By Hon (Barr) Femi Kehinde
In this season of an omie and atrophy, it is better to remember with fondest and affectionate memory those people who had made us happy, and had impacted into our lives and essence, through their God given talents.
Tesilimi Olawale Ayinde Balogun was one. He lived a 45 years that was laced and filled with soccer. After all, the Nigerian firmament is replete with stories of unsung heroes in commerce, politics, law, enterprise, education, sports, medicine, traditional institutions and so on.
Football is arguably the world’s most important game. Football, that round leather ball, is mankind’s most beloved sporting game. Its love, transcends religion, ethnic or political divides. This was the game that Teslim Balogun devoted his entire life to serve.
In the beginning
Teslim Balogun was born in Lagos in 1927. He attended St. Patrick’s Primary School, Oke-Awo, Lagos and St. Mary’s Catholic School, Port Harcourt, after which he moved back to Lagos to navigate his life, future and career growth.
His father- Oseni, was an international cricketer, but soccer was in his blood. His soccer ingenuity was noticed in his elementary school days in Lagos and Port Harcourt.
According to Teslim-“it must be because I even have to force myself to walk along the street ordinarily and not jog along, as if I had a ball at my feet “.
It was this urge that developed a footballer in Teslim. According to him-, “I not only wanted to kick things; many lads do, I wanted to be able to control things with my feet.
”I was a lad in Lagos long before I knew what the game was about, before I had even seen a football.
“I didn’t have a ball, so I got a hard unripe orange and tied it to a piece of string, then in any spare moment, even when I was walking across the road, I would dangle the orange in front of me and juggle it from one foot to the other.”
At the Saint Mary’s Primary School in Port Harcourt, his love for soccer became more than an interest but an obsession. His bow legs aided his skills as a footballer.
At an impressionable age of 18 years, Thunder entered big football competition in 1945, when he played for the PWD second team and the defunct Apapa Bombers that won the second division Championship that year.
Early in the next season, he transferred to the UAC, and later Lagos Marine, where he was quickly spotted out as a prospective great centre forward. He was from 1948-1950, Centre Forward for the Railway Club.
He was the live wire of the club, a forward line that knew no retreat. During that period, the club won all championship trophies. He had an outstanding feat. He scored a hat-trick against the Police Athletic club. This decided his soccer position as a centre forward.
The match had an effect on Teslim’s football career. Referring the game was the Chairman of the Railway Club, who recommended him as a member.
At this time, Teslim was an apprentice electrician, for a hobby. He took up printing, he became more interested in printing than in things electric, and was more interested in football than in anything. To an average Nigerian soccer fan, Teslim Balogun means the undisputed centre forward king, and the largest crowd puller of modern soccerdome.
Teslim was quickly nicknamed “Thunder” and “Balinga,” the names that followed him around in the whole of his footballing career. To school children, he was “baba ball.”
The Nigerian Football Association was formed in 1933; a Daily Times Article of 21st August 1933 invited people to the NFA meeting held at the Sports Health Office, on Broad Street, Lagos and was open to a football interested public.
As of the 1938-1939 football season, the NFA, had been recognised by the Football Association of England. The NFA was not formally inaugurated until 1945, when a national team was put together.
In 1942, a cup competition, a world Memorial Challenge, limited only to Lagos based teams was started. The World Memorial Challenge was won by Zik Bombers in (1942), Lagos Marines, (1943,) Lagos Railways in (1944 and 1945) respectively.
The NFA later inaugurated the Governor’s Cup to replace the World Memorial Challenge. The new competition became a national competition, and the first winners were Lagos Marine.
How he became a member of the first national football team at 22
In 1948, a National Team was built around players discovered at the Governor’s Cup.
The star players in the national team were Dan Anyiam,(Lagos UAC)- a skillful player, who plays with his head as well as his feet. Anyiam was born in Nkwerre in the Eastern Region of Nigeria, in 1927. He had captained his primary school football team at the age of 12 years. Others were- Peter Anieke and Teslim Olawale Balogun (both of Lagos Railway).
Nigeria’s first National Team was named UK Tourists and after a few unofficial warm up games, went to the UK.
The team boarded the RMSS Apapa on 16th August 1949, for a playing tour of England and arrived Liverpool 13 days later. The players who made the trip were – Goalkeepers, Sam Ibiam (Port Harcourt), Isaac Akioye (Hercules, Ibadan) ; Defenders: Justin Onwudiwe (Lagos Railway), Olisa Chukwura (Abeokuta), ATB Ottun (Lagos Marine), Isiaku Shittu (Lagos UAC), John Dankaro (Jos), Hope Lawson(Lagos Marine), Dan Anyian (Lagos UAC), Okoronkwo Kanu (Land & Survey) ; Forwards: Mesembe Otu (Lagos Marine), Peter Anieke (Lagos Railway), Titus Okere (Lagos Railway), Etim Henshaw (Lagos Marine) and Edet Ben (Lagos Marine).
Etim Henshaw was the team captain, making him our first ever national team captain. Teslim Balogun was the star. The team had no shoes.
Nigeria’s first ever official game was against Marine Cosby, which it won 5-2. During the next game, against an Athenian League XI, the English refused to play if the Tourists didn’t wear boots. The Tourists wore boots and lost, 8-0. The third game, which was generally agreed as the best, was a 2-2 draw with a Corinthians League XI. At the end of the tour of nine games, the team’s record was P9, W2, D2, L5. All five losses were with boots on.
After the tour, Teslim Balogun was signed by Peterborough United, becoming the first ever Nigerian football export. On the return voyage home, the UK Tourists took on the new name- Red Devils and stopped in Freetown, Sierra Leone. During the stopover in Sierra Leone, Nigeria played her first official game against another country, defeating Sierra Leone 2-0 on the 8th of October, 1949.
Interestingly, one of the members of the UK tourists, Olisa Chukura, a native of Asaba in present day Delta State, veered off football, read law, practiced law in Ibadan, became a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, and died on the 3rd of September, 2001. He had a successful law practice.
One of his most outstanding cases was the 1983 Governorship Election Petition, between Bola Ige and Omololu Olunloyo. He was Bola Ige’s Attorney.
In the 1949 football tour of the United Kingdom, the English Soccer writers did not fail to see the qualities and soccer wizardry in Teslim Balogun. The Daily Graphics Sports Editor – Edgar Kail, remarked about him thus – “their 22 year old six foot three bow legged, giant centre forward, is a real artist and strange as it may seem in modern football, he holds the ball and uses it well.”
After the successful London trip, he wanted to play soccer off shore and also, learn more about printing.
He even as a spare time printer, ran into big trouble, when he sent a Nigerian 5 pounds note, to a printer in England and asked him to quote on printing 100,000 of them.
Going professional abroad
Teslim Balogun approached Mr. Darby Allen, the Secretary of the Nigerian Football Association and asked him if he could help him to join a football team in England. Allen, introduced Teslim to the Peterborough manager-Mr. George Swindin, the former Arsenal goalkeeper.
Mr. Swindin gave him a trial and signed him up. He became a professional footballer in 1955.
A coloured man in English soccer was a novelty!
According to Teslim, “I didn’t score. But the fans were pleased with me, and perhaps more important so, was manager Swindin. The goals were to come later, quite regularly. In fact, I finished the season, top scorer with Peterborough’s reserves.
“I thoroughly enjoyed the season-and not only because I was top scorer; the club did all they could to help me settle down in England, and I got a job with a local printing firm.
“I wanted to learn more about printing. On my return, I wanted to do two things: teach football and set up my own printing business. In fact, I wanted to combine the two and run my own football magazine.”
“I arranged to study at the London School of Printing. This meant living in or near London. Peterborough is over 75 miles away. So I got accommodation in London. To keep trim, I used to work out at the Paddington Recreation Ground.
There I met a Queen’s Park Rangers supporter. He suggested I should contact the club. I thought this is a good idea”.
“Soon afterwards, I got a letter from the Queens Park Rangers manager, Mr. Jack Taylor, asking me to go along for a trial. I was accepted. My ambition was realised. I was to play in the English League football.”
Not only was I to play, I was to score a goal in my first match against Watford.”
Retirement, return to Nigeria to begin coaching career
Thunder Teslim Balogun relocated back home in 1961 and became the first African to qualify as a professional coach. He was a coach for Nigeria at the 1968 summer Olympics. He was a member of the Nigerian National side for 12 years.
The 1954 edition, of Governor’s Cup, was renamed the FA Cup, in sync with the mood of the moment, after Anthony Enahoro had, in 1953, moved a motion for independence for Nigeria, at the Nigerian Parliament.
The 1954 edition of the renamed FA Cup was won by Calabar FC, who beat Kano Pillars 3-0 in the final. Meanwhile, the Red Devils were still active, playing a series of friendlies against Ghana, including a 7-0 loss in 1959. The NFA finally joined CAF, then followed this up by joining FIFA, a year later as Nigeria approached independence.
In 1960, Nigeria played against Egypt in a qualifying game for the Rome 1960 Olympic Games, its first ever international competition. In that game against Egypt, the Egyptians trashed Nigeria. The team was made to wear green, rather than the red, they used to wear. It was from that moment that the name of the team was changed from Red Devils to Green Eagles. Also, in 1960, as independence approached, the FA Cup was renamed the Challenge Cup. The 1960 edition of the Challenge Cup was won by Lagos ECN who beat Ibadan Lions 5-2 in the Final.
Impact on Nigerian football
This development was spurred by our first major triumph. Nigeria won the gold medal at 1973’s All Africa Games, which she hosted. In Teslim’s soccer career, there was a funny tale of a goal keeper, who died after trying to stop Thunder Teslim’s shot, that was usually as acerbic, as a Thunderstorm.
The likes of Christian Chukwu, Emmanuel Okala, Muda Lawal, Segun Odegbami Sam Ojebode, Christian Madu, Joe Apiah, Kunle Awesu, Best Ogedegbe, Haruna Ilerika and many others, broke into the National team in the 1970s, the new generation of players, qualified Nigeria for the Second AFCON, which was hosted by Ethiopia in 1979.
Teslimi Olawale Ayinde Balogun died in his sleep, on the 30th of July 1972 at the age of 45 years and left 8 children- Kayode, Tunde, Tokunbo, Olamide, Jibola, Iyabo, Bioye and Oluwole. He was married to Mulikat- a Table Tennis Player. Mulikat recalled that in the early hours of the 30th of July, 1972, she spoke and chatted with her husband, till about 2:30am, without an inkling of an unfortunate death. He was hale and hearty, without any untoward medical history.
The Queen of England, sent a condolence letter, when he died.
As a befitting memorial and remembrance, the Teslim Balogun stadium in Surulere Lagos is named in his honour. The Teslim Balogun Stadium was officially opened in 2007, by the Government of Babatunde Raji Fashola as Governor of Lagos State.
The stadium, conceptualized in 1984, under the Administration of Military Governor Gbolahan Mudashiru, crawled and suffered so many hiccups, for about 23 years. As recently as 2006, it was occupied by homeless people and area boys. The stadium, with the capacity of 24, 325 people, sits adjacent to the Lagos National Stadium, Surulere Lagos.
The Teslim Balogun Foundation was also founded after his death, to assist the families of Nigerian former international footballers, who may have suffered financial distress.
Teslim Olawale Ayinde Balogun, may your soul continue to play soccer yonder, and also continually, find peaceful repose with the Lord.
Hon (Barr) Femi Kehinde, Former Member, House of Representatives, representing Ayedire/Iwo/Ola-Oluwa Federal Constituency of Osun State, (1999-2003) & Principal Partner
Vanguard News Nigeria