‘EX-PLAYERS WHO WANT TO HELP NIGERIAN FOOTBALL ARE REGARDED AS BEING BROKE’ – AMUNIKE

Filed in Sports by on September 4, 2010

‘Ex-players who want to help Nigerian football are regarded as being broke’ – Amunike
By Femi Atoyebi
Saturday, 4 Sep 2010

Apart from the mini gym located at the back of the house, the premises have nothing to show that a former African Footballer of the Year lives there. The modest setting, though in a high brow area of Lagos, only points to Emmanuel Amunike‘s preference for serenity.

The former Barcelona star, who confesses that affluence was not part of his youthful days, is not only being philosophical when he says every human being possesses a gift that leads to greatness; he is actually speaking from experience.

”Most people were born into poor families, but as a man grows up, he must be conscious of his gift and develop interest in nurturing it.

”My parents did not belong to the rich circle of the Nigerian society; not that we could not afford to eat at all, but soccer is a gift and tool that has repositioned our existence in life,” says the former Barca Winger.

Having played for Nigeria, and clubs in Europe and Jordan, Amunike should be proud to flaunt his wealth, but he looked elsewhere, preferring to accept that he has only been repositioned to a new level, where he can help others. He says parents embrace football today because of the financial reward, but it was the reverse when he was growing up.

”During our time, parents wanted their children to go to school and become doctors and lawyers. We were not encouraged to play football. Football was considered a waste of time. But somehow, the role of my parents in my career cannot be erased. They supported me to be what I am today. I can remember friends and relatives, who were giving me money to pay transport fare when I was going for training in those days. Those were my godfathers and my idols.”

Unfulfilled career

Playing for Julius Berger was like a dream come true in 1991, but a stellar performance against Enugu Rangers in a league match, watched by an assistant coach to Clemence Westerhorf in the Super Eagles, resulted in a promotion he never thought of.

”I loved playing for Berger because the atmosphere around the club was encouraging. Coach Christian Chukwu called me after a match against Rangers and said he wanted me to come to the Super Eagles training. He introduced me to Westerhorf and after watching me in training, the coach‘s gesture was clear; he was impressed. I can also remember coach James Peter, who kept on telling me that I could reach the top if I concentrate on certain aspects of the game.”

It was the beginning of a rapid rise to the stardom as Amunike joined Zamalek the following year. In 1994, Portuguese club, Sporting Lisbon, offered him a contract. He soon became a hero at the club and Barcelona showed interest in signing him.He recalls he was ready for the challenges of playing for one of the biggest clubs in the world, but constant injury wrecked his chances. After three seasons with a few matches to point to, he moved to Albacete and later Al Wihdat of Jordan, before being forced to retire in 2004. Amunike never recovered fully from the injury and he rued not being able to help Nigeria beyond what he did. Rather than looking at the darker days of his career, he only reflects on the brighter side; the good days which he sustained with discipline.

”In 365 days of the year, situations cannot be the same. Change is part of life and we must learn to respect it. It comes in different shapes at different stages of our life; good and bad, he says.

”I have excelled and fallen sometimes to injury. It was not fair to my career. I aimed so high but only God can take you there. Everybody knows how I played, but with injury, no player can give his best. But I respect my teammates, coaches and fans and that was why I was embraced in the tough days of my career. They realised that I was not a lazy person and that I would have been one of the world best players if not for the injuries.”

The agony and emotional imbalance created by the inability to play must be torturing for Amunike, but he says despite the temptation to be furious at not being used even when he was fit, he remained calm.

”I have never grumbled against my coaches because they were like fathers to me. I cannot totally deny not ever having a disagreement especially when being substituted when I felt I was doing well. As human beings, we take funny actions when we are hot but we must always come back and reflect on them. Where you are wrong accept the blame and move on,” adds the 1994 African Footballer of the year.

”The good thing is that I was lucky with all the coaches I worked with. They understood my problems and encouraged me to move on. Loius van Gaal is an exceptionally wonderful person to me; he shares the same feelings with Carlos Queiroz. Jose Mourinho was at Barcelona with me and I appreciate his contribution to the club. There must be communication in every team and only the coach can start it. Players only need to understand it.

”Football in every club is a project and coaches have the responsibility to make players feel part of it. A season is about nine months and it is always filled with lots of challenges. Injury to players, misunderstanding between players and coaches and sometimes coaches and club owners; there is also fatigue, especially in a busy schedule. But success must be achieved and coaches have a real responsibility.

Regret

Between 1992 and 2001, Amunike played 40 matches for Nigeria, scoring eight times. The left footer is however unhappy that he was unable to do more for Nigeria.

He says, “It‘s a honour to play for your country. I had success playing for Nigeria, but I could have done more but for my injuries. To be called to duty out of one hundred million players is an amazing achievement.”

Preparing for home-coming

With a promising career riddled with injuries and coming to an end abruptly, Amunike returned home in 2008. He was prepared for the journey. Having played the game for about one and a half decades, it was certain that his future depends on the game.

He says he spent a fortune to go to a coaching school in Spain for three years to equip himself for the future.

”There was no one to turn to. I paid the fees for three years and at the end I earned a UEFA A Licence. It is unfortunate that Nigeria does not respect its own coaches but if you believe in yourself, one day, people will listen to you, Amunike says.

”I witnessed the development of great players like Carles Puyol, Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez, and many more at Barcelona. I love to be a coach and with my experience and education, I am sure that my coming home will not be a waste.”

On his return, Amunike has coached Berger and Ocean Boys. But the Emmanuel Amunike Soccer Academy he built in Ikorodu, Lagos State, remains his major channel to reach the grass roots. He says he almost exhausted his entire savings to complete the academy.

”It‘s a modern academy, clearly not like the ones we have around. There are challenges I encountered in the process of building it. Its finance affected my financial responsibility towards my family. I ran out of money and approached people who claim to love football but they could not help. I did not beg them for money, I only said they should partner me in helping the kids. Nigerian youths are born with talent but there are certain things to do before it can become a jewel,” he adds.

”The boys stay at the academy for six days in a week. We feed them and cater for the welfare. It is yet to reach the standard I have in mind, but we will continue to build until it reaches the level we want. The age limit is between 15 and 20. At 15 you must know what football is all about and by 20, you must be reaching your best. Unfortunately, there are players in Nigerian league who, at 25, cannot do the basic things.”

He says the academy is in the process of being an afiliate of Sporting Lisbon of Portugal with the arrangemnet that players from Nigeria will travel to Portugal to make use of the club’s facilities. Already, some of the boys are playing for clubs in Finland and Israel with more planning to join other European clubs in January.

Amunike is not the only player returning home after a career abroad. There are others who have even tried to be on the board of Nigeria Football Federation. Some others, who are coaches, have found the terrain difficult to ply. The former Eagles striker says Nigerians perceive their heroes in bad light.

”In Nigeria, we see ex-players who returned home and seek work in Nigeria as broke. It‘s like they have come home to beg for money and work. I am sure there are many of us who have genuine interest in helping the game at home, but the nation must show interest in having us around. Nobody should feel threatened that an ex-footballer wants to take his job. Mutiu Adepoju is my friend and we attended school together in Spain. He is wanted in Europe but what have we made of his experience since he returned? Jay Jay Okocha is here with us but we are yet to know what to do with him.”

Nigeria vs Madagascar

The Super Eagles failed in South Africa and lost a friendly match against South Korea after the World Cup. Tomorrow in Calabar, the team will play Madagascar in a Nations Cup qualifier. Amunike is of the opinion that players who failed in South Africa can still be useful in the team.

”They must feel the people‘s pain and show the right attitude. Those players you refer to as home-based will be feeling bad for calling them so. It‘s not a good tag. It limits their expectations and dampens their morale. You can help them by giving them a better name because some of them are better than the players you are bringing from Europe. If the best players are in the Premier League, England should have won the World Cup.”

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