Uzor Maxim Uzoatu
Football is without question the one subject that unites all Nigerians.
When the Super Eagles win, Nigerians do not recognize the different geo-political zones in their rejoicing.
It annoys me no end that football is placed in the back pages.
It is even more maddening that local Nigerian football league amongst the clubs in the country has been totally banished from the consciousness of Nigerians due to the overwhelming presence of European football, especially the English Premier League (EPL).
I have today taken it upon myself to celebrate one man who promoted Nigerian football in his lifetime, and died quite unsung at a time his life promised so much.
Chief Jude Jasper Ezechukwu was in life the proprietor of Jasper United Football Club. He loved the beautiful game so much that he could stop his car and watch street kids playing with paper balls.
When he made it big in business, he floated his own club,Jasper United, which was among the elite premier Nigerian league clubs at the turn of the century.
He did not depend on government subventions to run the club; he invested his hard-earned cash.
The comfort of his players was his one joy, and the players took to him as a father figure even though he was not much older than the players.
He played a pivotal role in the discovery of Emmanuel Olisadebe who remarkably changed his nationality to Poland, and led his adopted country to the World Cup.
As a pre-eminent member of the then Nigerian Football Association (NFA) he initiated landmark marketing ventures for the body.
During national assignments, he more often than not bailed the association out from cash embarrassments.
When his club represented the country in African Club competitions he undertook sole sponsorship instead of going cap-in-hand to the government.
He particularly stood out when Nigeria qualified for her first World Cup at USA 1994 and won the African Cup of Nations in Tunisia 1994 and the soccer gold of the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games.
The players always turned to him when they had personal problems, and he was such a father figure who took it in his stride without at all boasting of his feats.
The then Minister of Sports, Chief Jim Nwobodo, openly commended Ezechukwu as the singular young man who supported football wholeheartedly without asking for any profit for himself.
Well before gaining national limelight as a football entrepreneur, Ezechukwu whom I called by his pet name Jasper had been akin to a brother to me for much of my life.
He started out like the other businessmen east of the Niger using the famed Honda 175 motorcycle before he graduated to 504 salon car well before his mates.
He was the best mover of a car I have ever known in this life.
He in the course of time transferred his business enterprise to Lagos where our camaraderie blossomed further.
Ezechukwu started out the ownership of a football club in our hometown of Umuchu with the formation of Nwakaibeya Babes – named after his traditional chieftaincy title – and his team always had it tough with the Lagos Young Stars team that I played for in our Christmastime football competition.
It was from back then that he started mulling on the idea of a national football club.
When eventually he founded Jasper United Football as a top national football club, he asked me to serve as General Manager or Sole Administrator of the outfit; any title I chose was okay by him.
I could not take up the offer due to my embrace of poetry and journalism, but that in no way stood between our friendship and brotherhood.
I bummed up with my late friend, Charmet Metu, to become arguably the greatest supporters of Jasper United.
All the Area Boys around Onikan Stadium and National Stadium, Surulere still call me by the nickname “Jasper United” to this day.
In those heydays of the club, we used to raise much dust at Snake Island, Lagos where Jasper United always matched up with Nnamdi Ozobia’s Nigerdock team.
After the match we almost always retired to the restaurant known as “Kosi Wahala” to celebrate life to the fullest.
Every season that Jasper United played in the national league inspired a firing sobriquet such as “Ntitu 92”!
Ezechukwu died on Wednesday, September 9, 2009 and was laid to rest in his hometown Umuchu, Aguata LGA, Anambra State on February 19, 2010.
It is incumbent on the authorities of our dear country to immortalize Ezechukwu, a nonpareil mogul of the beautiful game, in the spirit of the National Anthem’s injunction that the labour of our heroes past must not be in vain!