What Abiola promised me — Etim Esim

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* Not going to the World Cup my biggest regret

Etim Esim

Etim Esim

One of the most gifted footballers to have come out of Nigeria in the late 80s and early 90s was Etim Esin. He began his professional football career in Calabar with Rovers FC of Calabar and negotiated his way through two other local clubs before going abroad to Belgium. Just when his stock began to rise, the unfortunate happened. Etim abandoned his blossoming career and fled to Nigeria.

That marked the beginning of his fall which eventually saw him hang his boots in 2000 unceremoniously.

Of all his disappointments, Etim singled out his inability to go to a senior FIFA World Cup as his greatest regret. Etim spoke with Jacob Ajom. Excerpts.

We all know you. But if you were to describe yourself to the younger generation considering all you have been through what would you say?

Etim Esin is a Nigerian ex-international. One of the pioneers that travelled to Europe with the late Stephen Keshi, Austin Eguavoen and Samson Siasia back in the 80s. I was also nicknamed Maradona in football circles. Etim Esin is who Etim Esin is; I am what I am and I am who I am. We were the pathfinders of Nigerian football. I believe it is about time our recognition came, not when one is dead. I have lost a lot of friends, some we played together like Sam Okwaraji, Stephen Keshi, Rasheed Yekini, Uche Okafor, Thompson Oliha, Anigala a whole bunch of my generation, not to talk of the likes of Muda Lawal, Alloy Atuegbu, among others in the 70s generation. The way our football is going is pathetic. But with time we will get there someday.

What exactly is pathetic about Nigerian football?

When we used to play in the local league the stadiums were full, the situation now is pathetic because the stadiums are empty, even with modern technology the pitches are not even upgraded to FIFA standard. I think a lot of things should be involved; the private sector should be involved, well-meaning Nigerians like Femi Otedola, Alhaji Aliko Dangote, Mike Adenuga among others can come into our football if they know that there is a level playing field. They can change the face of Nigerian football because they are not going to be there because of the money but because of the passion. In 1994 we were 5th best playing nation in the world. Can you compare ’94 and now? I think if we put our acts right we will get there.

You were called Maradona because you were considered as good as the great Argentine soccer idol, Diego Maradona. I remember it was the great sportscaster, late Ernest Okonkwo that gave you that name. Would you say you actualised your football potential?

No. But I don’t have any regret because if it didn’t happen maybe I wouldn’t be here talking with you. It’s not everything you dreamed of always come to pass. I dreamed of playing for Nigeria, I played for Nigeria. And I dreamed of going to the World Cup but that did not materialise. A lot of my colleagues that made it to the World Cup have passed away. Sometimes I look at God and see that a lot of my colleagues have become Pastors; like Peterside Idah is a Pastor, Taribo West today. Maybe, someday. I too will be called to become a pastor.


You are laughing, don’t laugh. At times when you see what you have been through, you just have to give thanks to God that you are still alive today.

You were at the U-20 FIFA World Cup in Chile ’87 when it was thought Nigeria assembled about the best Flying Eagles squad ever. What really happened in Chile that the Eagles failed to click?

It was majorly about the incident, the drama that happened before the World Cup – my gunshot incident, etc. Maybe if they dropped me and the team travelled without me, perhaps they could have performed better. My inclusion caused disarray among my colleagues. Definitely, some thought or asked was I the only one? But here was a talent who was on top of his game. Everybody wanted to see me in the team, even President Babangida wanted me to go. So that was the amount of pressure to have me in the team. Eventually, things didn’t work out fine as we lost to Brazil, lost to Italy, we drew with Canada and were eliminated.

After that disappointment in 1987, I played for Nigeria in ’88 which, for me, was a very good progress., because even though we didn’t click in ’88, but then, we still have to thank God as we struggled up to when Okwaraji died. May his soul rest in peace. A new crop of players came up and used the path we created to qualify for USA ’94. A number of us from that batch, including Nduka Ugbade, were dropped from the USA ’94 party. Remember, if he had gone to USA ’94, Ugbade would have made the Guinness Book of Record as one who competed in FIFA U17, U20 to the senior World Cup. But you know what? Nigeria for what we are, they discharged the guy and he was dropped. So I believe at this stage, the crop of players who have made Nigeria proud in the past and those who have played at the World Cup should have come together and changed the face of Nigeria football.

You talked about the pressure on the coaching crew to include you in the Chile ’87 squad and how your inclusion caused misgivings among your teammates. But we also knew how coach Chris Udemezue had special likeness for you. Tell us about your relationship with the coach, now late.

The advice he gave me{in terms of discipline} all came to pass. This was a man who had already battled with one superbrat (Tarila Okorowanta) before and here was another(that is me). So he used the Tarila experience and told me that ‘look, if you behave like Tarila you are going nowhere. Your career may blossom, but you won’t get anywhere far.

Coach Udemezue was a strict disciplinarian and a man who always wanted something to be right. Unlike coaches of nowadays who will expect you to bribe them, once he saw the talent in you, definitely he would pick you up and developed that talent in you. That was one of his greatest assets. On the whole, he was a very strict disciplinarian. Ask all those that passed through him in the junior national team, they would tell you he was the best coach we ever had.

There was a time Coach Udemezue accompanied you to your parents in Oron

Definitely, he went with me to Oron to see my mother. I told him I wanted to go home and see my mother because she was sick. When we got there, he found out that my mother was not actually sick, he said, wow this boy! I hope you won’t kill me one day. He said if my stubbornness was in the blood he would have cured it, but mine was in my bone marrow …laughter.

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I don’t think any player, before or after me has achieved that – to drag a national team coach to your village. That means there was something special he saw in me. He saw the talent and took me like his son. He knew if I continued like that, it was going to be a disaster.

What influenced your attitude as a young boy and why were you so good a talent, yet so stubborn?

Basically, football comes to me naturally. It wasn’t that my father wanted me to play football. It was in 1987 when I was shot that my father had the mind to come to see me. He was never thrilled by all the hype I was associated with. It was when I started playing for the Flying Eagles that he started showing interest in my game. He was a strict academician, an Oxford graduate who opened school in Oron – Technical College, Oron. He never wanted any of his kids to be involved in all these things like sports. I have siblings who were born in London, they schooled there and some of them are lawyers, doctors. Michael, Raymond, Ekanem and so forth; they were all born in England and my dad schooled there too.

I did not come from that background of deprivation or went into football because I could not pay my school fees or anything like that. I was chauffeur-driven to and from school. I am not trying to brag or make undue claims. I didn’t have that traditional drop out background of many footballers of those days. Everything was on a platter of gold. They used to carry Range Rover, Mercedes, Volvo and drive us to school.

So, you were a pampered child?

Definitely, I grew up being pampered and I was a rebel in the family. I wanted to do things my own way. So when football came up, coupled with the fact that my dad did not use to give me enough pocket money {because he would insist until I got good grades}, so I started playing football and coach of Oron Young Stars saw the talent in me and he began giving me more money than what my dad used to give me. I then reasoned with myself that so if I put my mind in playing football I would get the financial freedom and independence I so much cherished. So at that tender age, I saw a pathway to my independence through football. That was how I became serious about playing football.

You talked about Oron Young Stars?

That was from where I started before Rovers of Calabar picked me after we played against them in the FA Cup. We beat some teams before we faced Rovers. We played out a draw. From there, coach Charles Bassey just picked interest in me and invited me to Calabar. I didn’t even finish my secondary school because as I dropped my biro that was how I joined Rovers in 1984. Then people like Keshi were already playing for the national team. Even the problem I had in Belgium, Keshi used to warn me that he liked me and wanted my progress but that the way I was going, I was headed for disaster. He advised me to marry and settle down. But you know how it was at that young age – maybe most of them didn’t believe my age then, But I was playing in my true age. So people were just wondering, where this small boy emerged from? It was rapid progression: from 1984/85 Rovers of Calabar, Flash Flamengoes ’86, Iwuanyanwu Nationale ’87. So you could see it was phenomenal. Maybe God just slowed me down for a reason.

You were called Maradona. Which particular match were you christened Maradona by the match commentator?

I can’t even remember. Maybe it was when the Flying Eagles played visiting A. A. Genk of Belgium at the national stadium, Lagos. In those days we never went for trials abroad. Pepsi Cola brought Genk to Nigeria. We played one match here in Lagos and I scored two goals and went to Benin and I scored a hat-trick. I think that was when Ernest Okonkwo nicknamed me Maradona. That was prior ’86 when Maradona ruled the world. The comparison was just up there, but we thank God for everything.

Did being compared with one of the greatest of all time actually get into your head?

No. Never. Rather, my dream was to play against him. That is why missing the 1994 World Cup was very hurting to me, especially, considering the fact that we were grouped alongside Argentina. That is why I consider missing the ’94 World Cup was my biggest regrets. Abiola had promised me that when the 1993 elections was over, he would use his presidential powers to see that I became free of the problem I had in Belgium. But it was not to be as man proposes, God disposes. I am glad that I am alive talking to you today.

If you wouldn’t mind. Can we go back to Belgium? What actually happened in Belgium?

Actually, what happened in Belgium was racism, you know there is racism everywhere. It happens in boxing, basketball and many other sports. Once they see a black talent, they will try and do everything to bring him down. I was one of the best black players in Belgium, if not the best. I am not trying to hype myself here, It was open knowledge, Your editor, Onochie Anibeze knows it, Mumuni Alao, he came to Belgium he can testify to this. I was the best. So their plot was how to bring down this black monkey. The girl I was accused of raping was my girlfriend. What I did not know was that she was underage. They called it statutory rape or so and naively I didn’t know. You know how fast they grow big and I didn’t care to ask of her age. When my lawyer came he told me I shouldn’t have accepted that I did it, that the girl was underage. There was no evidence to have proved my guilt. In my statement, I admitted due to my naivety. If the club had given me a good lawyer to advise me before I wrote my statement I wouldn’t have put that I slept with her because there was nothing to prove, no forensic or DNA test or anything like that. But it was just a journey God made for me. My experience should be a lesson to all black players who are at their best now; like Sadio Mane, he should be careful. Look at what that woman did to Eboue, took all his money and almost caused the guy to commit suicide. There is racism in football and it is worse than cancer. Even in the Premiership. Racism is something that has not been faced with the seriousness it deserves. It is something Confederation of African Football, CAF, should champion that cause as a body and mount pressure for it to be stamped out because it is the black race that suffers it most. They will throw a banana at you or make monkey chants.

Your experience in Belgium; could it have been possible if it were today?

No, I don’t think it could because players today have managers, they have agents. In our time, we did not have any form of backing. We were just out there in Europe, trying to survive. So that is the advantage they have now.

You came back from Belgium and signed for a local club but things didn’t really work out well?

But I won FA Cup for them in 1996. But it didn’t really give the lift I desired because every player’s dream is the World Cup. I thought I could play my way back to reckoning and make it to the 1998 World Cup but you know there was power play. I was still playing because I wasn’t banned. To give me a second chance became a very big problem for everybody. It would have been a wonderful opportunity to have played alongside Okocha and others. But I was blocked everywhere.

Who were the people blocking you? Was it the national team selectors or who?

Both the national team selectors and the NFA Chairman. You know by then I had no godfather again. I had become an orphan. So after the ’98 World Cup, I told myself there was no need to continue, let me not fall down one day and die. So I quit football 2000, the year I had my daughter.

Back to Nigerian football, a lot of people believe domestic football is dead.

It’s not true. We have a league. But that is not enough. We have to bring in the organised private sector. When Wizkid or Davido are playing where do they go? They have Arena, Eko Convention Centre. Where do we play our own? Agege stadium. In the whole of this axis, from where you are coming to Ajah, except for Onikan Stadium that is undergoing renovation, did you see any playing arena? So where is the development? If one has to come to the stadium, there has to be adequate security, relaxation points like the cinema, restaurant and more. Then you will see people will come back to the stadiums. But if you want somebody from here to go to Agege and watch football he won’t because he would consider the traffic, the distance, etc. That is why the music and movie industry is growing so fast. They have been able to repackage themselves very well. Before it was football. Then you can’t compare a musician or a movie star with a footballer. But not again, they have left us behind. If you look at the Nollywood industry, it is one of the biggest, then look at the music industry, it is also one of the biggest in the world. And these young boys and girls are doing collabo. How many Nigerian ex-footballers are doing collabo? If they call you now, they will frame you up. This one would say I was your better, and another would say, I played in the World Cup and you didn’t. But I have my friends and former teammates in Belgium and with them, I am surviving. They are big boys who are either directors of football of a team in Belgium, or a team in Holland, Spain. They will hail me and ask what they can do for me. I will tell them I have a player. Just a short video of my player, they will watch and that is it. How many ex-internationals here run academies? They will rather invest in the hospitality and entertainment industry than in football that gave them fame and fortune. For instance, if people like Nwankwo Kanu and Jay Jay Okocha had opened academies and put me there as Director of football, do you know what that would have meant to them. You know this game and I know this game. You get yours and I get what I deserve. We don’t carry each other along in this country. And that is sinking us down.

So now you are into football scouting?

Yes, I am into scouting. It’s been good so far but basically, it is a game of patience. Just have a platform and put the player there. Once he is 18, he would sign a professional contract. So you have to be patient and wait.

Just last weekend, Chief Segun Odegbami wrote, calling for an indigenous coach as the next Super Eagles handler. Do you support his view?

I am 100% in support of what he is saying. Look at someone like Emmanuel Amuneke. Was Guardiola not his teammate at Barcelona? Just give him the platform and don’t limit his ability, don’t try to cage him and give him a free hand. Amuneke took Tanzania to the last AFCON. If Amuneke comes out, with his wealth of experience and knowledge of the game, he would not want anybody to dictate for him. Would you give him a free hand like you are giving Rohr? Will they want to select the team for him? No way! It should not be. You are the NFF chairman and I am the coach, you gave me a job, I select my team. If I don’t deliver, I quit. You shouldn’t have any business with my team. Until that aspect is corrected, we are still very far because of interests from interest groups.

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If things continue this way our football will not grow. See Brazilians, they would play in Europe then go back home to play retirement football in their domestic clubs like Flamengoes, Santos. Look at South Africa, how many South African players are playing abroad? They have the platform, a very good league with multiple sponsors like Adidas, Puma, Volkswagen, Mercedes, so many other companies. Why can’t we attract sponsorship for our leagues? Look at our clubs in continental competitions, you won’t see names of sponsors on their jerseys, even the rights we used to get we lost because of greed. Clubs get virtually nothing. The biggest country in Africa does not have its league on television. This is where cable television makes most of its money. In South Africa, Supersport owns a full-fledged football club, Supersport FC, well-financed and well maintained to international standard. How much is South Africa’s population? And this is where they make their money most. MTN is sponsoring up to the national team. Why can’t MTN sponsor a club in Nigeria?

But the ugly reality is that we are not straightforward. Once we become straightforward, things will begin to look up. I cannot see something white and I call it black. Maybe that is why they say I am stubborn. I am not stubborn but being truthful. That is the way I was brought up.

On Samson Siasia’s life ban by FIFA

I don’t know why Nigerians are not rallying around Samson Siasia. Why are they leaving him alone? Siasia has done a lot for this country. The NFF is supposed to have intervened in this matter. You can’t ban Sisia from football for life. Football is the only thing he knows. How does he survive because it is football that gives him his livelihood. Life ban? That is outrageous. What has he done? That is why I am pleading with the President of the Nigeria Football Federation to do something for Siasia.

The GSM handset drama at Okocha’s residence. Have you made up?

It was Chief Segun Odegbami that called us together and settled us. He is our senior and I have forgiven Okocha and moved on. If they are writing names of Nigerian footballers mine will come up before his. Respect they say is reciprocal. I still hold Henry Nwosu MON in high esteem because he inspired me to play number 10. But some people won’t give honour to whom it is due and instead they want to trample it which is African mentality. Out there, they want to place you where you belong.

Here we are beclouded by ignorance because most footballers didn’t go to school. Don’t get me wrong, but I can count some ex-footballers who read and are well developed. People like Chief Segun Odegbami, Chief Justice Adokie Amiesimaka, Dr Felix Owolabi. People like Tajudeen Disu, Waidi Akanni, and a few others were given scholarship by Chief Abiola to go and study in the US. Apart from the few, the rest of us, my brother, it is just spoken English we know, upstairs, there is nothing. Here I am not trying to run anybody down, I am just telling you the basic fact.

So when educated people like Odegbami fought hard to become NFF president, when he was still young and vibrant, they denied him the chance. Do you know those who were blocking him from becoming NFF President? It was his former teammate(names withheld). So you see, it is your own person that would kill you in Nigerian football.

In Zambia, they gave it to Kalusha Bwalya. What stops someone like Okocha to be NFF President?


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