It's terrible to witness a murder when you're barely a teenager.
I saw a young man killed on one of the most unforgettable nights of my life. He was my friend's neighbour, and someone had stabbed him to death. Witnessing that was a shocking and devastating experience for me, but in many ways, it was symbolic of my life and the environment in which I grew up.
On that fateful night, I began to ask myself some important questions: Suppose I was roped in as a co-conspirator in the unfortunate death of that lad, what would happen to me? Who would have bailed me out? At this time, I was alone; my father had thrown me out of the house; I ran away from my mom and was now a squatter in a strange city – Port Harcourt. Originally, I had made it to the city to play football, but until this tragic moment, my life had been all fun and games.
However, that night, I made a resolution that redefined my life forever. I decided to go after football with everything I had because, at this point, it was all I had.
My childhood dreams.
As a child, I grew up among people who are known today as militants. In the 1980's, I knew them as brothers. My father and his siblings had pulled together to create a communal living situation comprised of 3-4 large families. My next-door neighbours were either an aunt or uncle's family. And at least two dozen kids were running around the compound anytime. A few of those people later grew up to become the original kingpins of Nigeria's Niger-Delta militancy, and to this day, I don't know how I didn't become one.
I am the first child of my father and the tenth of my mother. He was a footballer as well. I heard he played in his secondary school and was pretty good at it. His plans for me, however, were much more straightforward: learn a trade and start earning. On the other hand, my mom had a different plan: get an education and start learning. But things turned out much differently than either of them expected.
After completing primary school, I began playing for the junior team of Sharks Football Club. My coach, Monday Sinclair, was a godsend. He was coaching the first team and developing a second unit of support – I was training for the second team. My father, however, wanted me to begin an apprenticeship, so I could learn a technical skill and start earning. In many ways, I think the apprenticeship mattered less to him, and he was trying to keep up with the Joneses. You see, a neighbour's son had become a mechanic and was constantly bringing money home to his father. So my father, being the competitive type, wanted to prove his son could do the same. On the other hand, my mom wanted me to go to continue school.
When my father realized my mother didn't seem to support his idea, he shut us both out completely. He wouldn't speak to me or my mom. This carried on for a while until one night. It was about 1 a.m. My father came home drunk and angry and suddenly decided to kick us out of our home for our refusal to obey him. He packed up our things and threw them out on the road. My mother and I had to trek to a waterfront about two hours away. It was the 80's - there were no phones or emergency lines to call. From there, we boarded a boat to a fishing port in her village - where I would live with my mom for another six months.
Pursuing the dream
At the port, I worked alongside the fishers. We would set out at about 4 p.m. to return around 4 a.m. the next day. I couldn't swim - so I always wondered what would happen if there was an accident at sea. On days I'm not on the boats, I fetched firewood and chopped them into smaller portions to sell. My goal was to be able to save every Naira so I could help my mom. On my breaks, I longed to reconnect with Coach Sinclair. I dreamed of playing football, and the fishing port was no place for a kid with such dreams.
I knew I was talented; I was already one of the best on the Sharks junior team. So one day, I decided to make a run for it. I stowed away in one of the trading boats from Port Harcourt. Traders usually brought foods like garri, fufu, and plantain to trade for fish, crabs, periwinkles and other seafood. I remember hiding in one of them and praying that the boat would set out before my mom started looking for me; I had pretended to go home but doubled back and got on the boat before anyone noticed.
I made it to Port Harcourt safely. As you can imagine, I had nowhere to stay. While looking for a place, I met a young man who invited me to spend some time at his house. One night we were outdoors when we heard a loud scream. We rushed to the scene and found my neighbour's friend lying in a pool of blood. I couldn't understand why someone would snuff out his life like that. I like to think of myself as a tough guy, but I couldn't see myself staying another day in that environment after this event.
Not long after, I ran into a friend and teammate from the Sharks Football Club. We called him Abokide. He informed me that Coach Monday Sinclair, other coaches and the rest of the team had been worried about my whereabouts and been looking for me. All the while I was at the fish port, no one knew where I was. I eventually rejoined the team and trained under Coach Sinclair. He was more of a father than a coach to me. He mentored and instilled in me the discipline that transformed me from a street footballer to a world-class footballer. I learnt from Sinclair what areas in my game I needed to work on to make it into the big leagues.
He was an inspiration to us all. He often said the quickest way to wear the national team colours was to shut up, pay attention to his instructions and work twice as hard. Some of us would go on to wear the national team colours. In hindsight, you could say he knew what he was saying to have coached the likes of Nigeria national football heroes Finidi George and Iyenemi Furo.
Under Coach Sinclair, football opened unimaginable doors for me. But it was meeting Chief Adewale Teluwo that changed my life forever. During a trial game, he had come to Port Harcourt from Lagos and selected two boys for his Obanta Football Club's under-13 team. Chief Teluwo practically raised me as his son. He enrolled me in Ansar-Ud-Deen Comprehensive High School in Isolo while I played for his team. Obanta Football Club played in the second division of the Nigeria League and did quite well in my first year.
In 1990, Sharks Football Club came calling again. They bought me for ₦6,000 from Teluwo. This was a lot of money at the time. By 1991, Enugu Rangers bought me from Sharks, and that same year I got a call to play with the junior national team. The year after, I moved on to Julius Berger, where I was named alongside greats like Ajibade Babalade, Abdul Aminu, Albert Njeku, Isaac Semitoje, Ndubisi Ndah, and Mobosa Baldricas as one of the best ten players and one of the best five defenders of the local league. I spent one season with Julius Berger before getting an international contract.
Auxerre bought me over from Julius Berger for $50,000. They would later sell me off to Inter Milan for about $5 million. I was blessed with fantastic coaches throughout my career. They were more like fathers to me than they were professional coaches. There was Guy Roux, Auxerre's oldest coach. He was everything to me, and I am forever thankful for him. He built me up and enhanced my gift. I recall how he would barge into my home at odd hours - which I found it upsetting at the time, but he was keeping tabs on me. He had a firm eye on all my activities. He would give me his usual pep talk for an hour before letting me train. Guy Roux formed me into the star that the world later saw.
Football gave me a way out, and I am eternally thankful. Before it gave me a wonderful life, it gave me something to chase. Without this, I would have ended up as a gang leader, cultist, or militant otherwise because that was my reality. You may call it luck, but I'll say it was divine intervention.
Nigeria and the Future of Football
I have had the opportunity to scout for footballers in the country. It gives me a lot of hope that we have super-gifted young Nigerians. However, what saddens me is that these players do not have the right platforms to showcase their talent. We need the government to invest more in football. We also need highly competent and talented people with integrity to help us revive the system.
As a country, we invested in sports in the 1970's and 1980's. We should do more now, not just in football but in all sports. The government at every level needs to pay attention to sports. It is the gateway to transforming the lives of many youths and a great source of revenue for the country. I boldly say that Nigeria is not only great in football, but we also have a host of talented sportsmen that we can always be proud of.
Every step of the way, it was the hand of God guiding me. My life's experience is a testimony to this effect. Now, I look at the ones coming up behind us. We must teach them about dedication, sacrifice, and discipline - the same way we were taught. If we can help our youths to recognize the power of their dreams and appreciate the importance of making the right decisions, perhaps we can keep them from straying on the wrong path.