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When Pele brought 90 minutes of peace to war-torn Nigeria

By Razeen Gutta

When Pele visited Benin City in 1969, in the midst of a civil war, the face of Nigerian football would be altered forevermore.

As Nigerian government forces and Biafran independence fighters found themselves at the peak of a civil war, a 28-year-old two-time Fifa World Cup winner entered the scene and instantly brought about a ceasefire.

Pele, one of the greatest to have ever played the game, is adored across Africa given his ancestry on the continent.

The exhibition match between a local Mid-Western State XI and the Brazilian’s beloved Santos brought in a capacity crowd who for 90 minutes forgot about their guns and united to enjoy the beautiful game.

Pele is a revered figure in Nigeria, with few explaining his legacy better than Mid-Western State governor Samuel Ogbemudia, who helped arrange the match over five decades ago.

“Pele’s visit led to a lot of things. The Nigeria Football Association, where I served for more than 10 years, now looked towards Brazil and imitated them and encouraged the players to play like Brazilians,” Ogufere told BBC Sport Africa.

“That led to Nigerians going to Brazil and Nigeria also hiring a Brazilian coach, Otto Gloria, who helped us win the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time in 1980.”

“We are all very saddened to lose him but he has left an indelible mark which players should look to emulate.”

Godwin Izilein, who captained the home team on 4 February 1969 as Santos were 2-1 victors, painted a picture of what the Ogbe Stadium looked like on the day.

“It was all about Pele. Before one o’clock, Ogbe Stadium was jam-packed and it was difficult for people to have seats because they were anxious to see the artistry of Pele,” Izilein told BBC Sport Africa.

“Pele was very enthusiastic to hear from me. He said, ‘Would you like to follow me to Brazil?’ And I said no.”

“Nobody was enthusiastic about travelling at that time. If it were now, I would have followed them right from the pitch.”

Pictured above: Pele

Image source: @africansilver

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