Tough As Nails But Not Invincible




On September 11, 2001, almost 3,000 people lost their lives during the terrorist attacks at the Twin Towers in New York, the Pentagon in Virginia and aboard United Airlines Flight 93. It is a day I will never forget. I was undergoing rehab for my knee injury in Hamburg, Germany, as I watched the horror unfold live on CNN in my room. It was so shocking that my perception of life and the many things we take for granted began to dramatically shift. Like the buildings, my footballing career, too, was in free fall as I struggled with a nagging knee injury. The end was nigh, and that reality began to set in.


But to understand my story, let me take you to the beginning.


I have lived a blessed life by the grace of God. Looking back on my humble beginnings and how I came to play professional football, I cannot but appreciate God for guiding me through the vicissitudes of my life as a young, naïve boy.


Love for Football

When you grow up on the streets, you are schooled by everyone and feel the love of togetherness. I'm a Christian, but I grew up around Muslims. So I know a lot about the Qur'an; I can pray like a Muslim because I used to do it five times a day. That is what the streets were all about. We didn't care whether it was Christmas or Salah because we all celebrated together.


On the streets, we got creative. We made toy cars, melted plastic bags, and tied up papers and nylons to make soccer balls we could play with. It was a beautiful time. Life was good back then, and we all loved one another, irrespective of tribe, religion or belief. It was rare to find someone jumping into your compound to steal from you. Such was the contentment we had those days.



My love for football whilst going up was inexplicable. It is what I did – and still do – every day; I played football during break time at school, after school and on the way home. We had street and inter-street competitions. It was explosive! There was so much talent and skill on display, with each team trying to outdo the other. That, to me, is where the love for the game was nurtured.


My dad was a soldier, so I have the military in my blood. Even some of my nephews, uncles, and cousins toed that line. Our family name, 'Amokachi', is a name everyone knows, and I'm proud and blessed to have taken it to greater heights during my football career.

As a kid, I remember my first walk to a stadium. I couldn't afford to buy tickets to watch the game, so we scaled the fence to get in. When you are determined to follow your passion, there's always a way. Back then, my friend and I would walk over five kilometres just to make it into the stadium. Sometimes it would rain, and we would be drenched, but we didn't care.


On this day, the game had already started, and immediately we made it in, my friend quipped in Hausa that the score was already 2-0. I asked how he knew, and he pointed to the scoreboard – it was the first time I had ever heard of or seen a scoreboard. The game was between Bendel Insurance and Ranchers Bees. Ranchers were leading 2-0 when we got there, but in the second half, it became something else. Tarila Okorowanta of Bendel Insurance kept running rings around the Ranchers Bees defence until they were leading 3-2. They went on to score the fourth goal, but it was disallowed. At the end of the day, the game ended 3-3. And from that day on, I told everyone to start calling me Tarila Okorowanta because I was so inspired by how he played the game of football.

Inspired by 'The Dangling, Gangling'

The following day, I was at the stadium again. It was a Monday, so I went from school and snuck into the stadium through my usual route. This time, the game was between United Nigeria Textile Limited (UNTL) and Kaduna Textile Limited (KTL). If you thought the last game was awesome, this had even more fireworks. For the first time in my life, I set my eyes on 'The Dangling, Gangling', Rashidi Yekini. It was the first time I saw him in action, and it was a game I will never forget - UNTL beat KTL 13-0.


The way he played the game inspired me all the more. I wanted to play the same way. I wanted to become a striker like him. A few days before, I had fallen in love with Tarila Okorowanta and then Rashidi Yekini came along with guns blazing. Nine goals in a single match - all hot strikes. And there I was in the crowd taking it all in, mesmerised.


He was my idol, and I loved and respected him. Recently, on the anniversary of his death, some people disparaged my relationship with him on a radio programme. I tried to call in to set the record straight but couldn't. I know we live in a world where people are hyper-critical of celebrities, but this hurts. Yekini wasn't just one of the best strikers that ever lived; he was also one of the best human beings that walked the face of the earth.


He lived a low-key life that made it impossible to ever have problems with him. He was a candid man of few words. He was responsible for Nigeria making it to every tournament we participated in during my time - without Yekini, we wouldn't have been there. He fought for the rights of others, and he lived and died a hero to everyone.

I recall an incident before the Africa Cup of Nations in 1990. We were training in Papendal, the Netherlands. Most of us were home-based players then, and people like Stephen Keshi, Austin Eguavoen, and Samson Siasia joined us later, driving to camp in flashy cars, looking fresh like new money. There was some sort of tension over the amount to pay the foreign pros versus home-based players were to collect, with Coach Westerhof fighting for the local players. Back then, you had to pay the foreign professionals significantly much more than the local players for them to feature on the national team. A meeting was fixed by the NFA Secretary, Sani Toro, and our coach, Clemens Westerhof, together with the home-based and foreign players. While all this was happening, Yekini questioned why we left out the most critical part of our mission – playing for our dear country – only to be distracted by money. He said he had come only to play football and not discuss money.


That was the kind of person he was – humble, patriotic and, in some cases, humorous. I remember during the Africa Cup of Nations in 1994, there were many distractions in the team. When Yekini was asked to pray on behalf of the Muslims, he said he was not praying for anyone because prayers don't work in disunity, but he had prayed for himself. And everyone just laughed. That was vintage Yekini for you.


Going Pro

From a young age, I knew and believed I was destined to play football at the highest level. I grew up in a compound where we had up to eighteen tenants. I remember one of them, who worked for Nigerian Agricultural and Cooperative Bank (NACB), which owned a football club, wooing me to come to play for them. I was still in secondary school then, so I told him I had higher ambitions to play for a top-flight club. He told me about the money I would make with the bank's club and how it would help change my family's life. But I didn't want crumbs when, with patience, I could get the whole loaf. As God would have it, Ranchers Bees made me an offer after my performance at the Emmanuel Adebajo Cup and the YSFON (Youth Sports Federation of Nigeria) Cup. Alex Dominic, an Argentine coach, also saw me and asked people who knew me to bring me to his training.


I somehow always knew what I wanted, and I never settled for anything less. I remember Westerhof calling me aside in my early days playing in the Super Eagles to say Castellón, a team in Spain, wanted to sign me. When I asked what division it was, and he said second, I said, "No. I want to play in a top league." He asked what I meant, and I said I was a good player and deserved to play in a top-flight league. He explained that it was an opportunity to show my talent, but I held my ground.

Two days later, he called me to say he was with one of the managers from Club Brugge in Belgium and his wife, and they wanted me to come to play for the club. The fact that Club Brugge played in the Champions League and were perennial rivals of Anderlecht, where the late Keshi played, made it an exciting offer. There was no Internet back then to check facts, but I knew the club was big from his explanations, so I said yes. That was how I signed a pre-contract with Club Brugge in Belgium. I was just 17 years old.



Professional Career

This was the beginning of my rise in professional football. After the African Cup of Nations tournament, I went back to the club in the summer. Although I trained with the first team, I played with the reserves. And in my first season, I scored over 50 goals. It was incredible!


In the second season, we were invited to a junior tournament in Amsterdam, and I was the Most Valuable Player and top scorer. When we got back, Coach Hugo Broos, who had just replaced Coach Georges Leekens (the coach who had brought me to Club Brugge), told me I was to play with the first team at a charity shield type of match the next day. I guess, in part, he thought I had earned the first appearance for the first team, or maybe he wanted to see firsthand what the hype around me was all about.


We went for the game, and, by God's grace, I scored four goals, and we won 5-1. He told me I was a good player, but they still had to build me gradually. In the second half of the season, when the star player, Tomasz Dziubinsky, got injured, I got my chance to lead the attack, and from there on, no one could stop me. I believe I scored 10 goals over the next 15 games, and then we won the league on the last day after beating KV Mechelen 3-2. I scored the opener. I didn't even know we had won the league at the final whistle. I walked into the locker room and took off my boots when the captain came in with a bouquet. He said, "Dan, we have won the league, and they are asking for you". That's when I went out to a standing ovation, and they were chanting my name, "Amokachi! Amokachi!! Amokachi!!!" The feeling was indescribable.

The Golden Generation

Although I think my national team class is the best that Nigeria has seen, the earlier generation of Christian Chukwu, Segun Odegbami, Muda Lawal, Felix Owolabi, Henry Nwosu and many others had a significant influence on my game. They were all great leaders. If there's one thing I pride myself in, it's the fact that my mentality has always been one of a leader. I saw it as my duty to motivate my team. I couldn't tolerate the idea of a team running on low morale. And at the national team, I found players like Taribo West to be of the same mindset - not shying away from leadership and having a winning mentality - as I did. When we walked through the tunnel, we intimidated teams because of how we carried ourselves. Everyone knew it was time for business. I would lead upfront, and Taribo would marshal the defence. When we sang the national anthem – and you can look for clips to verify this – we always sang loudly and boldly to intimidate our opponents. As national team players, we went to war every time we played. The trophies we won were symbols of victories, and the injuries we sustained are but a badge of honour to remind us that we are war veterans. We saw this as a service to our nation - doing our part in service to our fatherland.


I think the fans also took notice. They respected our mentality, and it was contagious. When I held the ball, the whole stadium knew I had it. It would erupt with the shout of, "The Bull!". I mean, it was electric. When I moved to Turkey to join Beşiktaş, a Turkish delegation visited Nigeria for the first time to make a documentary of me, Jay-Jay and Uche Okechukwu, who played with Fenerbahçe in Turkey. We arrived at a game of about 40,000 spectators. They started chanting, "Bull! Bull!! Bull!!!" The Turkish guys, not sure what they were hearing, asked why they were booing me, so I told them to listen again. Then they realised I was being hailed. And from that day, they nicknamed me the 'Black Bull'.

France 1998 Woes

1998 was a different year, though. For the first time in a long time, the Nigerian national team felt vulnerable. The squad featured at the France 1998 World Cup was the worst Eagles squad I have ever played in. There were lots of rows in the team. We were distracted. Some officials were instigating coaches against players and vice-versa. The only good thing at that World Cup was the win against Spain. And after those 90 minutes, we returned to the problems that affected us.


Personally, my woes started even before we got to France. I had a good relationship with the Abacha family. I was like a son to him - a relationship based on my family's military background. While the team was in Yugoslavia, I was in Nigeria. So I got summoned by the Commander-in-Chief, and he had one of his aides pick me up in Kaduna. After the Jumaat prayers, General Abacha saw me and asked what I was doing in the country when my teammates were in Yugoslavia. He asked me what I needed, and I said I needed money. Then he instructed one of his ministers to give me 30 million. I sarcastically joked that I could give someone that same amount. He laughed, then called me stupid, saying, "Who told you I meant 30 million naira?" Apparently, I was supposed to have been given an oil well or something like that. Anyway, he instructed me to be chaperoned to Kano to get the permit to fly to Yugoslavia and join my teammates. The following day, I landed in Yugoslavia.


We played a friendly game the next day and got hammered 3-0 by Yugoslavia. Three days later, we got pummeled 5-1 by the Netherlands, and the chaos began. People started asking what was going on. We had a coach who didn't believe in the stars on the team and wanted some fresh blood, and there was a lot of negative feedback. Three days to our first game at the World Cup, we lost General Abacha to the cold hands of death. He had been in constant touch with us through his CSO, Major Al Mustapha, Abdul-Mumuni Aminu and Emeka Omeruah. The next morning, I called my family members, but no one answered. It was then it dawned on me that something was wrong. I later got the information that we had lost the president.

Two days later, I got injured in training. I was tackled, and my knee was injured!

Beginning of the End

I was on the bench when we won against Spain during Nigeria's opener at the France 1998 World Cup, but I started the next game against Bulgaria, which I played for about 78 minutes. I was supposed to captain the team against Paraguay. We were warming up when the knee got terrible again. I went to Fanny Amun, one of the World Cup coaches, to tell him that the nagging pain I had been feeling in my knee had returned. So I walked slowly to the locker room and sat on the toilet floor for God-knows-how long, crying like a baby.


I cried until my teammates finished the warmup and came to meet me inside. Coach Amun broke the sad news to the other coaches. The teammates were demoralised, but I told them they shouldn't make this about me and that they had a job to do - which was to make the country proud.


Although we lost the game to Paraguay, we had done enough to qualify for the tournament's next round. We, however, would later lose to the Danes and exit the competition. It was one of our poorest international outings, to say the least.


I travelled to Paris after the World Cup and had knee surgery. My family and I were all in high hopes because the doctor who carried out the surgery was the same one who operated on the great Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima, aka Ronaldo O Fenômeno. After playing a season, the knee still wasn't quite there, so I headed to Hamburg, Germany, to rehab.


There, we discovered that my surgery was not correctly done. I was devastated because the writing was on the wall. My window for playing professional football was closing fast. I thought that after rehab, I would begin training and playing. But it wasn't meant to be.


My style of play was built on power, speed and a bit of skill. If any one of those elements was compromised, there was no way I could perform at the level I knew how. It was over for me. I felt like a mouse, not a bull. Definitely not "The Bull". And that reality began to set in, slowly.


The towers came crumbling down

On September 11, 2001, almost 3,000 people lost their lives during the terrorist attacks at the Twin Towers in New York, the Pentagon in Virginia and aboard United Airlines Flight 93. This is a day I will never forget.


One moment I was on the call with Tim Hankinson, coach of Colorado Rapids in the MLS. We discussed the possibility of me moving to the American league as soon as I'm done with rehab. Then suddenly, he began screaming hysterically, asking me to turn on the TV as the World Trade buildings collapsed. It was heart-wrenching. I was in shock. No one had an explanation for what was unfolding before our very eyes or the implications of it - at least not at the moment. It felt like deja vu. My life, too, was in free fall of its own. As I watched the horror unfold live on CNN in my room, my perception of life and the many things we take for granted began to change.




Jay Jay: A Brother Indeed

There are three types of people you shouldn't forget in your life: those who help you in your difficult times, those who leave you in your difficult times, and those who put you in difficult times. Austin Jay-Jay Okocha is someone I will never forget in my life. He came to my aid when I least expected it.


This dear friend called me during rehab and encouraged me to be strong, assuring me that everything would be okay. He didn't just stop there but went on to clear my rehabilitation bills without my knowledge. I only got to know about it when I checked out of rehab. I'm always very proud to say this. Mine and Jay-Jay Okocha's family became united. He knew what I was going through and that football was my life; he was there for me when my whole world tumbled. When I called to thank him, he said I should think nothing of it because I would have done the same for him.

He then reminded me of a time in 1990 when he visited the Super Eagles camp in Durbar Hotel, Lagos, before he became a professional footballer.


He was visiting his older brother, Emma Okocha - the Enugu Rangers legend - who was also my roommate. After waiting a couple of hours without seeing Emma, I gave him ₦4,000 to get a ride back home because it was getting late.


Quite frankly, I couldn't recall doing this. But it seems I made a bit of an impression on Jay-Jay. And as luck would have it, we became roommates after Emma moved on from the national team. I'm always proud to tell people this story because it's rare to find people willing to help unconditionally.




Finding Inner Peace

I'm a firm believer in the supernatural and that God pre-ordains everything. Perhaps I could have been an oil well owner today if my father, General Abacha, hadn't died. In six months, we lost him; had a career-ending injury; lost about $5.3 million in stock investment in Indonesia. Everything that could go wrong went wrong.

However, looking back on everything I've achieved and all I've lost, I still recognise the grace of God. Grace took me up the pinnacle, and grace found me again when everything collapsed.


I had told myself, "The moment that I have nothing to do in Europe, I have no business staying there." So I told my loving wife - who had been through it all with me - that I needed to go back home, and she gave me her support.


Contentment

As a kid, I loved reciting the WWE wrestler Ric Flair's quote everywhere I went: "You're talking to the Rolex wearing, diamond ring wearing, kiss stealing. Woo! Wheeling dealing, Limousine riding, Jet Flying, son of a gun. And I'm having a hard time holding these alligators down. Woo!" You could say that this quote was my life at some point in my career. But things changed rather quickly when my career was over. Returning to Nigeria was a huge step for me. All I had to my name was a 10,000 sqm property in Kaduna. I knew it wasn't going to be easy. I had to go back to the basics. I had to rebuild from scratch. But to do so, I had to recondition my mind from a life of fame and fortune, but I still loved football.


With help from some friends, I began to develop playing pitches for young people in the area and started coaching them. I travelled and got jerseys and balls they would need, so we could have an open camp for talented youths. While doing this, I thought to myself: Why not get a badge and become a proper coach?


And that is the grace I'm talking about. God has kept me inside what I love, and that is football. I had a good run as a player, but something new was unfolding. After my coaching course, I returned and was lucky to get a local coaching job with Nasarawa United. For the first time, they qualified for the CAF Champions League and went on to compete until the fourth round, finishing the season well.


After my stint there, I coached Enyimba International, FC Ifeanyi Ubah. As an assistant coach, I've also been with the national team since 2005 and won the Africa Cup of Nations. On top of these, I have been to two finals and three semi-finals. What else can I ask for?


Despite all I've lost, I'm content with what God has done for me. I believe I came into this world with nothing and am returning with nothing. I came into this world through a poor family that struggled to eat once a day, but that did not hold me back. I learned contentment while growing up.

I remember telling my dad, "With this football, I will build you a house, " whenever he disciplined me for playing the ball in the house. God helped me to achieve that.

Have I ever been broke? Yes. Have I lost everything I had? Yes. But I'm content with what God has given me today and how far he has brought me. His grace is indeed sufficient.



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