A former Super Eagles midfielder Etim Esin has identified the political upheavals in 1993 caused by the annulled June 12 election as the reason for missing out on the 1994 World Cup.
The midfielder was involved in a rape case in Belgium in 1993 and was jailed for the offence but the Akwa Ibom State-born footballer said he would still have made the World Cup the following year if Chief MKO Abiola had not been involved in politics.
He said, â€œEvery footballersâ€™ dream is to play at the World Cup and I worked hard to be in the squad for the tournament but as fate would have it, I didnâ€˜t make it.
â€œThe main reason was the problems caused by the June 12 election in 1993. I had my problem in that year and Chief Abiola who was very fond of me had promised to get me out of the problem and back in the team but the election got his attention throughout.
â€œMany people wondered why the man loved me so much. I think it was because he loved football and I was the best footballer at the time in Nigeria. It was unfortunate our dreams were not realised.â€
Esinâ€˜s exclusion from the team was attributed to his stubbornness but the former player said his desire for a better treatment for the team actually caused him to be labelled a rebel.
He said, â€œSome people took advantage of the rape case I had in Belgium to eject me from the team. The case was not even a FIFA case but Clemens Westerhof allowed Stephen Keshi to persuade him to get rid of me from the team because they saw Austin Okocha as an option for my role in the team.
â€œI was unfortunate at the time because if Chief Abiola had been around, I would have been in the squad. It was because I did not have a godfather and Keshi was becoming a powerbroker in the team.
â€œKeshi knew me in Belgium and he knew if I had gone to the World Cup, I would have been the best there. Even when the Vice-President gave Westerhof money to go to Belgium to check on me, the man just went about to enjoy himself.
â€œMy stubbornness in the team had nothing to do with obeying the coaches. There were issues I championed that eventually favoured the team.
â€œFor instance, I refused to stay with the team at the Otta camp because I felt it was substandard for our status.
â€œInstead of staying at Otta, I lodged at the Sheraton Hotel in Ikeja. I paid for my accommodation and this led the Nigeria Football Association to move the team to the hotel.
â€œI also fought for the review of playersâ€˜ allowances. It used to be $500 but after my protest, it was increased to $1000.
â€œTell me, is that stubbornness? This was what Keshi should have done for the team but instead, he felt threatened by my actions.â€
Esinâ€˜s skills in the central midfield position was compared only to that of Diego Maradona of Argentina and many saw him as the greatest Nigerian player that never got to his heights. His exit from the national team left the stage for Okocha and since the departure of Okocha from the team, no one has been able to fill the position well.
He noted that the position was a big challenge for whoever found himself there.
â€œThe number 10 is the livewire of the team because a lot of responsibilities are placed on him.â€
â€œItâ€˜s difficult to get a natural player for that position. You donâ€˜t see many central midfielders willing to be creative anymore.
â€œMikel Obi could have been such a player but Chelsea plays him in a defensive role. The central midfielder needs to be more confident to be the creative man.
â€œIf Nigeria must be the formidable team that it was in the early 1990s, we must emphasise on the strength of the midfield and possibly bring back the wing play.â€
The former AA Genk player said Nigeria was becoming apprehensive over meeting Argentina and qualifying for the second round of the World Cup. He advised coach Lars Lagerback to select fit players for the tournament and adopt a formation that could easily be understood by the players in the short time left before the World Cup.
He said, â€The group is a serious one and we should take each game as it comes. If we win the first match against Argentina, the team will have more confidence in the subsequent matches.
â€œOne vital thing about the team is that the coach should select the best players that are fit.
â€œThere is likelihood that Lagerback might select experienced players ahead of young and fit players. I think he should blend them to facilitate their preparation for the tournament.
â€œAnother issue is that the home-based players should be given the opportunity to be at the World Cup. Many people may think they donâ€˜t have international experience to play in a big match but Iâ€˜m convinced the team will need them in South Africa.
â€œTheir inclusion will encourage the development of the domestic league.â€
Esin recalled his Eaglesâ€˜ experience as one of the best in his life, saying he met his best friends in the team and had a fulfilment donning the national colours.
He said, â€There is nothing as great as representing your country. I enjoyed wearing the jersey because it gave me great responsibility.
â€œI was close to Samson Siasia and Samuel Okwaraji in the team. We understood one another more than any other member of the team.
â€œThen Okwaraji wore a dreadlock and we called him Ruud Gullit who was his idol. He called me Maradona because I played the number 10 role. The nickname Maradona actually came from Ernest Okonkwo in the late 1980s and my teammates loved to call me that. But our dreams for the World Cup never came through except for Siasia who made it to USA â€˜94.
â€œIâ€˜ll remember the match Okwaraji died as one of the most memorable in my career.
â€œIt was the match against Angola at the National Stadium. It will forever remain fresh in my mind. That incident affected me in a lot of ways because I likened it to a soldier killed in a war.
â€œAnother memorable match was the one against Cameroon in Ibadan. We were the first set of the team that defeated the Indomitable Lions 2-0 at the Adamasingba Stadium in a World Cup qualifier in 1989. That was a very important match in my life.â€
Esin is currently engaged in seminars on capacity development for youths and advises youths to get education before going professional.
He said, â€œI grew up in a football-loving family. I started by following my elder brother Victor to the fields.
â€œI carried his boots for him each time he was going. He was very popular in his days; they called him Katung. He inspired me to play as a young boy in Calabar.
â€œWe lived in the urban area and my father was a government official. My parents never encouraged me to take to football because they wanted me to go to school. My father only changed his mind when he saw me representing Nigeria. Each time I look back to that period, I think I should have listened to him because with your education, you could have something to fall back on. Education is still something Iâ€˜ll love to have if I had the time to go for it. That doesnâ€˜t mean I regret playing football because the sport has given me fame.â€
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