Nigerian football was again thrown into mourning on Thursday after news broke of the death of former Nigeria senior team goalkeeper and one-time assistant coach of the Super Eagles, Joe Erico.
Family sources said the flamboyant trainer of trainers and respected nurturer of talents complained of body pain and was treated for malaria, only to be found dead in his bed at dawn on Thursday.
Born Joseph Bassey Eric in the Odukpani Local Government Area in what is today known as Cross River State, Erico belonged to the caste of the very best goalkeepers in the history of Nigeria’s senior team, and served at the same period as the revered Emmanuel Okala and Eyo Essien.
He made his debut for then Green Eagles in an Africa Cup of Nations qualifying match against Zambia in Lagos in July 1973 (which Nigeria won 3-2), and then kept goal in all of Nigeria’s six matches at the 1976 Africa Cup of Nations in Ethiopia, where the Eagles finished third – the first time Nigeria would win a medal at the AFCON. Erico was also in goal in all of Nigeria’s pre-tournament friendlies against Kenya, Zambia and Tanzania just before the team flew to Ethiopia.
“It is another sad day for Nigerian Football. Erico was among the very best of Nigeria’s international goalkeepers and also served the country with fervour and diligence as Assistant Coach of the Super Eagles between 2001 and 2002. He will be sorely missed. We pray that Almighty God grant him eternal rest and also grant his family and loved ones the fortitude to bear the big loss,” NFF General Secretary, Dr Mohammed Sanusi, said in Abuja.
Nicknamed ‘Jogo Bonito’ (Beautiful Game) for his preference for fluency and expression in the rhythm of play of his teams as a coach, Erico was part of the triumvirate (alongside late Amodu Shaibu and late Stephen Keshi) who were shooed in to do a rescue job for Nigeria as the ship to the 2002 FIFA World Cup finals tottered badly under Dutchman Johannes Bonfrere. With three matches left in the campaign and a must-win mandate for all, the trio got the job done and qualified Nigeria for Korea/Japan.
They also led the team to a bronze-medal finish at the 2002 Africa Cup of Nations finals in Mali early 2002.
With his death on Thursday morning, it means all members of that historic triumvirate have now passed on.
Confirming this development, a close family member Tomiwa Aghedo said the country’s coaching icon gave up the ghost after complaining of stomach ache.
“I feel sad informing you that coach Joe Erico passed on this morning,” Aghedo said with a tinge of regret.
“He complained of stomach ache yesterday and he was subsequently rushed to the hospital, where he was told to present his Covid-19 test result before he would be attended to.
“Coach Erico went for the test as directed. And very early this morning he passed away. It’s terrible news at this point in time and every one of us is devastated.
“We are consoled by the fact that he served Nigeria with all his strength. And he lived a good life worthy of emulation.”
Erico began his football career with the Nigerian Police Force, NEPA, Nigeria Railways, Electricity Connectors of Nigeria and Julius Berger – where he won several diadems.
He attracted the national teams’ selectors in 1968. And he was picked to man Nigeria’s goalpost alongside Prince Zion Ogunfeyimi by coach Tiko Jelisavcic for the 1976 Africa Cup of Nations staged in Ethiopia.
There, he played a crucial role as Jelisavic’s men placed third after defeating Egypt 3-2 in the play-off at the Addis Ababa Stadium.
Sadly, his promising football career came to a halt years later following an injury while on international duty.
Erico went into administration and he handled his boyhood club Julius Berger where he introduced the Jogo Bonito style – a distinct style of flair in Brazilian football.
He was part of the coaching crew that qualified the Nigeria U23 squad for the Sydney 2000 Olympics. Unfortunately, Nigeria Football Federation fired him on the eve of the competition.
Two years later, he was recalled to the national Super Eagles setup as assistant to Amodu Shuaibu. Alongside Amodu and Stephen Keshi, Nigeria qualified for the 2002 World Cup staged in South Korea and Japan. Again, he was axed by the NFF after the country placed third at the 2002 AFCON in Mali.
Coach Erico is survived by his wife and four children. His burial arrangements will be announced in the coming days.