Coach Yemi Tella (Member Order of the Federal Republic of Nigeria) was bigger than life in a subtle un-annoying way.
Coaching in a country where braggadocio and ego is oft an unfortunate job requirement, he was a very much appreciated difference and a total class act. To all who came under his tutelage – from the snot nosed kids in Agege to the Eaglets in and out of Camp – Coach Tella was a friend first, a teacher second and a trainer third and this is why his death at age 56 on Sunday is extra painful to the myriad of young players which he helped shape their character as well as to the millions of Nigerian fans to which he restored national pride and brought unimaginable joy.
From the dusty pock marked fields that crisscross Lagos where he first tought carriage and instilled confidence to hundreds of boys eager to soak up his abundant knowledge, to the Spartan classrooms of the National Institute of Sports where his voice demanded respect all heads this morning remain bent in grief and hearts suffocated in pain.
Right from the gates when he took charge of the World and African Champion Golden Eaglets we all knew this was a special marriage that would work. The NFA brass were so elated in the product they saw taking shape that they stayed amazingly out of his way and when responding to the praise heaped upon the U20 team in Canada by the football pundits and press, they simply smiled and said knowingly “ wait till you see our junior team”.
Compared almost unimaginably to the Eagles of 1994 by all who watched their controlled fury on the field, Tella served notice in Togo to Africa and the rest of the World that his unselfish grounded team would be something to remember. With the abundance of talent he had Tella created a no frills delegation that basked in his unflinching but humble confidence. He never doubted their ability and moments after lifting the African Cup he smugly announced that Nigeria would win the World cup.
He never strayed from that prediction and while the usual experts wondered loudly about his tactics first against France and then questioned his use of the long ball against Columbia, his wards never let him down and rewarded his confidence in them by locking their eyes on the prize and refusing to fail. He was without a doubt the wind in their sails and it was almost as if they knew that they would only have one more opportunity to role the dice for him. This explains why they wept as if they had lost a parent when they lost to Brazil in the pre tourney Final game. Though the tears initially were unending and flowed like the River Niger in the rainy season, they only stopped when Tella already weakened by those evil cancerous cells ravaging his lungs and now attacking his lymph nodes called for a huddle right there on the pitch and led the team in prayer rededicating themselves to God and country.
They would never loose again and would continue to roll double sixes not just for Nigeria and more importantly for them for Tella.
Last month, in addition to the open check given regarding his health care by the FGN he was awarded the Member of the Order of the Federal Republic medal for his achievement, by the Nigerian president Umar Yar’Adua and despite being the 3rd Nigerian Coach to mentor a World Champion behind Sebastian Broderick and Fanny Amun he instantly crept into our hearts and attained a place only reserved for family and good friends.
Coach Tellah had become both.
According to the NFA secretary-general, Bolaji Ojo-Oba, a planned friendly match between the local based Super Eagles and the national under-17 side will still go ahead on Wednesday and will be dedicated to the coach. I am willing to be that there won’t be one dray eye in the Stadium.
Good bye kind Sir you will be forever missed.
By Iwedi Ojinmah for the Times of Nigeria