By Fred Iwenjora
Benjamin James made a name for himself while playing for the defunct Police Machine team in Lagos before playing for the famous Stationary Stores football club of Lagos.
He also plied his trade with JIB Rocks and later 3SC before being called up to the Super Eagles team with Clemence Westerhoff in charge. The team won the ECOWAS Cup. The Bayelsa born player left for Europe soon after then just like his contemporaries like Finidi George, Taribo West and others. Since he left, he has never looked back.
In the past ten years, James has been coach of the youth team of Hoffenheim, Germany winning matches after matches and flying Nigeria’s flag at high mast.
He speaks on the journey so far:
How does it feel to be the only African coach in the German league?
I used to be the only African coaching here in the past eleven years but now there is a Ghanaian who came a few years ago and he is coaching in Dortmund. However, I am still the only Nigerian and I feel very good and thankful to God.
How did it all start?
I started my coaching career after I was injured in the field of play. Perhaps a long story will be told here but in summary, I started when the injury on my knee could not allow me to play actively. It was then I decided to go into coaching since I love the game so much.
Can we trace your playing years?
Ok, I started my playing career in Lagos at the local Ajegunle fields before venturing to the then Police Machine team. While at the Police team, I was discovered and went to Stationery stores, then JIB Rocks before going to the IICC in Ibadan. I played the league and Challenge cup and even won the White Horse Award for best player in May 1990. My records were so hot then. I had scored 23 goals at the Police Machine, nine at Stores and many more at JIB Rocks. It is nostalgic to recall all these. In those days I was in defense playing number 4 or 5, good at headings and corner kicks. I was one of the defenders who scored goals so I was offensive and played with active concentration. No jokes and no mercy on the pitch. Hahahahaha!
Your years at Super Eagles must have been memorable?
Oh yes. It was from IICC that I was called up to the Eagles by Clemence Westerhof. We were about six of us called then from IICC including Dotun Alatishe, Isiaku Owoyemi, Sule Akinwale and others. We were camped at the Ota camp and played the ECOWAS Cup and won. It was after that I left the Eagles for Italy. There were circumstances I can’t begin to recall here. I would have gone to Ajax with Finidi but God had other plans for me. I went to play for Novara Calcho in Italy for six years before leaving for Carlzeiss Yena, a division two club in Germany in 1997. I had a three year contract.
How did you cope with racism which may have been very high at that time?
Ha… it was God o. At that time in German football, blacks were booed even by their own team fans. I encountered so much of this that even my Club President resigned because of me. Do you know that I was booed at my own stadium whenever I had the ball? Our fans were not happy to see me that even my President resigned because of this. He had signed me because he believed that I was an utility player for the team yet his fans were not happy. My team manager Mr. Schmidt also resigned. I had to leave after one year to play for VRF Mannheim. Do you also know that a new President was appointed for Carlzeissyena and he started asking for a refund of their money for the three years contract? I went to court and won. At this time, VRF Mannheim was seeking to be promoted to Division 2 and I did my best to help the team to gain promotion. That was when the injury which was first noticed while I was in Italy showed up again. I went for surgery and stopped playing actively. It dawned on me that the game was indeed over so I opted for a coaching course so I could get a license.
Could you talk more about the coaching course? Any memorable experiences?
I had registered for the course at Heidekuben, Ludwigshafen and the professor felt so impressed with my progress not too long after and recommended me to another top decision maker at Hoffenheim. He had asked if I would love to work with them when I honored his invitation and I said yes. I started work the next day and ever since, have been there.
Just like that?
Exactly. Just like that o. I was put to handle the Under 19 team and the rest is history.
Does your ten- year stay at Hoffenheim show you have proven your Professor right?
I strongly believe so because I handle the Under 15 side now and I have done so for many years. Some of my youth players have moved on to the National side singing out loud my motto; “Goals are beauty of the game”. We have won the Junior German league for four times and the German junior Challenge cup for three times. We have also gone to the Aspire Academy in Qatar and won the 2015 Championships. To God be all the glory. Even at that, I am still the oldest coach at Hoffenheim as at today. We have had over six coaches at the senior team. They come and go.
Ten years and still counting, what has been the experience like as compared with what we have in Nigeria?
I never was a coach in Nigeria. I only played. However, I have learnt so much here and these are things that money cannot buy for me. I learnt about discipline on the job and time consciousness, seriousness and determination and a different work attitude. I learnt to be focused. If call time is 4pm for instance most German players arrive 3pm. I also learnt that no German footballer feels bigger than the coach who is in charge no matter his age or his salary. His boss is the boss. But in Nigeria, it is not the same. It doesn’t help our football because the player seen as the big player may never give his best if he feels bigger than the coach. If a player feels bigger than his coach, then that player would never give his best. It is also a big honor to be called to the national team. However, I still believe that the coach should also respect the player because respect is reciprocal. If I should compare notes, I think that Nigerian coaches should regularly update their licenses with regular courses and not carry old techniques about. In Germany, we have coaching clinics every now and then to update ideas. In fact there is a new course every two months. The footballer is in class room to learn theories before going to the pitch for practical. For instance the course on how to penetrate a strong defense is on for us now and the update of knowledge is regular. Again, once a player is called to the national team or indeed any team for that matter in Germany, he is insured. This will definitely bring out the best from the player. But this is not so for Nigerian players who are seemingly on their own. If anything like injury happens to you in Nigeria, you have to treat yourself. There are several things that are different my brother and there may not be a good comparison.
Are you disappointed that Nigerian football is not what it should be? Your former teams like the Police Machine are dead just like Stores….What can we do to return to the glory days?
Absolutely. We should have been better than the way we are today. I feel bad that the Police Machine is dead just as Stationery Stores. Nigeria has talents everywhere but they are not developed. When Clemence Westerhof was in Nigeria, it was good. He used the method in Europe to discover great stars for Nigeria but not now. We do not have all the developmental soccer championships in Nigeria any more. In Europe and other parts of the world, youth football is strong because that is where you pick them young and develop them to the bigger teams. Again, players play individual games in Nigeria and not collectively as a team.
Aside from these, salaries are owed as well as allowances to the players and coaches and several things don’t seem to be right. I wish it could be better than the way it is now in Nigeria.
With all you seem to know why are you not thinking of coaching the Super Eagles?
I have never thought about it because I still have plenty to learn here. I am happy with what I am doing now and I have not considered that really. May be I will consider that in future but not now, please. I don’t want to be distracted.
What about family?
I don’t like to involve my family in public matters but I have four children. My daughter is a medical doctor while my first son is involved in IT. My second son is a handball player here in Germany. He used to play soccer but changed to handball. Then comes the last, the baby of the house Ronnie. But in all, my home is a sports loving home where everyone is interested in sports. All my family members want to know how Hoffenheim played in every match.