Amid a raucous atmosphere at the U.J. Esuene stadium on Monday evening, one man sat perfectly still in the VIP tribune. The 89-year-old Ekeng Henshaw, dressed in traditional green garb, sits watching intently as Nigeria's juniors dominate Korea Republic in the first half of their quarter-final in Calabar, old hands balanced on the golden handle of his cane. FIFA.com managed to break the old man's concentration for a chat at the half, five minutes after the lively Koreans drew level at 1-1.
"I enjoy watching this young team," says Henshaw, who holds the distinction of being the first-ever captain of the Nigerian senior national team, the Super Eagles. "These boys here look very nice on the ball. It fills me with joy to see them playing and expressing themselves. I see some real talent out there, it's just too bad they lost concentration and conceded a goal. They'll have to get their heads back in it if they want to win this tournament," added the Calabar native, who played in the Nigerian national team's first game in 1949, donning the skipper's armband.
Behind thick spectacles, the old man's eyes water a bit with memories of that time so long ago - just four short years on from the conclusion of World War II - when the young Nigerians, playing barefoot before curious crowds, did a summer tour of England. "The fans were interested because we didn't wear shoes," added Henshaw, the son of the first Ambassador of Nigeria in London. "It's how we knew to play football, We just played the game because we loved it and we grew up kicking the ball around whenever we could. It was in our blood, it wasn't our job."
The differences between then and now in Nigerian football are many and varied according to the old Eagle, an inside-left attacking player with a keen eye for goal in his day. "They play in Europe now; they make millions. When we played we didn't play just to score goals or just to win the game, we moved the ball, we expressed ourselves," continued the aged Henshaw, who captained the Eagles proudly for over a decade.
An engineer by trade, Ekeng never made a cent playing football. For him, it was a matter of something altogether more intangible. "We created with the ball; with the passes and the moves we made," said the skipper, who scored the winning goal for his club Marine FC when they won the first-ever Challenge Cup in 1945. "Sometimes it seems that today they only care about putting the ball in the net. We played because we loved to play and because it made us feel free."
The young Golden Eaglets returned to the pitch the second half of the final game of the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Henshaw's hometown of Calabar, and their performance was enough to make an old man's heart soar. Abdul Ajagun and Terry Envoh both scored to send the singing, dancing crowd into further hysterics, the youngsters playing with real joy and verve. "Look at them, look at them all in green," the old Eagle said before being helped out the ground by his wife and son at the final whistle. "I remember what it felt like to represent my country. It's hard to describe after all these years, and the memories fade, but the pride I felt was immeasurable."
The young Eaglets will next meet Spain on Thursday in Lagos, and though the old captain's feeble body won't allow him to attend, he will be with them in spirit. "I think they can win, if they play with pride and passion," he concludes with a kindly smile. Behind the thick glass of his spectacles, the eyes of a footballer still burn, keen for just one more game...