In the 1949 football tour of the United Kingdom, the English soccer writers did not fail to see the qualities and soccer wizardry of 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.”

In this season of anomie and atrophy, it is better to remember with very fond and affectionate memories, those people who made us happy and impacted on our lives and essence, through their God given talents.

Tesilimi Olawale Ayinde Balogun was one. He lived for 45 years, which were 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.

The love for it transcends religious, ethnic or political divides. This was the game that Teslim Balogun devoted his entire life to. 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.

His father, Oseni, was an international cricketer, even though soccer was in his blood. Teslim’s ingenuity in soceer 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 will dangle the orange in front of me and juggle it from one foot to another.”

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  the age of 18 years, Teslim entered a big football competition in 1945, during which he played for the PWD second team and the defunct Apapa Bombers, which 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  as a prospective great centre forward. From 1948 to 1950, he was the centre forward of the Railway Club, the live wire and a forward line who knew no retreat. During that period, the club won all the championship trophies they were involved in.


After the successful London trip, Teslim wanted to play soccer off shore and also learn more about printing. While working as a spare time printer, he had run into big trouble when he sent a Nigerian 5 pounds note to a printer in England and asked for a quote for printing 100,000 copies of the currency.

Teslim carried out an outstanding feat when he scored a hat-trick against the Police Athletic Club. This consolidated his position as a formidable centre forward in the game, and the match had an effect on Teslim’s football career. Refereeing the game was the Chairman of the Railway Club, who had recommended him as a member of the Club.

At this time, Teslim was an apprentice electrician, for a hobby. He also took up printing, to which he became more interested in than things electric, but he was more interested in football than in anything else. To an average Nigerian soccer fan, Teslim Balogun is the undisputed centre forward king in the history of the game, and still the largest crowd puller in modern soccerdom.

Teslim was quickly nicknamed “Thunder” and “Balinga”, names that followed him around through his footballing career.

To school children then, he was “Baba ball.”

The Nigerian Football Association was formed in 1933, and a Daily Times article of August 21, 1933 reports the invitiation of the football interested public to the NFA meeting held at the Sports Health Office, in Broad Street, Lagos.

By the 1938-1939 football season, the NFA had been recognised by the English Football Association. The NFA was not formally inaugurated until 1945, when a national team was put together.

In 1942, a cup competition, which was a world memorial challenge, limited only to Lagos based teams, was started. This was won by Zik Bombers in 1942, Lagos Marines in 1943, and 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 one and the first winning club was the Lagos Marine.

In 1948, a national team was built around players discovered at the Governor’s Cup, with its star players including Dan Anyiam (Lagos UAC), a skillful player who was dexterious with both his head and feet. Anyiam was born in 1927 in Nkwerre, in the Eastern Region of Nigeria, and had captained his primary school football team at the age of 12 years. Also, there were Peter Anieke and Teslim Olawale Balogun (both of the Lagos Railway).

Nigeria’s first national team was named U.K. Tourists and after a few unofficial warm up games, they went on a playing tour of England, in the UK. The team boarded the RMSS Apapa on August 16, 1949 and arrived in Liverpool 13 days later. The players who made the trip were goalkeepers – Sam Ibiam (from Port Harcourt) and Isaac Akioye (of 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), and Okoronkwo Kanu (Land and Survey). Also, the 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 our first ever national team captain. Teslim Balogun was the star of the team.

The team had no shoes.

Nigeria’s first ever official game was against Marine Cosby, which it won by 5 goals to 2 goals. 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 the five losses were when they played 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 U.K. Tourists took on the new name, Red Devils, and stopped over 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 October 8, 1949.

Interestingly, one of the members of the U.K. Tourists, Olisa Chukura, a native of Asaba in present day Delta State, veered off football to study law, which he practiced in Ibadan, became a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, and died on September 3, 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 attorney to Bola Ige.

In the 1949 football tour of the United Kingdom, the English soccer writers did not fail to see the qualities and soccer wizardry of 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, Teslim wanted to play soccer off shore and also learn more about printing. While working as a spare time printer, he had run into big trouble when he sent a Nigerian 5 pounds note to a printer in England and asked for a quote for printing 100,000 copies of the currency.

On the level of the game, Teslim Balogun approached Mr Darby Allen, the then Secretary of the Nigerian Football Association, and asked if he could help him to join a football team in England.

Allen introduced Teslim to the Peterborough manager, Mr George Swindin, a former Arsenal goalkeeper.

Mr. Swindin gave him a trial and thereafter signed him up. Teslim became a professional footballer in 1955.

A coloured man in English soccer was a novelty!

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. Teslim was a member of the Nigerian national side for 12 years.

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. For on my return, I wanted to do two things: teach football and setup 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.”

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. Teslim 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 national parliament.

The 1954  FA Cup was won by Calabar FC, which beat Kano Pillars by 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 the Confederation of African Football (CAF), then followed this up by joining the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (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, tthe Nigerian team was trashed. The team was made to wear sporting gear coloured green, rather than red, as they were used to. 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, which beat the Ibadan Lions by 5-2, in the final match.

Nigeria won gold in football at the 1973 All Africa Games, which the country hosted. In Teslim’s soccer career, there was a funny tale of a goal keeper who died after trying to stop Teslim’s shot, which 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, Muda Lawal, Haruna Ilerika and many others, broke into the national team in the 1970s. This new generation of players qualified Nigeria for the Second African Cup of Nations (AFCON), which was hosted by Ethiopia in 1979.

Teslimi Olawale Ayinde Balogun died in his sleep on July 30, 1972, at the age of 45 years, and left eight 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 that day, she had spoken and chatted with her husband till about 2:30a.m., 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 on his death.

As a befitting memorial, the Teslim Balogun Stadium in Surulere Lagos was named in his honour. The Stadium was officially opened in 2007 by the government of Babatunde Raji Fashola as governor of Lagos State.

The stadium, conceptualised 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 the Lagos National Stadium in 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.

May the soul of Teslim Olawale Ayinde Balogun continue to find peaceful repose with the Lord.

Femi Kehinde, a former member of the House of Representatives, is principal partner in a law firm based in Ibadan, Lagos and Abuja.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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