By Jemi Ekunkunbor
Nigeria Ex -international, Jonathan Akpoborie was recently a guest at the maiden edition of a football tourney, ‘The Fathers Cup’ put together by Lagos Province 15 of the Redeemed Christian Church of God at the National Stadium, Surulere, Lagos. . The footballer, who made 325 appearances in his career as a footballer, was invited by the Church to serve as an inspiration for the young players who also look forward to making it big someday on the international scene.
The former Julius Berger FC player did not come with a prepared speech. Clad in a pair of blue jeans and plaid shirt, he simply spoke from the heart, giving glory to God who took him from the slum called Ajegunle to becoming an international footballer. Although the soft spoken former prolific goal scorer isn’t known to be a pastor, his inspirational talk with the young players led to over 20 of them giving their lives to Jesus on that day. What was it he told the players?
In his career as a footballer, Jonathan made 325 appearances scoring, 143 goals but when it came to Nigeria, he made 13 appearances scoring a paltry four goals. This he blamed on the Nigeria factor.
However, playing in a foreign football club was a different kettle of fish entirely, this he told the players. Living in Germany and playing in a club where he was almost all the time the only black man was challenging enough.
In one instances at a 63, 000 capacity stadium, he was the only black man and as a striker that had been bought, the pressure was on him to score goals. Jonathan Akpoborie revealed that at such moment, every footballer calls on his God, whatever it is he worships to come to his aid. Our own man says at such moments, he turns to God, the same God who took him from Ajegunle where he trekked barefooted to school to come to come to his aid.
Fasting on Wednesday became a lifestyle for me’ he says. And on each occasion, he says, ‘God came through for me’. He told the players how on one of such occasions after praying and fasting, his club scored five goals against their opponent. Three of those goals were scored by him! It was this story that brought the young players to submit to the God who helped Jonathan.
In this encounter, the ex international spoke very candidly about his journey into football, the issues with NFF and why he thinks that Keshi should do the needful by voluntarily resigning as the Coach of the Super Eagles.
What was growing up like for you and how did you get into football?
I grew up in Ajegunle as you already know and growing up there has its many challenges. I go there now every Tuesday and Thursday to play football with the youths and I see different challenges that confront them there. I can say now I was very lucky to scale through. If it wasn’t for football, the environment is capable of turning you into what you do not plan to be in life. We didn’t have the social media like we have now. In our time you didn’t see things like drugs. It was not as rampant as it is today. Those things are big killers of careers. Drugs then were meant for highly rich people. Today, if you have N300 or N1, 000 you could buy the drugs that you want. And all these things are distractions.
Football gave me a platform. But today, you have a lot of careers that are built from the entertainment industry; you have music, comedy, movies, etc. In my days it was just football; playing football not in an organized way but everyday playing street against street. All the structures you now see were not there at that time.
Life as a child was very difficult. I remember walking all the way to school and sometimes going to school bare footed. I remember not doing what my parents wanted just to be able to play football. Football was like disobedience to what my parents wanted for me because at that time, footballers were not reckoned with. But football was my dream. They wanted me to concentrate on my education.
Eventually, when I got a scholarship to go to the USA, my parents would not have allowed me if it was not connected with education. But today, I thank God for my mother who insisted that I must get education.
So how were you discovered as a player?
I got this far by the almighty God himself. I was at Igbobi College and while playing with my mates, we used to play five against five, somebody saw me, picked me to play for his team. Whilst with the team, somebody saw me and gave me a letter to go and train with the under 17 team. I went to train and that was it. That is why I tell these boys that whenever you are playing, you have to play well because you never know who is watching you. You can be found anywhere.
What was it like going abroad for the first time?
My first trip abroad was to the USA but there were blacks there already so it wasn’t such a culture shock for me. But going to Germany was a big change. It was not just about the colour but about language as well. Initially, I didn’t think language would matter because I felt football has a universal language which is to score goals. But I was wrong. After two years, I found out that for me to integrate with the people I had to speak the language. It took me three years to be able to speak the language.
How did you survive?
The first two years were very difficult. It was after I learnt the language that my career sky rocketed. Germans are warm the minute you can speak the language. Once I was able to do so everything just flowed. I spent more time with my team mates so I had to learn. When you come into a place and greet them in their language, they become friendly and they can do things for you.
You were raised as a Christian. When you got to Germany was it easy to continue?
In Germany faith is very difficult because you don’t have a lot of people who believe in God as you have in Nigeria. A lot of people don’t believe in God. I remember, my manager was Jewish and when I talked about God, he was like, ‘what is that?’ So it became a little bit difficult to actually follow but if you already had the strong background, there is nothing that can take it away from you.
So how did you help yourself?
Sometimes, I went to church sometimes. It wasn’t always because most of the time, we played our games on Saturdays. And when you play professionally, at the end of the game you need about a day and a half to two days to recover. So after a game, you found it very difficult to stand. Usually after a game, the next day, you went for training for about 15 minutes then you did your stretches and then went for massage. After that even if somebody slapped you, you won’t be able to do anything because your body is completely tired. So it will be difficult to play on Saturday and wake up the next day to go to church. Most times, you just call your pastor over the phone to talk and pray but mostly, you learn to carry God in your heart wherever you go.
How would you assess Nigerian sports in 2014?
The biggest thing there was the disappointment of not qualifying for 2015 AFCON.
The discussion going around talking about the Nigerian coach, the team, the talents, the chairmanship of the NFF, sports in general, I’ve concluded that the lesson that Nigeria should learn from all these is to try to separate politics from sports and in particular, from football. They don’t belong together and when you drag politics into football, it actually destroys it. It doesn’t make you bring out the best team or the best organization that we can have, it doesn’t do anything good for the sports. As Nigerians, we should plan ahead and eventually separate politics from football.
What should be the focus of the NNF in your view?
Well, from the development in the last three months, I don’t think you can give any advice because whatever you say today is being vetoed by somebody somewhere. So what do you want to tell them? They took a very good decision by letting Keshi go for example but that veto came in, Keshi came back and still did not qualify us for the Nations cup. As we speak today he is still there. We still have the same problem with the team. We saw in the last game that they played, from the first day Keshi came as coach and to the last game they played, I have not seen any improvement from what he has been doing. So they keep saying they are rebuilding. If the NFF agrees, we as Nigerians or me as an individual, I think it is wrong for them to take Keshi back. He should resign on his own. It is something that happened to Samson Siasia; he was sacked. I don’t know why he, as a person, would want to remain in a position where he has failed Nigerians woefully.
Do you think if the team was coached differently the outcome would have been different?
Quite definitely! The football we’ve been playing from the day Keshi came on the seat as the Super Eagle’s Coach; we’ve always had tactical issues. A lot of people would say we don’t need to play well we just need to win games. But your ratio of winning games actually increases when you are playing well and we have not been playing well from day one. So you could tell it was just a matter of time. It was like a time bomb waiting to set off. And we have seen and we are still being forced to accept that Keshi will take us there. I can tell you in my professional view that he will not and we are still going to sink more and more.
What does it portend for us when for example the NFF cannot freely fire a coach?
That is exactly what I keep saying about the development of our football in general. If you can’t allow them pick a Coach, we can as well carry the office of the NFF and throw into Aso Rock or the National Assembly for them to continue to run our football. We don’t run politics for them I expect them to leave football alone.
What can be done to make our league competitive and attractive?
It’s all wrapped up in this political thing because politics has crept into football systematically. Most of the teams in the league are owned by state governments and they use all of these things as political tools. That is why football in Nigeria can never develop – because of politics. We need to look for a road map whereby we can separate politics from football.
How can we develop youth football in Nigeria?
The Lagos State government for example is fantastic with this. They have developed the youth league like the Principals cup which is good. But the infrastructure and the facility for the kids to play are not there. When I was growing up in Ajegunle, practically every corner you had space where we played football. These things are not there any more. The local competitions that we used to organize are not there anymore. After we won World Under 17 Cup in 1985 in China, everybody wanted his or her child to go play football.
Is money an issue in all of these?
Of course, yes. But then again, the best players here don’t have money so you have to support them one way or the other. That is why you see most of the footballers playing in the league today, (I can’t categorically say that it happens) they have money and they use their money in deciding where they want to play and how they want to play. But those who really can play football can’t move from Ajegunle to Surulere. So that is the biggest problem we are having now in developing the genuine talents.
What role does your faith in God play in your career especially as regards goal scoring?
It’s quite interesting when you watch football and you see players on television, they seem to have a larger than life image. They are all human beings with flesh and blood and prone to mistakes. But if you check very well, you’d find that every successful footballer or super star believes in God. In his quiet time he knows what he does. People have different ways of communing with God. I was very vocal about my faith while in Germany. I used to talk about it and there was no time I deviated to say let me go and try something else. Even when people came to ask for money from me to go pray somewhere, I always refused. I like to go to church when I can and I try to pray as much as I can. The only person who would understand your situation is God. That is where I get my solace.
Most of the prolific goal scorers would not want to share the secret of things they did to score goals. I used to fast every Wednesday. I became used to fasting on Wednesdays. It was the day we had strenuous training. It gets intensive when I really need the goals and every time God delivers. There is no time I have asked God for something and He doesn’t answer me. It is something that has remained with me.
I remember this game we were to play at Stuttgart. I had just left Stuttgart for Wolfsburg. So coming to play against my former team, in the same city, with people booing me wasn’t easy. Stuttgart has a big stadium that takes about 63,000 people.
I said Lord don’t let me be ashamed here. I need to prove to these people that I am good and that you are with me as my rock. God came through for me. We scored five goals out of which I scored three. It was like God vindicating me in the presence of these people.
What was it like being the only black man in the midst of so many whites? Did it give you a complex?
Definitely not! There was actually a situation where we were running into the stadium to warm up for a game in Berlin. There was this guy that brought a banana for me to sign. It was unusual but I signed it and gave it to him. In that game, we won 2-1 and I scored both goals. I came back, looked for him and they said he had gone, that he was angry. I said but he must have enjoyed the game, they said no he didn’t enjoy the game because I was the one that scored both goals.
Yes. But I didn’t care. I just came to play football. Football is a job so I just did my job regardless of what anybody says. When I went to Rostop, one of the biggest racist areas in German, I survived through the grace of God. Everybody accepted what I was doing not just at the football level but outside. I just thank God for looking after me throughout my career and even for what I am trying to do now. I just pray that I will be more successful in helping the talents that I see going to waste in Ajegunle.
What plans do you have for the future?
I train with these boys in Ajegunle every week. What will give me joy which is my dream is to take these boys one by one abroad to go play football. Some of them are ready, some are not yet ready because of disciplinary and tactical issues. By the grace of God, two of them will be travelling with me to Germany in January. We hope that they will be offered contracts after their trials with various teams in Europe. When we complete that, I will come back to pick another set and the process will go on in that order.