April 26, 2020

Augustine Eguavoen: From athletics to football World Cup

How Bendel Insurance ’78 FA Cup victory converted him to football

Regrets Nigeria’s loss to Italy at USA ’94 W/Cup

Speaks on Westerhof, France ’98 World Cup and his move to England

Austin Eguavoen

Augustine Eguavoen was part of what many believe was the golden generation of Nigerian football. The squad of players which included storied names like Daniel Amokachi, Austin ‘Jay Jay’ Okocha and Stephen Keshi.

Nigeria won the Africa Cup of Nations in 1994 and qualified for the World Cup for the first time. Eguavoen spoke with Sammy Wejinya of SPN Africa when he relieved some of the most memorable moments of his career.

Who discovered you?

It is hard to say if anyone discovered me and I will explain. I never liked football, I was a track and field expert with my speciality being the 100 and 200 metres events and I did this from my days in primary.

Then my Dad was transferred to Benin City because of his job at AT and T, Sapele and then the love affair with a football kicked off. Bendel Insurance had just won the FA Cup (domestic Cup competition in Nigeria) by beating Enugu Rangers 3-0 and the ovation for the team was so much.

The reception for the team was something else and I kept wondering what the massive celebrations were about. People went as far as Oluku (a town approximately 15 kilometres from Benin) to wait for the victorious Insurance team and I was amazed and decided to give football a try.

I was hugely fascinated.

How influential was your brother, Monday Eguavoen in your football development?

He was very influential in this regard. I used to accompany him to Idia College to play volleyball and basketball. Monday also played for the Nigeria national football team.

I recall that one day, while I was still a very young man, I went to the training ground of Marathon Youth football club, very close to where we lived.

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I went there and met two gentlemen, Christopher Erarho and Sunday Enobhakre that I wanted to join the team. They agreed and that was how my journey into the world of football began in 1978.

I decided to do this just because of what Insurance had done that year in the FA Cup. Ten years after this, I was with the Nigeria national team in Morocco representing my country at the Africa Cup of Nations.

So I think the talent to play football at the highest level was always in me.

You speak so fondly about Bendel Insurance. Did you ever get a chance to play for the club?

I was asked to come for a screening with the club in September 1984 when they were being coached by Alabi Aisien. I was in my final year at Edokpolor Grammar school back then but the club did not sign me.

They signed (former Nigeria international), Friday Elahor, Monday Kanu, Roland Ewere, Kenneth Aigbe, Austine Igbinadolor and Ikponmwonsa Omoregie.

I then left for NNPC alongside some other teammates like Austine Inyama where I was signed. I played in the state league with NNPC and believe it or not, my performances with NNPC saw Insurance coming back to try to sign me.

To make this happen they decided to increase my salary from one hundred and twenty naira which I was earning at NNPC to three hundred and fifty naira. I spent one year (1985) at Insurance before joining ACB in 1986.

What were your highlights at the ACB club?

I was invited to play for Nigeria’s under 20s, the Flying Eagles during my time at ACB. I was captain of the Flying Eagles. We played a lot of friendly games at the time. Two of those friendly games were against a Belgian club, KAA Gent in Kano and Lagos.

We won both games against them but they took an interest in me and another of my teammates, Etim Esin.

They asked me if I was interested in coming over to Belgium and I replied in the affirmative.

(Former Chairman of the Nigerian Football Association, and Minister of Sports, Air Commodore Anthony) Ikhazobor and (Flying eagles coach, Christopher) Udemezue kicked against the move because the U20 World Cup qualifiers were about to commence but my mind was already made up.

That was how I joined Gent in 1986.

Was the transition from playing professionally in Nigeria to playing in a top European league easy?

No, it wasn’t difficult. Everyone at Gent made me feel comfortable and welcome so I was very relaxed.

The weather (winter) was a bit difficult but I knew I had to cope. My wife, Victoria, was at Unilag at the time but Gent made arrangements to bring her over to Belgium and enrolled her in a school in the country.

That settled me a lot.

You spent about ten years in Spain as a professional footballer but made a switch to play for the Galicia club, Ourense between 1994 and 1995. What were the reasons behind that decision?

I was about 21 years old when I went to Belgium and a few years later, my Father died. This was extremely difficult for me as I was extremely close to him. My form dipped and the coach of Gent had no option but to trade me to K.V. Kortrijk. In between my stint at K.V. Kortrijk, I also played for Ourense.

Is it true that you signed to play for a club in England?

This is true. Severally, Kevin Keegan came to Belgium to watch me play while I was still at Gent. I had a chance to play for West Bromwich Albion and I flew to Birmingham to complete the move.

The club was managed by Keith Burkinshaw at the time. Although I signed for the club, I never played a competitive game for the club.

This was because I had been suspended for six months in Belgium after falling out with a referee so my International Transfer Certificate was withheld.

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My work permit also never came through as a result. This was in 1993 and I got a call from (former Super Eagles coach, Clemens) Westerhof asking me to come back home as we were preparing for the Africa Cup of Nations and World Cup qualifiers.

Westerhof told me to stay with the national team, train with them and also take part in friendly games.

I also played in competitive matches for the national team during that period because the coach believed in my ability.

I was lucky because if it was a coach that didn’t trust my ability, I may never have had the opportunity to go to the Nations Cup and the World Cup.

Westerhof is regarded by many as Nigeria’s best-ever national team coach. You worked with him. Just how special is he?

He was a very good coach. Great man manager as well. He also had a knack for predicting how games would end back then. He will tell us in the dressing room before a big game that we will win 3-0 or 4-0 and we will win by the same score he predicted!

He also had a great team of assistants with Bonfrere Johannes, Christian Chukwu and Bitrus Bewerang.

Tell us about your national team debut in 1987.

Paul Hamilton was the National team coach at the time and Sierra Leone were the opponents at the National Stadium in Lagos. I came in as a substitute for Waidi Akanni in midfield and we won the game 3-0.

You played in three Africa Cup of Nations tournaments. What memories do you have of those competitions?

I was in Morocco in 1988. I couldn’t go to Algeria in 1990 because I was just returning from a serious injury and was never going to be at a hundred percent. I was back in 1992 and 1994. I did not play in more AFCONs because of what happened in 1996 and 1998.

We did not win in 1992 because of a little mistake. Abedi Pele of Ghana scored a wonderful goal after we had scored early and Ghana grew in stature and confidence and that was that.

In 1988, we were really really close (to winning the title). We scored what I believe to this day was a good goal but for whatever reason, it was disallowed. And for their only goal, the tricky Roger Milla went in between Sunday Eboigbe and Stephen Keshi.

Eboigbe says he didn’t touch Milla who went down in the box for the penalty. In 1994, we were lucky too because the Zambians scored first in the final and were chasing the game.

What made that Nigeria team of 1994 so special?

There was a special bond in that team of 1994 as we were all like brothers. It was one big happy family and that was our biggest weapon.

Later that year (1994), Nigeria made her World Cup debut in the United States. What memories do you take out of that tournament?

Good memories. Upon arrival, we were welcomed by the Nigerian community in Dallas. I still recall that the dressing room (at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas where Nigeria faced Bulgaria in her opening game) was the biggest I’d ever seen in my life.

Now, when we noticed while in the tunnel preparatory to going onto the pitch that the Bulgarians were scared of us! It was obvious from their body language and that gave us the confidence to go out and beat them 3-0.

We also had a bit of luck as (Hristo) Stoichkov’s goal was disallowed early in the first half.

Now let’s discuss the game against Argentina. What was it like facing Diego Maradona for the first time?

Watching Maradona on Television and playing against him in the flesh are two different things! I will be honest now. For me, facing Maradona was a dream come true because he is a legend.

However, once the game started, all the respect flew out of the window because it was a game of football and the focus was to win irrespective of your opponent.

You were widely blamed for conceding the penalty that led to Italy’s winner in the round of 16….

(Interjects) And I think that is very unfair. Many Nigerians believed that if we had defeated Italy, we could have gone all the way to win that World Cup.

There was a bit of miscommunication between Chidi Nwanu and myself and that led to (the concession of the) penalty.

And the foul was not deliberate because (Antonio) Benarrivo anticipated the contact and waited for me to barge into him.

I had my eyes on the ball and was not looking to foul him.

You played just one game at the 1998 World Cup versus Paraguay in the group stages. Do you think you should have had more minutes in France?

Nigeria had won the Gold medal in the football event at the Olympics in 1996 and Bora (Milutinovic, Nigeria’s coach in 1998) opted to go more with the lads that won in Atlanta.
I was not at the Olympics in 1996 so I didn’t play more than one game in France. I respect the coach’s decision though because it wasn’t like the lads who were selected to start the majority of the games in France did too badly.

But maybe, I would have played more games if we had another coach in France.

Nigeria was tipped by many to have a great World Cup in 1998 but that didn’t happen. Why?

The 1998 World Cup was a disaster for Nigeria. Bora’s management style was a disaster for Nigeria.

How do you mean?

I am not saying he is a bad coach but his style of management wasn’t the best for Nigeria. Bora is a very good coach but his style of management was not just for us.

The bonding (among players) was non-existent because players were staying individually rather than in pairs in their rooms.

The only time the players got to interact was during training, matches and meal times. That is not a good way to manage players. It may have worked with the previous countries he had coached but it was never going to work with the Nigeria national team at that time.

There was serious division in that team.

Nigeria lost 4-1 to Denmark in the round of 16. What did Bora say to the players at half time?

There was absolute chaos in the dressing room and I remember speaking up and talking to the players. I told them to ensure that Austine Okocha was given the ball at every opportunity because he was our most dangerous player in that game.

The players who went out in the second half seemed to listen to me because Okocha received passes almost every time we got the ball.

Okocha signed for PSG afterwards. There were things that happened at that World Cup with our team that should never have been allowed to happen.

Things like what?

Some of the players were visiting night clubs in the heat of the tournament. I recall that this happened after the game against Bulgaria (which Nigeria won 1-0 to book a place in the Round of 16 with a game to spare).

They did this in Limousines and came back the morning after to train. This happened at least twice, while the World Cup was on. There was no control over that team and that’s why I used the word, disaster.

Do you think things like these would never have happened if Westerhof had still been in charge?

(Yes, it is) possible (such things would never have happened if Westerhof had been in charge) or if Bonfrere had continued.

Thank you for your time, Augustine.

You are welcome.