Henry Nwosu holds the record of being the youngest ever Nigerian player to win the African Nations Cup when he was plucked straight out of St. Finbarr’s College to play for the national team while still not yet 17 years old. He also is among a select few players to have played in three different AFCON final games. Read the story of the wizkid who was nicknamed ‘youngest millionaire”….
Henry Nwosu had a career that was the dream of every young boy who wanted a career in football. Already a superstar whilst still in high school, he was an African Nations Cup winner before the age of 17 and had more money than he could spend as an adolescent with little care.
IN THE BEGINNING…
Yet, it was not because he was born with a silverspoon or because he had any priviledged background. He was blessed with abundant talent and providence smiled on his efforts. He grew up in Surulere area of Lagos where he played as a toddler with his age-mates, kicking the popular felele football on any open space around the neighbourhood. He started, at about three years, with kicking oranges, then rubber balls before we graduating to felele and then the real football as he progressed.
Though he started his primary schooling in Lagos, the Nigerian Civil war briefly interrupted his education as his family had to move back to the East where they saw out the war but they were soon back in Lagos the moment the war was over and the young Henry resumed his education. After his basic education, he got admitted to Ansar U Deen Secondary School, Falolu in Surulere where he was a student but his stay there was short-lived as he had to be registered at the more famous St Finbarrs where he rubbed shoulders with a crop of talented players including future Nigeria captain Stephen Keshi as well as others.
Small of frame but with a leg pack full of magic, Nwosu’s talent was never in doubt from a tender age and he started making waves even as a secondary school student.
“Bhojson FC was my first club where I was for a couple of years, honing my skill, before moving to Wema Bank FC in my last year of secondary school but, in-between these clubs, my performances had attracted enough attention that I was invited to the first U-20 team in 1977 alongside players like Edema Benson, Franklin Howard, Keshi, Humphrey Edobor, Sylvanus Okpala, Lucky Ibhafidon, late Yomi Adedeji, Ahmed Jumaare and Idris Musa among many others. We eventually did not qualify for the U-20 World Cup but we had served enough notice of our ability and clubs were forced to take note. When I finished secondary school in 1979, I was snapped up by New Nigerian Bank (NNB) of Benin FC which had one of the finest collections of players in the country,” Nwosu recalled of his steady rise to stardom.
RISE TO STARDOM
Even though his talent was not in doubt, fame came sooner than anyone ever expected for Henry Nwosu and 1979 was the year that everything came together for him. Fresh out of secondary school and playing for one of the biggest clubs in the country, he got invited to the senior national team, the Green Eagles when he was just about 16 years old.
That was the stuff legend are made of and the story of his invitation is worth re-telling in his own words: “That year, 1979, I had just been signed on by NNB and I was lucky to have a coach who really believed in my abilities. Coach Willy Bazuaye was then in charge of the club and there had been a friendly game between the Green Eagles and a selected 11 in Benin City. I was included in the selected side which is an indication of the confidence the coaches had in my ability because I was barely a few months into my career as a player in the top league. The game ended in a 1-0 victory for the national team but I was adjudged as the best player on the pitch by everyone who had come to watch that day. Few months later the league was on break so I came back to Lagos from Benin. It was at a time the Oba’s Cup, a very big competition at the time, was on among Lagos clubs so I played in the competition for Stationery Stores. We met Leventis United (then based in Lagos) at the semi-final stage and lost 1-0 but I was picked as the man of the match again. This prompted the national team coaches to invite me to join the team which was preparing for the African Cup of Nations to be hosted the following year on home soil. I was jittery when I got the invitation but coach Bazuaye psyched me up that I was capable of playing well and that I should not be afraid when I got to the Eagles camp. I packed my bags and headed for Lagos. On our first day of training at the National Stadium Hockey pitch, I saw players like Segun Odegbami, Christian Chukwu, Muda Lawal, Kunle Awesu, Adokiye Amesiamaka and others who I’d only watched on television filing out for training and I was nervous. How would I play in the middle of these established stars, let alone thinking of doing well, I kept asking myself. But because I was already there and there was no way to back out again, I gave myself courage and stepped on the pitch. After the training, the assistant Brazilian handler of the Green Eagles said I reminded him of Didi of Brazil with my style of play. Of course, at the time, I didn’t know who Didi was but I was sure he must be a great player if I was compared to him. This gave me the confidence to grow in the team coupled with the fact that the senior players showed love and welcomed me with open arms.”
NATIONS CUP WINNER
By the time the Nations Cup squad was to be announced, Nwosu had become an integral part of the team and had played virtually all the friendly games so it was not a surprise that he was on the roster and he’s gone down in history as the youngest Nigerian to lift the Nations Cup. On 22 March, 1980 when the Green Eagles lifted the AFCON for the first time, Nwosu was 84 days shy of his 17th birthday.
As a result of the windfall from the Nations Cup win – the players got a house each in Festac Town – and the kind of money he was making, Nwosu became known as the ‘youngest millionaire’ in football circles. So, you want to know, how did that name come about?
He recalls: “I think it was Big Sheg (Segun Odegbami) who gave me that name. You know, here was a young boy just fresh out of secondary school who was already making big money. At a time, I was collecting salaries from about three clubs. Bhojson, which was my team whilst still in secondary school, were paying me; Julius Berger who wanted me to join them at the end of the season paid me salary for about 10 months and so also was WEMA Bank. So, with little or no responsibility, I had so much money to play around with and that was how the name stuck even until today.”
After the dizzying heights of winning the AFCON in 1980 as well as representing the country at the Olympics of that year in Moscow where he scored Nigeria’s only goal of the competition (the other being an own goal in the loss to Kuwait), Nwosu and the Eagles were roughly brought down to earth at the AFCON in 1982 when they couldn’t go beyond the group stages.
However, Nigeria stormed back at the next edition in Ivory Coast in 1984, going all the way to the final with Nwosu, at just 21 years, being one of the more experienced players in the team of rookies assembled by coach Festus Onigbinde. They faced Cameroun in the final game but, despite taking an early lead, were walloped 3-1 by a much more established Indomitable Lions side which paraded the likes of Roger Milla, Thomas Nkono and Theophile Abega amongst many others.
“We lost the 1984 final due to inexperience on our part. The only experienced player in our team was late Mudashiru Lawal and we were up against players who were contemporaries of Segun Odegbami and Christian Chukwu who had retired from our own team. We were outclassed despite the fact that we scored first. It was a match between experience and youth and, on the day, experience carried the day.”
MAROC ‘88 GOAL CONTROVERSY
Two years later, they failed to make it to Egypt ‘86 AFCON as well as Mexico for the FIFA World Cup but, like in 1984, they went all the way to the final in Morocco in 1988. That achievement was however overshadowed by Mauritanian referee Idrissa Sarr’s decision to disallow Nwosu’s goal and later awarded a questionable penalty to the Camerounians which was the only goal of the game. What was going on through Nwosu’s mind as the Camerounians were handed the trophy.
He did not mince words in replying. “I was thinking it was a stolen victory because we didn’t deserve to lose the game. If you see a replay of that game today, just watch it carefully. It was a perfectly weighted ball that came from the flanks and I jumped to head it into the net. I did not push anybody and nobody obstructed me. When the ball bounced in the net, I raced away to celebrate but when I turned around I saw that my teammates were not following me so I knew something was wrong. I went to the referee and you can see me asking him what was wrong with that goal.
Until today, almost 26 years after, I still don’t know what was wrong with that goal. My thinking is that the referee wanted to please the newly elected CAF president Issa Hayatou who was just coming in. probably the referee felt it would be wrong if he didn’t win that trophy as a Camerounian. I’m not making any conspiracy claim though, that’s me just thinking aloud.”
After being a part of the national team for nine straight years, Nwosu sustained an injury and even though he made the team to the Seoul Olympics in 1988, he was an unused substitute in all three group games played by Nigeria. He also missed a couple other games for the national team but was back in 1989 during the Nations Cup and World Cup qualifiers for 1990. He drew the curtains on a 10-year national team career with the AFCON qualifier against Togo in Lome in 1989.
In between his national team odyssey, Nwosu played club football with New Nigerian Bank from 1979 to 1985 before moving to Lagos to join ACB FC where he spent the next three seasons.
After the Nations Cup in 1988, he left the shores of Nigeria for Ivorien giants ASEC Mimosas of Abidjan. After two seasons with ASEC, Nwosu moved to Racing Bafoussam of Cameroun who were campaigning on the continent. He was with the Camerounian side until 1992 before returning to ACB, his last club before leaving Nigeria. After a season, playing in the dual capacity of player/manager, he retired from active footballing.
As a staff of ACB, he was sent back to the office and transferred to the Abakaliki branch of the bank. After two years, he was recalled to the Head Office as office manager. Not cut out for a 9-5 white-collar job, Nwosu was like a fish out of water and was soon longing for his freedom from the self-imposed ‘jail’ that the routine office work had become. He dropped his letter of resignation and went for his coaching courses.
He cut his managerial teeth with Iyayi FC of Benin before coming back to Lagos to coach Deji Tinubu’s Atletico FC. His big break came in 1999 when he handled Iwuanyawu Nationale (now known as Heartland FC) but he didn’t stay with them for more than a season. He went down south again to coack Ibom Stars (now called Akwa United FC) but his stay was cut short when he was drafted to join the coaching crew of the 2002 World Cup-bound Super Eagles.
After the World Cup, he returned home and coached a youth academy for one year. He was later drafted to assist Samson Siasia in preparing the U-23 team for the 2008 Olympics which eventually won ended up as runners-up to a Lionel Messi-inspired Argentina. He came back and was entrusted with the job of putting together a new U-17 team to represent Nigeria at the cadet World Cup to be hosted on home soil in 2009.
He was later removed when he had administrative issues with officials but he soon landed the managerial job at Union Bank FC for two years. His contract was not renewed so went back to his youth team. He was contracted by Gateway FC of Abeokuta and was there until the end of last season.