Nigeria’s sports heroes: Tales of the dimming stars
Sports is, perhaps, one of the easiest avenues for young men to quit the poverty lane. The world over, sportsmen are among the best paid set of professionals, with some earning in a week far above what well-educated individuals in other professions get in a lifetime.
The world’s richest sportsman, golfer, Tiger Woods is worth more than $1 billion, just as Nigerian-born British boxer, Anthony Joshua commands more than £30 million for every fight. This is apart from several endorsements he enjoys for being the best boxer in the world. Among Nigerian sportsmen, Odion Ighalo is rated as the highest earner with the £200, 000 weekly salary he gets playing for Shanghai Shenhua in the Chinese Super League.
Such humongous earnings ordinarily should take care of the sportsman’s needs when the ovation dies. But in many instances, such is not the case. This is because most of them either don’t plan for any future outside stardom or they just fall on ill-luck. Retirement suddenly catches them unprepared and ill equipped.
In contrast, a good number of these retired icons had the future firmly in their sights while they were still active.
These are the former stars who acquired education and other vocations while they could. Today, some of them are well-placed in the society.
In another category, however, are the stars who reigned long before sports became big business and a money spinner.In many cases, these men don’t fare too well in life after stardom. Recently, Nigerians woke up to the depressing news that former international goalkeeper, Peter Fregene has been bedridden by a devastating ailment.
The footballer, who manned the posts for Nigeria on two separate eras from 1969 to 1982, has been bedridden for almost 20 years. He is suffering, dying slowly, painfully and without any support or hope.Fregene was a member of the Nigerian team to Mexico ‘68 Olympics Games. The ‘Flying Cat,’ who played for the crowd-pulling Stationery Stores of Lagos, was also a member of the Green Eagles squad to Libya ’82 Africa Nations Cup, though the team could not defend the trophy it won in Lagos two years earlier.
He has been hit with stroke and needs financial support to enable him get the required medical attention. Born in Sapele, Delta State, Fregene played club football for two Lagos rival clubs, ECN and Stationery Stores FC.Before Fregene’s case came to limelight, Chairman Christian Chukwu’s plight ruled the waves.Down with a debilitating ailment, it took the campaign and goodwill of many Nigerians to raise the needed money for him to go abroad for medical treatment.
Last week, the news also broke of the demise of former Green Eagles and Bendel Insurance of Benin midfielder, George Omokaro, who was bedridden for almost 10 years after several major surgeries associated with arthritis.There are many other former stars in urgent need of support because they cannot help themselves. Most of them are on the fringes of life, devoid of ideas on what to do to sustain themselves.
For these reasons, many have taken to alcohol and/or hard drugs, which ultimately compound their woes.For some others, who are not so much in dire straits (coaches), the challenge is getting paid for their efforts. Some cannot even secure jobs because the opportunities are too few.
For many years, Emmanuel Okala was Nigeria’s undisputed number one goalkeeper. The ‘Man Mountain,’ who was the country’s first African Footballer of the Year, was involved in so many victories by the Green Eagles, including the 1980 African Nations Cup triumph.
Alongside ‘Chairman’ Christian Chukwu, ‘Mathematical’ Segun Odegbami, Best Ogedegbe, David Adiele, ‘Midfield maestro’ Muda Lawal, Tunde Bamidele, ‘Blockbuster’ Aloysius Atuegbu, Felix Owolabi, Godwin Odiye, ‘Chief Justice’ Adokiye Amiesimaka, Moses Effiong, John Orlando, Shefiu Mohammed, Charles Bassey, Henry Nwosu, Franck Onwuachi and Kadiri Ikhana, Okala’s Green Eagles remains one of the best national teams to have come out of Africa.
Today, Okala, also called ‘Tallest’ for his towering 6ft 5 inches imposing frame, is a sad man. He has been down with an undisclosed ailment for over two years.The former Enugu Rangers goalkeeper told The Guardian during the week that even though he had been sick, he won’t complain to anyone about his ill-health. “I have been sick for the past two years, and all the people in the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) know about it. I am in a very bad mood right now, but I won’t complain to anyone because it is like the NFF is not ready to do anything to help us.
“And I also feel that some Nigerians are only looking for a way to laugh at their fellow human beings. Look at the case of Christian Chukwu. A patron of Enugu Rangers, Benson Ejindu, came up with a genuine intention to seek help for Chukwu, but some people in our football circle hijacked it. They even branded him (Benson Ejindu) as 419. Is that good? But thank God for the likes of Femi Otedola and Ned Nwoko for their financial support for Christian Chukwu.
“Those running our football should have the fear of God because nobody knows what will happen tomorrow. I am sure many Nigerians will be thinking that we made so much money in our days playing for the country. No, it was not so. We played for the passion. We loved wearing the green white green colour then because of the joy we put on the faces of Nigerians. Some of us never saw this bad situation coming.
“I saw Peter Fregene’s picture where he looks so sick, and I could no longer recognize the ‘Flying Cat’. I wept openly because Fregene is someone I know very well. I heard he was sick, but I never knew it was that bad.“Just a few days ago, I was devastated when I heard that George Omokaro was no more. The man was sick for months in Benin City, and no one could come to his rescue. Must they wait until we are dead before remembering us?” Okala queried.
In 1975, Okala was in the Rangers’ squad that conquered Ghazi El Mehalla of Egypt in the semifinal of the African Champions Cup. The Flying Antelopes had not lost a game in three years before their trip to Egypt in a do or die match against Mehalla.
Okala revealed that the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) President, Amaju Pinnick came with an entourage to Enugu about three weeks ago and promised to set up a committee to look into the situation of retired footballers that are having health challenges. “I will give the NFF the last chance, and as I earlier said, I won’t complain to anybody,” Okala stated.
He, however, praised Governor Willie Obiano of Anambra State for ‘caring’ for Nigerian ex-internationals.For three weeks now, Nigerians have been following the health situation of former captain of the Green Eagles, ‘Chairman’ Christian Chukwu, who led the team to win Nigeria’s first Africa Cup of Nations title in 1980 under the administration of former President Shehu Shagari. He also captained the Enugu Rangers FC team that won the Africa Cup Winners’ Cup in 1977.
On retirement, Chukwu served as assistant coach of the Golden Eaglets, the first team to win a FIFA World Cup trophy for Nigeria at the FIFA U-16 World Cup at China ‘85.He was also assistant coach of the all-conquering 1994 class of Super Eagles that qualified Nigeria for her first FIFA World Cup finals, won the Africa Cup of Nations title at Tunisia ’94, and reached the Round of 16 at USA ’94 FIFA World Cup. Between 2002 and 2005, Chukwu was head coach of the Super Eagles, leading the team to win the bronze medal at the 2004 Africa Cup of Nations in Tunisia.
But Chukwu does not actually fall into the category of distressed former footballers as he is a top officer in the Enugu State Civil Service. Segun Odegbami is one of the few retired footballers, who have continued to thrive on their own in spite of neglect by the nation they served so well.A graduate of the Polytechnic Ibadan, Odegbami is seen as a shinning light for footballers of his generation and rallying point for Nigerian sportsmen because he has been able to acquire the skills required to integrate into the society after his sports career.
At the last general elections, he contested for the office of the governor of Ogun State and even though he lost, it was a testament to the height he has attained since he retired from active sports. Apart from Odegbami, his contemporary, Adokiye Amiesiamaka, a lawyer, is one of the revered policymakers in Rivers State.
The former Enugu Rangers’ winger has held many political appointments, including serving as the Attorney General and Commissioner for Justice in Rivers State. Recently, Rivers State Governor, Ezenwo Nyesom Wike appointed Amiesimaka as the Chairman Governing Council of the Kenule Beeson Saro-Wiwa Polytechnic. Amiesiamaka, who was once chairman of the defunct Sharks Football Club of Port Harcourt, is now in private practice.
Felix Owolabi, popularly called Owo-Blow, holds a PhD in Physical Education. Since retiring from active football, he has held several positions, both in his beloved IICC Shooting Stars of Ibadan and the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF). But he is not happy with the lot of retired sportsmen in the country. Owolabi believes that the Federal Government should find a way of catering for national heroes when they need help.
“If somebody has served you, putting everything in his life and he becomes a hero, gets a national award, there should be a forum where such individual should be rewarded every month for the rest of his life.“Of what use is it to give somebody a national honour and when the person retires he cannot take care of himself.“I believe somebody with a national honour should be a child of the country. This is the way Nigeria should look at their heroes, not only in sports, but also in the academia. I don’t think people understand what it means to represent your country.”
Odegbami advances two reasons why footballers of his generation have fallen on the wrong side of life. “The first is that during the first half of our lives when we lived off sport, we earned very little and never prepared well for a life outside it.
“The second is that there is no programme in place to introduce and expose athletes to the numerous lucrative opportunities that exist in the global sports industry.“The trend may be changing slowly these days with megastar footballers returning to the domestic market, like Jay Jay Okocha, Kanu Nwankwo, Victor Ikpeba, and Joseph Yobo, to blaze a new trail as football analysts on television and endorsing products often related to sports, particularly in the huge betting industry.”
Odegbami, a former captain of the national team, has helped many young footballers to acquire skills and the knowledge that would help them in life when the ovation dies. An advocate of the marriage between sports and education, the highest goal scorer at the 1980 African Cup of Nations has established a school that would educate talented young sportsmen properly while at the same time aiding them to achieve their potential to the hilt.He says retired sportsmen will not be stranded in life if they knew the many openings they could tap from when they retire.
He added: “Not being aware also of the scope and opportunities in the sport business, (because the industry is still at virgin level in the country) their involvement had been very limited and difficult.“That is why most sports heroes end up with little to do, and live a life of hardship and penury into old age. Their fame never translates to business outside of sports.
“It is not entirely, therefore, their fault where they find themselves between neglect and abject poverty, many years into retirement from active sports.“There are no institutions, monuments, libraries, and even events to remember our sports heroes, honour them occasionally, celebrate them and keep their memories and achievements alive in the public domain to inspire a new generation.” Odegbami revealed that the Federal Government attempted to introduce a welfare package for retired international athletes many years ago, “but that failed as a result of the high turnover of sports ministers.”
He posits that “the first major step should be to appoint a Minister of Sports who knows his onions.”Odegbami also dismisses the insinuation that some of the retired sportsmen were suffering because they squandered their wealth while they were still active.
He explained that the emphasis during his era was not money but the love for the game and the country, noting that virtually all of them played the game with less emphasis on financial returns.In a paper he delivered in November 2012 during a lecture in memory of the late Best Ogedegbe, who was his friend and teammate in IICC Shooting Stars, Odegbami explained the sad Nigerian phenomenon that is life after sports.
“When footballers complete their assignment as players and retire from the game, they enter another phase of their journey completely different from the first. There is little or no provision in the system to adequately accommodate them. Therefore, they end up in jail of neglect, sickness, joblessness, depression, and premature death.”
“Many of us, heroes of our various generations in the chronology of football, are still alive but barely living through a journey that has turned from good to bad and now to the ugly. “Let me tell you about the physical damages you cannot see under these fine clothes. My thigh muscles, once taut and toned like that of a racing horse, are now thin and drooping with wrinkles like the withered breast of an old woman. The muscle cannot even now support my body weight properly anymore.
“Therefore, I walk wracking with pains and I limp. For over 10 years, I have been having palpitations, my cholesterol level was high, I have been on a daily dose of pills I must take for the rest of my life in order not to go blind. There is pain in my waistline. I suffer from more. Yet I count myself as one of the lucky among our generation. Have you seen Adokie Amiesimaka lately? Or Emmanuel Okala, Kadiri Ikhana, Joe Erico, Mike Okotie, Peter Fregene or Demola Adesina. All these great football heroes are alive, but every single of them has become physically challenged.”
Edema Fuludu, who is the incumbent Vice Chairman of Delta State Football Association, came into national limelight with the defunct New Nigeria Bank FC of Benin in the 1986/87 league season. Before then, he had gained admission to study Business Administration at the University of Benin (UNIBEN) in 1983.
He was invited to the Flying Eagles preparatory to Chile ’87 FIFA Youth Championship, but his degree exams disrupted that honour of representing the country in Chile. In 1991, he was called up to the senior national team after he won the Cup Winners Cup (Mandela Cup) with BCC Lions of Gboko. His first cap was on January 7, 1991 against Burkina Faso in Ouagadougou, in the Africa Cup of Nations qualifier to Senegal ‘92. He was part of Clemens Westerhof’s squad to Tunisia ’94 African Nations Cup, which the Super Eagles won.
“I joined New Nigerian Bank FC Benin from Union Bank FC, a state division one side. I was already a final year Business Administration Student at UNIBEN,” Fuludu told The Guardian. “I have always understood that educational certificate is key to self actualization in the Nigerian society which necessitated my going back to Uniben after my sojourn in the local league, National team and professional football abroad.
“On my return from Turkey in 1997, I signed and played one season with Julius Berger and decided to go for my MBA in Uniben 1999/2000 academic session. Truth is formal education breed confidence and desire to be able to adapt to the vicissitudes of our contemporary society. I must also say that those of us who could combine education with sports were just some lucky bunch with grit and desire to be different. The school system does not really allow it.” Dr. Patrick Ekeji recently retired from the Federal Civil Service as the Director General of the National Sports Commission, which is the highest non-political position in the Ministry of Sports.
A former director of sports in Imo State, Ekeji is among the former athletes who, with education, took care of their future while still in sports.A member of the Green Eagles of the 1970s, Ekeji was a regular player in the national team that qualified for the 1976 Olympic Games and also won two bronze medals in the African Cup of Nations in 1976 and 1978.Ekeji does not blame the retired footballers, who did not acquire too much education, for what is happening to them now. Rather, he thinks the society has not been kind to these set of Nigerians.
“Times have changed. In those days, some parents did not compel their children to go to school, while others did.“In the days before our time, many informed parents supported their talented children to go school, while the uninformed parents couldn’t be bothered. People like myself, Odegbami, and Adokie saw education as a necessity.”Ekeji confessed that he never thought of taking football as his source of livelihood while he was growing up. “I grew up finding that I was talented in football and I enjoyed playing it in primary school, but I never thought it would be my main engagement.
“For somebody like me, football was not my main focus and so anytime it conflicted with my education, I was conscious enough to choose my studies. That was why I did not attend the 1976 and 1978 African Nations Cup. If I did, I would not have graduated in 1981.”He opined that many of the retired footballers enjoyed the popularity of the moment and therefore did not see the need to go to school.
“They enjoyed higher salaries than educated civil servants and therefore thought they had it all.”He laments Peter Fregene’s condition and thinks Nigeria should have been fairer to him.“Fregene was a very fantastic goalkeeper, but I don’t know the history of his upbringing. At the time they played they may have not seen the need to go to school because they had money.”
Ekeji said the government could help sportsmen’s transition to normal live through a contributory pension scheme. “One of the things I established when I was in office was a welfare policy for retired athletes, which had an insurance scheme.
“The players would contribute 15 per cent of the total sum while the government would complete the policy.Before any sportsman begins to enjoy from it, he would have represented Nigeria for five years. When he can no longer play, the insurers would work out his benefits.“But these things depend on the minister of sport. I could not get it through while I was in office because a lot of the ministers did not understand it. Unfortunately, the NSC was not legally established so many things have not been done.
“The least the country could do is to support people like Fregene for what they did for the country.”While this debate goes on, however, only providence knows how many Fregenes are out there wasting away even after laying the better part of their lives down in service of their country.
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