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SAMSON SIASIA: My goal against Argentina at USA ’94 W/Cup gives me fond memories

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SAMSON SIASIA: My goal against Argentina at USA '94 W/Cup gives me fond memories
Samson Siasia

•Record with Nigerian youth teams hard to beat
•Tasks Government, NFF and corporate Nigeria to lift the NPFL
•Sad the country he gave his all abandoned him
•Sure he will floor FIFA at CAS

By Jacob Ajom

Samson Siasia does not need any introduction to the average follower of Nigerian football. His story is like every other’s who passed through the dusty playgrounds of Ajegunle, a Lagos suburb.

Samson Siasia passed through the rough and delicate terrain of the once notorious Ajegunle slums that have produced several Nigerian football stars like Tarila Okorowanta, Jonathan Akpoborie, Taribo West, Emmanuel Amuneke, Ifeanyi Udeze, among others.

In his day as a budding football player at the squalid Ajegunle neighbourhood, one who was destined to become a star was always first discovered at the sandy grounds of Tolu Schools or the Navy Town Ajegunle, where the Mock Nations Cup was an annual football carnival, or Gaskiya College, Ijora Badiya. One was first a star in Ajegunle before breaking into state or national limelight. And that was the humble beginning of Samson Siasa.

“The Mock Nations Cup at the Navy Town gave me my first break,” he started. “I was in Gaskiya College when we were playng in the Mock Nations Cup and a certain scout took me to St Finbarr’s College, Bariga. At St Finbarr’s, we played and won the Principal’s Cup from where I was called to the national U-20 camp. At that time there was no U-17. I missed the first U-20 World Cup, but I was part of the Moscow ’85 Junior World Cup. So you could see that I started playing for Nigeria from secondary school.”

Professional career

Siasia’s stock rose after the Moscow ’85 exploits as he played for Julius Berger Football Club of Lagos, Flash Flamengoes and El Kanemi FC of Maiduguri, before going abroad to further his professional career. Belgium was the destination point for most Nigerian footballers then. “We followed the footsteps of late Stephen Keshi, who was already playing for Anderlecht, he was our pathfinder,” Siasia said.

“I was first taken to Genk and I made it after the trials, but because the club was in the lower division then, my agent decided to take me to Lokeren which was in the top division. After one training session with the top division side, they offered me a contract.”

All that happened in the 1988/89 season. The young Siasia was to play there for about three seasons before moving to France where he pitched tent with Nantes. “That was before the 1994 World Cup,” he recalled.

“At Nantes, we had a very strong team with the likes of Christian Kerembu, Claude Makelele, Japhet N’Doram, Nouredine Naybet, among others. It was a wonderful ensemble that I learnt so much from,” Siasia relived.

He said he benefitted a lot from the club. “Although I did not enjoy much in real football sense(in terms of having much playing time). The reason was because most of the players were strikers like me and they were indigenes who were featuring for their national team. Naturally, they got preference over me. I only came in when there was either an injury or as a result of the coach’s game plan. But in terms of experience and technical knowledge of the game, Nantes provided me with the best period of my career as a professional footballer.”

Asked if racism had anything to do with his experience at Nantes. Siasia chuckled. “Not at all,” he said. “The funny thing about the French is that if you are good you will play. In my team then we had many black players and there were more than 9 black players in the French national team. They don’t give a damn about your colour or creed. I did not suffer racism because it wasn’t there.”

Impact of Nigerian players in Europe on the Super Eagles

Siasia agreed that the movement of Nigerian players to European leagues in the late 1980s and early ’90s helped to improve the standard of the country’s national team. “Yes, it impacted positively on the national team. First, it helped us demystify the invincibility of teams from north Africa. You know how tough it was when we faced teams from there because they were better exposed to modern football and play almost the same way like the Europeans. Our results in 1994 at both the Africa Cup of Nations and the World Cup and, by extension, the 1996 Olympics speak volumes about how our foreign legion in Europe impacted on our national teams.

“When we got to Europe, we were taught tactics, techniques, how to use both legs, especially the weaker left leg and how to recover the ball when you lose it. It was not like the usual coming together, run round the field and play, as was the case back home, before we travelled. In Europe we discovered different things about football. Indeed, it was a different ball game.”

The joy of playing for Nigeria

Siasia recalled the exploits of the Super Eagles of his day and said, “it’s every player’s dream to play for his country. I feel eternally proud and grateful to God for making it possible for me to play alongside some of the most exciting football talents this country has ever known. In 1992, we could have won the AFCON in Senegal but were unlucky. We came back with a bronze. When we got to Tunisia in 1994, we already had a good team that had built the momentum. With players like Jay Jay Okocha who came and fortified the team, it was not surprising that we won the AFCON. The victory was even sweeter that we won the Nations Cup outside the shores of our country, for the first time. The feeling was incredible, unbelievable. It took us a long time to really come to terms with the magnitude of what we achieved in Tunisia.”

After the triumph at AFCON, Siasia and the Super Eagles went to USA for the FIFA ’94 World Cup. The Eagles were grouped alongside Argentina, Bulgaria and Greece. The opening game against Greece was Nigeria’s first at the global stage. The Eagles did not disappoint as they won 3-0. The African champions came face-to-face with Argentina in their second group match. Siasia opened scoring for Nigeria with a spectacular goal. Argentina came from behind to beat them 2-1. Nigeria beat Greece 2-0 to eventually top the group. Although the Eagles, who were ranked 5th best national team in the world made a brilliant arrival at the world stage with their audacious style of play, inexperience had the better of them when they met Italy in the second round. The team was eliminated via a Roberto Baggio brace. Reflecting on his USA ’94 exploits, Siasia said thus, “that goal at the World Cup gives me fond memories till date as it remains the highpoint of my career as a striker. It forms a special part of my memories as a footballer.”

Reversal of gains made

After evaluating the impact of Nigerian footballers who went to Europe on the national team, the Bayelsa state born Siasia, however disagreed with the effect of European football on the current Super Eagles handled by coach Gernot Rohr. With most of the players being children of emigrant Nigerians in the diaspora, who were not raised in Nigeria, the former U-20 and U-23 coach said, unless something drastic was done, and urgently too, Nigerian football was headed for the rocks.

“With the current search for players from abroad to come and play for the Super Eagles, we can never go in the right direction like that,” he reasoned. “We now rush to Europe to get players for our national team? Those players from abroad were trained by some people. Why can’t we train our home grown children to the level we want?” he asked. The former Nigeria international believes the new system was a negation of progress made and a great disservice to domestic football. “Nobody wants to play in Nigeria again because playing at home no longer guarantees one a place in the national team.”

READ ALSO: Nigerian players use hard drugs — Moses Etu, Chairman, Warri Wolves

Siasa pointed out that until the domestic league was strengthened, nothing good could be realised from Nigerian football. He insisted, “the Nigerian Professional Football League has to work. Without a robust league from where can you get the players?”

He called for a new orientation in the country towards the Nigeria Professional Football League. “Today, once it is time for matches, every football fan rushes home or go to viewing centres to watch the English Premier League, the La Liga, Serie A, among other thriving European leagues on television. How did they do it? How did Europe get it right? It requires the combined efforts of government, the Nigeria Football Federation and corporate Nigeria to turn things around. Government has to create the desired environment for corporate bodies to invest in football and sports generally.”

He queried, “was it not here we had corporate giants like Leventis, NPA, NNPC, Bendel Insurance, ACB, Julius Berger and a host of others in the 70s and 80s that owned some of the best football clubs we have ever seen in this country? Where are they today? What happened? Even individuals like late Chief MKO Abiola, Chief Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu had clubs. Today football is big business that generates a lot of revenue for both government and corporate bodies. Once the league is good we are bound to see the emergence of good players from the system and Nigeria can now raise a good national team that can truly reflect our standard and represent our values.

“Right now, I can’t mention five players in the national team because I do not know them. I’m serious, I don’t know them.”

Siasia would not want to be dragged into assessing Super Eagles coach Gernot Rohr, whose contract was extended recently by the NFF. Did he(Rohr) deserve to be retained? We asked Siasia.

“I can’t talk on that,” he cuts in. “Only his employers, the football federation can assess him. I believe that is what they have done by extending his contract. Coaching job is the same everywhere. You look at a coach’s record, the number of matches he has played, number of victories, drawn matches and number of matches lost. Above all, where was the team when he took over, what progress has he made? Compare him with those that were there before him. These are some of the criteria you use to evaluate the performance of a coach, whether he is foreign or local coach.”

How he became a youth coach

Siasia’s transformation from player to coach was, to say the least, accidental. When asked why he chose coaching and not any other aspect of football, he told us how it all started.

“After the 1994 World Cup I got injured. I was injured while playing for Nigeria and the country did not do anything to treat me. That injury effectively retired me from football albeit prematurely. I had my son then in the United States, who wanted to be like his daddy. I enrolled him into a soccer academy. One day I visited the academy and their coach was absent. They approached me and asked if I could hold forte for him.

“Although it came to me as a surprise, I took it up. Eventually after a few similar experiences and because I like training children, I decided it was something I could do if I devoted my time to it. I then attended a coaching course in 2000. I was a very successful youth coach in the US. When I saw one of my players in the US youth team, I decided I could go home and handle youth teams in my country as well. So when I came to Nigeria for the U-20 job, I was well equipped for it. You are aware of our achievements{a runners up medal} at the 2005 FIFA U20 World Cup. We qualified for both the Beijing and Rio Olympics. We won a silver at Beijing and a bronze in Brazil. It’s a record I am proud of.”

Why has Siasia not been able to translate his successes with the youth teams to the senior national team? His defence was logical.

“I have never been appointed coach for the Super Eagles before,” Siasia said. “I was only called in to help on the two stints I have had with the senior team. I was on rescue missions, like a stop-gap measure. The first was after Eguavoen left the team, and the second time was after Oliseh left the team. I repeat, I have never been offered a Super Eagles coaching job.”

He reminded this writer how prepared he was after his appointment as coach of the youth team. He recalled how he went round the country to scout his players, organised open camps and carried out thorough screening exercises before assembling his squads. “I did all this with my money because, the NFF would always tell you, ‘no money’. After that whenever their money comes you claim it, if not it goes as part of the sacrifice you make for your country.”

Siasia also paid glowing tributes to his assistants who he described as very knowledgable and committed. “They were fantastic coaches because they knew their job.”

He said, to succeed on the Super Eagles job, he had to be appointed first then, he would know how to go about it.

Case with FIFA

Samson Siasia’s blossoming career has been threatened by a very damaging taint, bothering on accusation of match-fixing. According to FIFA, the adjudicatory chamber of the Independent Ethics Committee found Samson Siasia guilty of having accepted that he would receive bribes in relation to the manipulation of matches in violation of the FIFA Code of Ethics.

FIFA has since been slammed a life ban. As if that was not enough, FIFA also slammed a fine of CHF 50,000 ($51,000) on Siasia. Siasia has since appealed against the ban. The appeal would be heard at the Court of Arbtration for Sports in October.

Siasia is still claiming innocence saying “when CAS hears my story, they would surely upturn the ban and set me free, ” questioning, “why would FIFA sentence me without hearing from me?”

The world football governing body said it based its decision on the fact that Siasia did not respond to emails sent to him.

In an earlier interview with this writer Siasia said, “I couldn’t check my mail because I wasn’t steady. As a jobless man, I was moving up and down. At times for months, I don’t open my mails. I want a chance to state my case, hence the appeal.”

He continued, “I want to defend myself, to prove to FIFA that I didn’t do want they are claiming I did.” Siasia insisted that he had never met the man he was being accused of colluding with to fix matches. “It was on one fateful day in 2009 when I was going through my email and I came across this email from an unknown source. In the email, they said ‘we have a coaching position in Australia,” asking, “would you want the job?’ I didn’t have to think twice before I said yes. I got interested because it was Australia, I played there. So we started this email back and forth, exchanging correspondences and on. We discussed players and how much he was going to pay and all that. It was a normal football discussion when one wants to get a job and nothing more. I never met the person one on one.”

Siasia said it was later discovered that the man he was exchanging correspondences with was a FIFA agent. “When FIFA went through his emails they found our exchanges and concluded that if he had given me the job, we would have used it to fix matches. How then am I guilty? The job I did not get, no player went anywhere, so how did I fix matches? That is why I want to clear my name. I am innocent.” The world football governing body confirmed it began an investigation into Siasia on February 11, 2019, which stemmed from an investigation into attempted match-fixing committed by Wilson Raj Perumal. Siasia remains confident that the truth would set him free. “I am sure of victory if only I can afford the money to defend myself.”

Confident as he sounds, Siasia is, however, not happy with the seeming indifference of the federal government towards his plight. “Up till this moment we are talking, neither the federal government nor the ministry of sports has called me to ask me whether what they heard was true, or how I am going about the case. This is a country I gave my life to as a youth and won honours for and nobody seems to care about what is happening to me.”

Vanguard

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