Emmanuel Amunike: Football is my way of life

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He holds a unique record not only in Nigeria’s football history, but the world at large. Emmanuel Amunike remains one of the most decorated African footballers, having won an Olympic gold medal, Africa Nations Cup gold and silver, CAF Champions League and Super Cup titles as well as a treble with the Spanish giant, FC Barcelona. Before taking his trade outside Africa, Amunike ruled the Nigerian League, playing for Nigerlux FC of Lagos and Concord of Abeokuta before helping Julius Berger FC to clinch the league title in 1991. He took his left foot bombing exploit to Egypt with Zamalek FC as his next port of call, winning the Egyptian title for two consecutive seasons.

From Egypt, he moved to Portugal, where he signed for Sporting Clube and won the Portuguese Cup in 1995. His pace and power, coupled with his left foot dribbling ability stood him out and got Barcelona to come scrambling for his signature. Amunike was part of Barca’s treble winning in the 1996-97 season, when the Catalan side annexed the Spanish FA Cup, Super Cup and European Cup Winners Cup. Amunike scored two heart-breaking goals that earned Nigeria a 2-1 victory over hard fighting Zambia in the final of the 1994 Nations Cup in Tunisia, a performance that earned him the African Footballer of the Year award.

Two years later, he wrote his name in gold playing the destroyer’s role against a more fancied Argentina in the football final of the Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia. Speaking with GOWON AKPODONOR from Santander, Spain, where he is doing his masters degree in Sports Methodology, Amunike narrates the story of his life, stating that the discipline he received as a school athlete both at Badia Primary School and Cardoso Secondary School helped mould his football career.

EMMANUEL Uzoma Amunike set a target for himself early in life and was able to fulfill it. His journey into the famous world of sports began at Badia Primary School in Ijora area of Lagos State in the mid 1970s, but his potential as a footballer came to limelight when he gained admission into Cardoso Senior High Secondary School, also in Ijora, in 1984. Born on Christmas Day of 1970 in Eze Obodo, Imo State, the young Amunike was brought up in Lagos by parents, who knew the importance of education.

In the beginning, Amunike had very few followers in his sports career. Some members of his immediate family saw football then as a game for “drop-outs” but in line with destiny, the young lad never looked back. He saw football then as a journey to good life and decided to grab it with both hands.

“Right from the beginning, I saw football as a way of life,” he said. “Though I was paying attention to my classroom work, but I so much loved playing football. Some times, I went out of Ijora area to play street soccer with my friends and my people would be looking for me. At times I got punished for sneaking out of home to play football but I never gave up. To be sincere with you, I saw football then as food and water. I could stay without food for many hours once there was football in front of me.”

Amunike completed his elementary education at Badia Primary School in 1984 and was admitted in Cardoso Senior High School the same year. Between 1984 and 1989, the young Amunike was adored for his dribbling skill, pace and good ball control. From the Ijora-Badia community to Orile and down to Ajegunle, the talk was about Amunike all the way. And as his supporters grew in number, so did his confidence in the field of play.

He was barely two years at Cardoso when he broke into the school’s senior football team. That year, 1986, was significant for him in many ways, as he narrated: “When I was a kid, I heard so many stories about the Principal’s Cup and I was looking forward to being part of it. I was in my second year at Cardoso Senior High School when the opportunity to play in the Principal’s Cup came and I made good use of it.”

Cardoso was pitched against Alakoto High School in the quarter-final of the 1986 edition of the Cup. The young Amunike was in the starting line-up alongside Clement Agomoh, and leading Alakoto squad was Jamiu Balogun. With relish, Amunike recalled: “The Navy Barracks playground at Boundary in Ajegunle was filled to capacity because everybody wanted to see me in action.

“I was very small then but our games master told me not to be afraid of anybody on the pitch. We won that game 4-0 and I contributed to the success. Some members of my family, who watched the game, carried me on the shoulder till we got home. That is one match I won’t forget in my life.”

Though Cardoso did not make it to the final of the Cup, the story of Amunike’s left foot bombing soon spread round Lagos, with clubs scrambling to have him. Between 1986 and 1989, the young lad had gained so much popularity as a left-winger. The management of Nigerlux Football Club of Lagos came for his services in 1989, the year he completed his secondary school education. He spent just two years at Nigerlux before the money-bag Concord FC of Abeokuta snatched him early in 1990. His movement from Nigerlux to Concord opened the floodgate of his football success.

In the build-up to the fifth All Africa Games - Cairo 91, Amunike was invited to the national camp. He had barely crossed from Concord to Julius Berger at that time. As a kid with soccer flowing in his vein, Amunike had hoped to launch himself into football stardom with the competition. And he did so well, leading the squad through the preliminary rounds to the semi-final. Nigeria’s opponent in the semi-final was old customer, the Indomitable Lions of Cameroun.

According to him, “every match between Nigeria and Cameroun was always tough. We started very well, but at the end we lost 0-1.” He got a red card in that match. However, what he lost in the All Africa Games became his gain few weeks later. While playing against Cameroun in the semis, officials of Egyptian giant, Zamalek FC, were everywhere spying on his left foot. As soon as the Nigerian contingent arrived in Lagos, a large delegation from Zamalek came for Amunike’s signature, thus beginning his professional career.

Meanwhile, before he left Julius Berger, Amunike helped the club to win the domestic league title. He spent four seasons with Zamalek and within this period, became the toast of all Egyptian football lovers. His left foot exploits helped Zamalek lift the league title and other trophies. That year, he was the second best player of the Egyptian League season.

That marked the birth of the real Amunike. The following season, he painted Africa red as he led Zamalek to annex the 1993 African Champions Clubs Cup, then known as the Sekou Toure Cup, the continent’s premier club trophy that eluded Nigerian club sides for many years. A few months later, he claimed another continental trophy, the inaugural African Super Cup, with Zamalek dismissing local rival, Al-Ahly (Cup Winners Cup holder) 1-0.

The 1994/95 season was the period he won trophies as if they were going out of fashion. In the early part of the year, Amunike crossed over to Europe with Sporting Clube de Portugal as port of call. Like his good work in the land of the Pharaohs, his pace and power stood him out in Portugal. He won over the fans by scoring the winning goal against derby rival, S.L. Benfica.

1994 holds so much for Amunike, it was the year of the Africa Cup of Nations in Tunisia. He was in the Super Eagles squad but coach Clemens Westerhof decided to keep him on the beach till the last day of the competition. Nigeria’s opponent in the final was the magic Zambian team, which was hurriedly assembled few weeks to the competition after majority of the regular players had perished in a plane crash in the coast of Gabon.

The smallish wide attacking Amunike, who more than made up for his size by his dribbling, was called to duty and he scored two heart-breaking goals that earned Nigeria a 2-1 victory over the rampaging Kalusha Bwaya-led Chipolopolo of Zambia. The pocket dynamite continued his blistering exploits at the USA ’94 World Cup, where he scored, via a breath-taking header, in Nigeria’s opening match against Bulgaria, which ended 3-0, as well as in the Super Eagles’ last match of the championship against Italy, which they lost 1-2.

By the end of the Mundial, Amunike had worked enough to become the second Nigerian to clinch African football’s topmost individual honour, the 1994 African Footballer of the Year. He was also crowned the BBC Africa Sports Man of the Year the same year.

Two years later, Amunike wrote his name in gold at the world stage. It was one of the biggest things to happen in Nigerian football history. The stage was Atlanta, Georgia, in the United States (U.S.) and Nigeria was locked in a titanic battle with a more fancied Argentina in the final of the centennial Olympic soccer event. With scoreline level at 2-2 and the match threatening to go into extra time, Amunike struck like a waiting mamba and got Nigeria’s winning goal.

The celebration was all over the continent of Africa as the Atlanta ’96 Olympics soccer gold was Africa’s first ever. Amunike’s success at the Olympics drew the management of Barcelona to break the bank, paying as huge as $3.6 million during the 1996/97 seasons. At Barca, Amunike was part of a treble-winning side as the Catalan great won the Spanish Cup and Cup Winners Cup in 1997, the Spanish League tile in 1998, 1999 FA Cup, Super Cup and European Cup Winners Cup.

He was later sidelined by injuries, which denied Nigeria his blistering pace and searing shots at France ’98 World Cup. He staged a comeback as part of the Super Eagles to the 2000 Nations Cup co-hosted by Nigeria and Ghana, where the Eagles bowed to the Lions of Cameroun in a controversial final in Lagos.

He moved to Albacete in 2000 and at the start of the 2002/2003 season, Amunike went for trial with Chinese first division side, Kunming. He later ended his career in Jordan. In all, he played over 30 international matches for Nigeria, scoring at least seven goals. He spent some time in 2008 as an assistant coach at the Saudi Premier League side, Al-Hazm, but quit the club to become a scout for Manchester United. On December 28, 2008, he took over the head coaching duties at Julius Berger after completing two years of coaching courses in Europe.

For a while, Amunike combined his position at Manchester United with his coaching duties in Nigeria but eventually quit his position in England to concentrate on his coaching career. He parted with Julius Berger halfway through his first season after conflicts with management despite saving the team from relegation. In November 2009, he was hired to coach Ocean Boys but quit in 2010 to commence his masters degree in Sports Methodology in Santander, Spain.

His football academy in Lagos, the Emmanuel Amunike Soccer Academy, is one of the best and well-funded football academies in the country. Looking back to his days as schoolboy both at Badia and Cardoso, Amunike said: “That was when things were done properly and according to the rules.

“We had games masters, who devoted their time and even resources to ensure their schools succeeded in competitions. The Principal’s Cup was like a World Cup then. It will be good if the government back home can revive the Principal’s Cup for our secondary schools.”

 

 

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