Nigeria experienced civil war from July 1967 until January 1970.
Pele, the G.O.A.T., appeared to have the power to halt the conflict.
According to legend, the Nigerian civil war was temporarily interrupted in 1969 by the legendary Brazilian footballer Pele and his team, Santos, when Nigeria and Biafra agreed to set their differences aside so that Santos might play in the nation.
But did this actually occur?
And why did the best player in the world come to Nigeria in the first place?
In this article, I examine the past to uncover the true tale of Pele in Nigeria.
The Match in Lagos with Pele
In January 1969, the Brazilian team Santos set off on a lucrative football tour of Africa.
Exhibition games were scheduled to take place in Algeria, Ghana, The Congo, Nigeria, and Mozambique.
The tour’s main attraction was Pele, the finest football player in the world at the time and a player for Santos.
He had previously won two world championships and would lead Brazil to their most illustrious triumph in Mexico the following year.
He attracted large audiences, which allowed Santos to demand huge appearance fees for their exhibition games.
Fans were prepared to pay to watch him play against their clubs because they wanted to see him perform.
On Sunday, January 26, 1969, early in the morning, Santos touched down at Lagos International Airport.
That afternoon in the Lagos City Stadium, they were to compete in an exhibition game against the Green Eagles, the national team of Nigeria.
Football authorities and media in Nigeria were excited to see Pelé, 28, upon his arrival.
Santos left Kinshasa after losing to The Leopards, the national team of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 3-2.
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Santos in Nigeria
The Nigeria Football Association organized the game in Lagos and paid Santos around £11,000 (Nigerian pound sterling) to compete against the Green Eagles.
The Nigerian pound served as the country’s legal tender until the Naira took its place in January 1973.
Its value of it matched that of the British pound sterling.
The Nigerian Daily Times published an editorial questioning if the cost was reasonable given the continuing civil conflict in the nation.
Vice-Chairman of the Nigeria Football Association, Chief A.B. Osula, asserted that bringing Santos to Lagos was inexpensive.
In a news conference, he stated that “the money we will give them is comparatively tiny when one considers the worth of the club globally.”
He clarified that the national team and the fans both benefited from the match’s arrangement.
It gave Nigerians the chance to observe elite athletes like Pelé.
Nigerian footballers will be inspired by the game to uphold the same high standards as Santos’ athletes.
Santos and the Green Eagles tied each other 2-2 in the game.
The Green Eagles’ goals came from Muyiwa Oshode and Baba Alli, while Pelé scored twice for Santos.
The audience in Lagos stood up to cheer Pele‘s goals.
Santos’ medical officer, Dr. Rodriguez, praised the quality of the officiating squad as the best Santos had thus far on their African trip as Nigerian officials assumed control of the game.
We will recommend the referee and his linesmen to FIFA, he stated.
The next day, Santos departed Nigeria for an exhibition match in Mozambique.
The Midwest Match in Benin
On January 16, 1969, Isaac Okonjo, the head of the Midwest Sports Council, organized a news conference in Benin.
In order to raise money for Santos’ match in Benin, he announced the creation of the Santos Midwest Match Committee.
For him to bring Santos to Benin for an exhibition game, Okonjo had traveled to Lagos the week before to meet with Mr. Geoffery Amachree, Chairman of the Nigeria Football Association.
In place of the $11,000 that the Nigeria Football Association was paying Santos for the Lagos match, he informed Amachree that his council could only afford to pay Santos £6,000.
On behalf of the Midwest Sports Council, Amachree promised to get in touch with Santos to see whether the team would be interested in playing in Benin on January 27 for £6,000.
At the time, Santos was in the Congo. The Midwest Sports Council organized the game in order to amuse the region’s football fans, who would have the chance to watch the finest team and player in the world.
Additionally, it would provide Midwest players the chance to face off against top competitors.
Santos match scheduled for January 27 postponed
The Santos match scheduled for January 27 was postponed, according to Okonjo, who made the announcement during a news conference on January 25 in Benin.
Santos had only agreed to take part in one game in Lagos, Nigeria.
Another Nigerian match couldn’t possibly fit into their packed tour itinerary.
There was no “possibility to bring them here,” he claimed.
Two days later, he would convene another news conference and declare that Santos had changed its mind and would now face the Midwest squad on February 5.
Santos departed Lagos on the same day (January 27) for Mozambique.
Reporters were informed by him that all post offices and significant retailers across the state would begin selling match tickets later that day.
Santos requested that the date of the Benin match be altered from Wednesday, February 5, to Tuesday, February 4, in a cable submitted to the Midwest Sports Council on Saturday, February 1 from Mozambique.
On February 4, Santos took a flight from Lagos to the airport in Benin.
Upon their arrival in the city, the Santos team and authorities made a courtesy call on Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Ogbemudia, Military Governor of the Midwest, and the Oba of Benin.
The game was set to begin at 3.30 pm, but Benin’s Ogbe stadium opened at 10 am.
This was a championship game appropriate for the brand-new, 10,000-seat stadium (opened in December 1968), whose construction had cost the state government £70,000.
By 2 pm, it was completely filled, and many people were left waiting outside the stadium unable to enter.
Some football supporters traveled as far as Lagos while others travelled from neighboring states.
These were supporters who did not want to miss Santos’ game versus the Green Eagles again after missing it the first time.
Just prior to the start of the game, a representative of the Midwest Sports Council gave walking sticks that had been carved out of wood to the Santos players.
Ogbemudia marked the event by donning a sombrero in the Mexican fashion.
Santos defeated the tenacious but underpowered Midwest club 2-1.
The audience were disappointed when Pelé was unable to score.
Santos’ goals came from Edu and Negreiros, while Okere added a late consolation for the Midwest squad.
The first half was when the three goals were scored.
After the game, Santos immediately left for Lagos in order to go to Accra, Ghana, for the following exhibition game.
“For the first time since I began my sports reporting career, I watched a master player at work; I saw Pele play the ball with finesse and on numerous instances, he made our defense stars seem like newcomers to big-time soccer,” a Nigerian Observer writer said in his post-match analysis.
The Nigerian Ceasefire Legend “Pele”
So, did the Nigerian civil war actually stop because of Pele‘s visit?
If not, how did this tale come to be?
The story of the ceasefire has been told in a number of different ways online.
According to one version, the match happened in 1967, while another claims it happened in 1969.
The match may have taken place in Lagos, according to some reports, or it may have taken place in Benin, according to other reports.
Despite being reported on by websites like CNN, Time, The Guardian, The Telegraph, Goal.com, Wikipedia, Globoesporte.com, etc., the ceasefire rumor is a myth.
There is no confirmed evidence for this story in Nigeria.
For this piece, research was done on the Nigerian Daily Times (Lagos) and the Nigerian Observer (Benin), two important Nigerian newspapers.
The 1969 editions of these two newspapers made no mention of a civil war truce for a Santos game.
Santos’ two games in Nigeria were extensively covered by both papers, making them reliable sources.
The reason why some versions of the supposed ceasefire story state 1967 could be attributed to an error in Pele’s 1977 autobiography My Life and the Beautiful Game.
He said in the book that he visited Lagos in 1967 with Santos, but he and Santos didn’t visit Lagos until 1969.
Pelé travelled a lot with Santos in the sixties so it is no surprise that he got the dates mixed up.
It is interesting that Pelé didn’t mention the supposed ceasefire story in his 1977 book and yet, he does in his 2007 autobiography Pelé: The Autobiography.
He recalls the match taking played in Lagos in 1969.
Neither book makes any mention of the Benin game.
According to some reports of the truce, the Midwest Governor, Lieutenant Colonel Samuel Ogbemudia, is also believed to have opened the Sa Pele Bridge to allow Biafrans to cross into Benin to attend the game.
Actually, the toll bridge was opened on game day precisely to prevent supporters from having to pay extra fees to see the game, not to allow Biafrans access to it.
It is improbable that any Biafran would have ventured to travel to either of the two Santos matches from Biafra (southeast of Nigeria).
Even the most ardent Biafran football fan would have shied away from playing because of the threat of being arrested or killed by Federal forces.
It didn’t help that a Biafran aircraft bombed Obagie, a community eight miles from Benin, four days prior to the Benin match.
The air strike claimed the lives of four farmers and wounded numerous more.
Any peace between the Nigerian Government and Biafra for Santos’ game in Benin would have been doubtful after this attack in the Midwest.
In his account of the Benin match that was included in his “Eighteen Months of Stewardship” report, the Midwest Governor made no mention of a cease-fire with Biafra.
On the club’s website in early 2015, Santos historian Guilherme Guarche claimed that the 1990 Pelé profile by French-Brazilian journalist Michel Laurence in Placar magazine was the original source of the information about the 1969 ceasefire. Laurence is the coordinator of Santos’ Memory and Statistics Centre.
The article briefly mentions this incident as one of the intriguing occurrences that took place throughout Pelé’s football career.
Regarding the 48-hour truce tale, Pele admitted in his 2007 book, “I’m not convinced it’s entirely genuine,” but added, “The Nigerians certainly made sure the Biafrans wouldn’t overrun Lagos while we were there.”
He remembered being protected by the army and police when they were in Nigeria, as well as “a significant military presence on the streets.”
In his book, he also claimed that the Santos business manager gave the players an assurance that the Nigerian civil war would end in time for their exhibition game and that the authorities wouldn’t have any issues.
During his 2011 CNN interview, Pele did not, however, express any skepticism on the reported truce.
In this interview, he reaffirmed the mythology of the truce.
An excerpt from an interview:
Pele: I’m proud of that. Yes, that is.
Because, as you may know, my team and Santos — and you can see my biography in the movie – prevented war.
People stopped the fighting to see Santos play in Africa because they were passionate about football and love the game.
Yes, you’re talking about 1967, when the cease-fire —
COREN: — was made public for 48 hours in Nigeria so that both opposing sides could watch you perform in Lagos.
That is really incredible, in my opinion.
Pele: All the African players are different; we weren’t anticipating that.
Similar to what I used to say, we aim to spread a positive message wherever we go and wherever we travel.
I know I have a lot of work to do, but I trust God.
The incident occurred in Nigeria, an African nation torn apart by civil war, which added credibility to the ceasefire story.
Pele would be the best candidate to halt a civil war in an African nation in the 1960s if any sports figure could.
The only issue with Pelé’s claim of a ceasefire in the Nigerian civil war is that it is untrue.
Pele is the only person to have won the World Cup three times and is widely regarded as one of the greatest footballers of all time.
Before his passing was officially announced on December 29, Pele fought colon cancer and spent Christmas in the hospital getting treatment for cardiac and renal failure.