By Ogbonna Amadi, Entertainment Editor,Â Bridget Amaraegbu & Ifunnanya Obinma
Monday Odiaka in hey days as a national team player and front line scorer of the now defunct African Continental Bank (ACB) Football Club scored memorable goals. In one of the under- 21 World qualifying series, he scored one of the five goals that ensured that Nigeria cancelled a 3-0 advantage Camerounians enjoyed after winning the first leg of the two leg- encounterÂ in Yaounde.
The remarkable thing about that goal is that Mondayâ€™s heart stopped and it took the timely intervention of team doctors to revive the Delta State born striker.Â He still continued with match after that scary moment.
Today, Odiaka, who was once one of the most feared strikers on the African continent is a shadow of his glorious past.
I still remember that memorable win against Cameroun during your time. How did it go?
We scored five goals that day. The first goal was scored by Samson Siasia. Late Osaro also scored. I scored one and the rest of the goals were scored by my other colleagues.Â After that match, we still played two more matches en-rout the World Cup. After playing Cameroun, we played Ethiopians and weÂ met Tunisia in the final.
You scored that goal and passed out. Can you recollect what happened?
I will say it was a day of joy, and a day Iâ€™ll never forget. I knew that day was a day of great joy for Nigerians because what happened that day was pure miracle, miracle that nobody expected could happen. We were defeated 3-0 in Yaunde, only for us to turn the table around that day with a 5-3 win.
Do you think it was bigger than the Dammam miracle?
I think so because the Dammam miracle was just a one pitch match. But in this game, we played away and home. I can say it wasnâ€™t easy to have cancelled that deficit and still win when the Cameroonians already thought we were out.
You said you almost died like Sam Okwaraji…
Yes, after scoring the third goal that day, I started running towards the late M.K.O. Abiola when suddenlyÂ my heart ceased. But I was lucky because the doctors came and did what they had to do and I came back to life again. When they asked if I was still willing to play, I said yes and continued playing.
Meaning you were willing to die for your country?
Yes, and that is the problem weâ€™re having today. In our time, we were playing for the love we have for Nigeria, believing that our country will equally love us in return. But the reverse is the case today.
Are you saying that nobody remembers you today?
No, nobody. But I thank God that Iâ€™m still alive and not doing badly too.
You played for ACB for a long time…
Iâ€™ll simply tell you that when you talk about ACB, youâ€™re talking of Odiaka. I played for ACB for so many years and there was a match Iâ€™d say crowned my career for the club.
It was the very year we won all the laurels available in Nigeria. On that day, we were pitched against the New Nigerian Bank of Benin Football Club. When I say the New Nigerian Bank team, Iâ€™m talking about a club that had more than 15 of its members in the national team.
They had the likes of Keshi, Omokaro, Sunday Eboigbe, Henry Nwosu and more. For ACB, my calling to national team assignment wore down the team and they were going down in the league and losing matches too in the process. In fact, the best they could get was a draw.
So, things were not going on well for the ACB club and people started saying it was because I wasnâ€™t there. Luckily for me and the club, we were given a 2 week- break and the clubâ€™s first game was against the New Nigeria Bank.
I had to give myself extra training because I still remember the late Ernest Okonkwo saying that â€˜no Odiaka, no ACBâ€™. The match was played at the Onikan Stadium and the place was filled to the brim. At a point, the organisers of the match had to lock out some of the fans for fear that the stadium might collapse.
When the game kicked off,
New Nigeria Bank was the first to score through Humphrey Edebor who was also a national team player.
And at the beginning of the second half,Â I took it up as a challenge to dare the opposing team when I called my team mates and asked them to pass all balls to me. That decision changed the tempo of the game immediately.
I equalised the goal and went on also to score the winning goal for ACB. At the end of the match, I was carried shoulder high from Onikan stadium to the ACB headquarters at Marina, my fans chanting â€˜Odiaka! Odiaka!â€™
You were a star even at the ACB. How were you treated by the bank management?
I was comfortable and happy. I was staying in a 3 bedroom flat at Surulere with a car. I was married too. I was getting my salary from the bank. So, I didnâ€™t bother about money from the national team.
Letâ€™s talk about you now. How did dit all start?
I was told by mum that I was always kicking even in her womb. The kicking she said got to a point when she became afraid that something might happen to the baby. She even thought she might sustain some kind of wound in her womb and this madeÂ her go to the hospital.
But at the hospital, she was told sheâ€™s okay. They told her that the only thing they could see wasÂ a strong boy in her womb.
So, as I was growing up, I picked interest in football and started playing from childhood. I played both in my primary and secondary school days. From primary school, I was invited to Lagos State Division and played alongside Lawal Jumbo. I mean from primary school, I represented Badagry local government.
After that, I went home for my secondary education in my birth place, Aniocha South and later came back to Lagos to join the National Supply team.Â I was the highest goal scorer for Lagos Division two while playing for the National Supply team that year.
We also played the Oba Cup and defeated many big teams like Leventis, the Iddo Tigers and others. It was from there that ACB saw me and invited me to join them.
From Lagos State division too, I was lifted up to play National League Division One (Laughing).
My first match for ACB that year was a friendly against Great Olympics of Accra, Ghana. It was played at the National Stadium here in Lagos. I scored the only goal of the game in the match. We won 1-0 in 1982.
AndÂ in 1983, our league kicked off in January and that was when the national team coach noticed me because in that first season alone, I scored up to 8 goals in the league. AndÂ in 1984, I was invited intoÂ the junior national team.
As a star, what was it like in your immediate environment, especially amongst your family and friends?
It was a very great feeling because I was recognised everywhere. People pointed at my parents and said, â€˜Ah! Those are Odiakaâ€™s parentsâ€™.
Did your father also play football?
No, he was a sprinter.
So, you were the only one who played football in your family?
What was it when you started playing for the national team?
With all the experience I had gathered from the Junior teams, I didnâ€™t feel any different at the national team. For me, it was all the same. In 1984, I played for Flying Eagles alongside Samson Siasia, Alloy Agu and many others.
Didnâ€™t you go professional?
I did. I went to play for Dragon Football ClubÂ in Benin Republic, and from there I moved on to Dakar, Senegal where I played for three years before I went to Portugal.
How were you affected when things started changing in ACB?
Things started changing in ACB when our economy dropped. I will say it affected me badly because if ACB is still in existence, I would have been made a manager in the bank.
At that time, I was already a Supervisor in the bank. So, financially, everyone one of us workingÂ in the bank was affected.
Grace to Grass
It must have been a very difficult period for you then?
Yes, but such is life. Life is full of ups and downs, you know. I had to sell my car and relocateÂ to Ajegunle where I started from. Most of our stars die poor because they never thought things would turn around and so they never invested.
Did it also affect you?
A lot of us fall victims of such circumstance because of so many reasons. First, we didnâ€™t earn much in our time. Secondly, weâ€™re not good businessmen and then we didnâ€™t have good managers.
And at that time, we didnâ€™t play football for money. We played for the interest of the game and for the love we had for our country.
Thatâ€™s why when you talk about patriotism, weâ€™re the ones you can call the real patriotic Nigerians. We sacrificed our lives for this country. So, we should be remembered and rehabilitated back into the system because we fought for this country and conquered.
If my big uncle there (Uncle Sege-General Olusegun Obasanjo) fought the civil war, moved on to become a General and today heâ€™s enjoying all his benefits as a general, then why wonâ€™t they also treat us like generals? We fought all over the world and conquered.
Therefore, we should also be treated like generals. They should take good care of us. We should be getting our entitlements.
Travails and ordeal of former national team players
Are you saying that players should also be put on pension?
Yes and Iâ€™ll tell you why. If you go round today and see a lot of players in my generation, theyâ€™re all suffering. Most of them can never be complete again. Some are living with bent knees and legs. Some have broken teeth. Some have lost their eyes.
Some canâ€™t even stand well or walk because of their efforts to bring glory to this country. But I must say that Iâ€™m lucky that the injury I sustained didnâ€™t disable me.
In which match did you sustain this injury?
It was in one of our Olympic qualifiers against CoteÂ dâ€™Ivoire. And the match was played here at the National Stadium. I was deliberately kicked by an opponent from behind. Initially, I thought it was just a minor injury.
So, I was treating it myself because in our time, we didnâ€™t really have team doctors taking care of us.Â And so if you sustained any form of injury, you treated it yourself.
And in spite of the injury, I was still playing because I was still young. But as time went on, the knee injury kept coming back until I could no longer use it. It was when I got to Portugal that they discovered I had a hole in my knee and I was dropped.
That was how my dream to play in active European footballÂ died and I came back to mourn my fate. That injury caused me my career and my all.
Within that period, did you try to get in touch with NFA?
(Laughing). Even now that the game is much more pronounced, injured people are not really cared for not to talk of our days. Who will listen to you? Who are you talking to?
You came back from Portugal and what happened?
I came back in 1993 and still went back to ACB because they were battling to escape from relegation then. I played the six matches they had left and went to join Rangers in Enugu.
In Rangers, I played only a match and when the coach was leaving for Sharks Football Club of Port Harcourt, he took me along. But I was only able to playÂ one season for them and couldnâ€™t continue. So I called it off.
Letâ€™s talk about your family a little. How did you meet your wife? Was she one of your fans?
My wife wasnâ€™t a football fan but with me, she became one and started coming to watch me play. I met her through a colleague and friend Joseph Oha. We both played for ACB and he is now in America.
So, what was it like meeting your wife?
Iâ€™ll say it was a good beginning. I thank God I married when I did and we have four kids. Three of them are in different universities now and the last one isÂ in secondary school.
How have you been coping without much remuneration?
Iâ€™ll say itâ€™s the Lordâ€™s doing. When God is on your side, you can always make ends meet, no matter how little. Friends have been there for me too.
Support for Siasia
How do you feel when you see Siasia doing what heâ€™s doing?
Yes, Iâ€™m happy for him. I try to contribute in my own little way through advice. I want to seeÂ him succeed.
Do you sometimes wish you never played football for this country?
The injury did set me back because I couldnâ€™t get back to my peak. I wanted to do more for this country. I wanted to play for Manchester United. The club was my international dream team but I donâ€™t regret playing for this country. Even today, Iâ€™m still happy to have played for the national team. So, I have no regrets. I only wish I was much younger so I could still play now that thereâ€™s money in the game.
Do the younger generation of footballers show respect to people like you?
A lot of them do not have good upbringing. So, they donâ€™t show respect. I donâ€™t want to mention names.
How much respect do you get when you go to watch a match?
Same. Sometimes, some people whoâ€™re in charge tell me to go back. Some will ask for my ID card. Unless I meet those who know me very well. And because of the wayÂ we the old soldiers are treatedv at the gates, I choose the matches I watch.
Siasia had a good run against the German team but lost out in the second half. Will you blame him or his boys?
Siasia has done his best as a coach. So Iâ€™ll say it was nemesis that caught up with Nigerian football.
Way forward for Nigerian football
A lot of our football heros are dying in pains and poverty, yet you expect our football to grow?. Itâ€™s no magic. Look at our senior teams. We lost a match weâ€™d already won against Tunisia and thatâ€™s same with the Flying Eagles. Right now, government should think of how to better the lots of their heroes because no country throws away its heroes.
Weâ€™re saying that this industry belongs to us all. So we should be given a chance to run it. Let footballers run their affairs.
Are you saying that the people who are running our football affairs are not the right people?
Yes, they should not be there. We have capable hands who can run the football federation well but theyâ€™ve not been given the chance.
Have you ever seen a doctor going to Nigerian Bar Association (NBA) to take up any appointment? Or have you heard of a lawyer becoming the president of the Nigerian Medical Association (NMA)? It canâ€™t happen. And so why is it only in the house of football that any body can just come in to hold position?
Unless footballers are allowed to run their affairs, our football will not go further than what you are seeing now.