edobor were discovered. It was also during school games in Lagos that AdokieAmiesiamaka was discovered. So, I expect the NFF to do more in the area of school football instead of relying on football academy scattered all over the country. The NFF should work with the Ministry of Education in this regard because it will lift our football,” Baba Otu stated. The draws for Russia 2018 World Cup will take place today and Baba Otu says the Super Eagles must do everything to make the nation proud: “We need players who are dedicated, devoted and talented that are ready to work. In our playing days, we didn’t have any professional players playing for the Green Eagles but we achieved good results. It is not a matter of foreign professional players or local players making the Super Eagles team. If we have professional players who are in super form, doing well in their various leagues in Europe and elsewhere in the world, the coach in charge of the senior national team should go for them.
“Also, if it is in the home front that we have players doing impressively in the Nigerian Premier League and other leagues in the land, let the coach go for them. We need our best players in the Super Eagles as far as the race to Russia 2018 is concerned,” he stated. In his playing days for the then Green Eagles, Baba Otu and his teammates got little inceptives compared to the present generation of players. “Yes, I can tell you that in our days, we received only N2 (two naira) a day as our daily allowance,” he said. “But our joy then was that we were able to make the team. They dream of every player then was to wear the national team jerseys and everybody struggled to represent the nation. The focus then was not really on monetary inceptives. “At the end of a continental match, we only received one hundred naira (N100) as match bonus. But we were committed and happy that we were counted among the best players to represent the country. We need that commitment in this generation of Super Eagles players because that is the only way we can take our football forward. The African Nations Cup will take place next year (2017) and Nigeria will not be there. So, we should do everything to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. Every hand must be on deck; coaches, NFF officials, players, supporters club members and even journalists. We must be in Russia 2018 World Cup,” Baba Otu stated. Like some other ex-players, who want their children to follow their footsteps in sports, Baba Otu is already grooming one of his children, Abdulraheem, in the round leather game. He said: “Abdulraheem, my last born is a highly gifted footballer. He is capable of doing anything with football. I can say that Abdulraheem is a better player than myself when I was playing at his age. I see him making a good living in football. I pray for him everyday and I will do everything to support and encourage him,” Baba Otu added.