…Recalls mystery injury that almost took his life
…Says I made Hoener apologise to me at the Seoul ’88 Olympics camp
…Recalls his many battles with late Stephen Keshi
Chidi Nwanu’s story in the Super Eagles could be likened to a Nollywood movie. From the remote hamlets of Ufuru in Mbaise, Imo State, Chidi’s skills took him to uncharted lands. His confidence, rare bravery and a divine touch gave him special favours that were beyond human comprehension.
In this first of a two part chat with Weekend Editor Onochie Anibeze and the Deputy Sports Editor Jacob Ajom, Chidi shares his experience in Aba, Owerri, Lagos, Europe and above all, in the Super Eagles. He spoke without let from his base in Belgium. It’s a collector’s item. Read on:
How did Chidi Nwanu start his football career?
I began in the usual way, playing on the street, going to the bush and cutting the rubber plant and allowing the fluid coming out of the tree to flow on our bodies. We rolled it together and formed a ball and we would start kicking it as a ball, because then, we couldn’t afford a ball.
I believe whatever you are doing, your talent cannot be quenched by anybody, if you know you have it. Your talent becomes the driving force to waging war against every obstacle, both from family and from friends. It has so much power, it breaks every obstacle, every rule in order to make it through. In my own case, they used to flog me; refused to give me food at night and things like that. I would promise never to play football again, but the next day, I would be out there playing again. I tell people, when you are called for something, it is different from career.
In the case of career, you pay for it, but in calling, you are made. So when you mix up a career with calling, you can never find a balance. That was how I started playing football. You could say that, that calling was so great. There was nothing anybody could do to stop me, because I was enjoying my game. I was playing with pleasure because I was called to play football. Right now I have pleasure being in the ministry because I was called to do it.
It is like when you are dancing the music you know, you never get old in it. So you see, in football, the coach can never tell you how to play football; he cannot teach you the commonsense of football because it is all about talent. The most a coach can tell you to do is to enable you to be fit and to guide you and the team; and once you are not fit, your talent would be wasted.
When I started in elementary school, I had games masters from different schools that watched me play. They all wanted me to go to their schools. They came to my mother and asked for my hand to come and play for their schools on scholarship.
However, my mother was prepared to pay my school fees so long as I didn’t play football. So, it was that hard but still, it was unavoidable because anytime I got into the field, there was no further discussion. That was how I started playing for schools to sports festival, representing Imo state at the National Sports Festival where we won a silver medal. That was how I began playing for local clubs.
Which school were you playing for?
They had these funny names that you hardly knew the real name of your school. There was a Protestant School in our community called CMH. But we knew it was a community school located at Ufuru, in Mbaise.
That was the school I started before going to Community Secondary School Obise. When I got there, I saw the school and it was so odd. I went in there, they checked my credentials, all were okay. But I passed through a school along the road and the beauty of that school caught my eyes. When I was returning, I went in there to see my elder brother who was schooling there. When I was about leaving, one of the students from my village saw me and I told him where I was coming from.
He said no, he would introduce me to the principal, one Mr J. B. Morka, whom he said loved sports and would likely want me to enroll there so I could become one of their players. He took me to him and the same day, when the principal saw me he asked, ‘you play football?’ and I said yes. The same day he registered me and I became their student. So I changed school without any protocol just because I could play football.
I became great in the school, making many friends. In those days we played without shoes. That is a different thing altogether because we felt the leather, we had contact with the ball itself without shoes. We knew what is called instep, outside the leg, etc. You knew how to position your foot and the amount of pressure you apply in order for the ball to get where and who you were directing it to.
This is what the talent in you dictates, nobody tells you how to do that. Footballers are born, not made; just like kings. Anybody who learns football cannot be as good and talented as one who was born to play football. In a nutshell, that was how I started playing football.
After your secondary school, which club did you start with in the local scene?
I started with Mbutu Vipers. We had one Christian Okpara from a neighbouring village who had a Bernly Motorcycle, he would come pick me to the training ground where we trained and played matches until one day, I saw one of my big uncles who lived in Aba. He just came home. I asked him if I could follow him to Aba, he said yes. When we got to Aba, he showed me a school where a club used to go and train there. He told me he didn’t know them. He just took me to the place and left. I said okay,
He left me there and promised to come back and pick me up. I never saw him again till today.
When I went to Aba, I didn’t know anybody. Luckily, the team showed up. I was always with my training kits. I was already warming up before they arrived. They soon noticed me and called me. They asked, which club was I coming from? I told them I was there for screening. After screening, they put me in a two-side training session. After the training, they made arrangements for me that night that they were going to sign me on. That was how I started with one of the team’s managers. I slept at his place for a few days before I could locate some of my friends. So that was how I moved from Mbutu Vipers to Aba. That was how I left home and from that moment, I never went back home as that journey took me to Europe.
Which Aba club was this?
That was PZ Football Club of Aba. It was there I began my career before we came to Enyimba, which was handled by late coach Cyril Asoloka. By this time, Benji Okorogu was moving from Enyimba to Rangers who was later called to the Green Eagles.
So you were going to replace Benji Okorogu at Enyimba?
Yeah. We played the same position in the central defence, the last man of the defence, he had already signed for Rangers then and moved to the national team. There was a lot of life there, with the likes of Ihanakpor, Mike Emenalo and Benji Nzeakor(skill workshop), all of them were in Enyimba. So while they were leaving, Coach Asoloka came while we were training with PZ and said to the officials that I belonged to him, not them. He took me from the training ground and said, ‘Chidi, bia eba(Chidi, come let’s go). And that was all.
By the time I got to Enyimba, we had Chimezie Nwanaga, Louis Akudo, and a lot of others who were men. We destroyed Spartans to win the state FA Cup. Then they dissolved the club and pooled all of us into Spartans. That was how I came back to Owerri.
In that place I was actually cruising to die. I wasn’t supposed to be alive today. One of the players called me aside and said I was still a small boy, I should not wear the captain’s band and that if I wore it, it was going to cost me my life. I took it for a joke. People believed too much in the fetish things. When the stress became too much, I pulled the captain’s band and put it on my right arm(which was unusual).
Why did you do that?
It just came to me by inspiration. Initially, I rejected it, but Coach Isaac Nnado insisted I must be the captain. But that trouble led me to a medical doctor who wrote that in a matter of weeks, I would be dead. What happened to Sam Okwaraji, would have happened to me long before the Okwaraji incident. We were on the field playing. I was not with the ball and nobody touched me nor was there anybody close to me. Suddenly, my leg broke. This is something I would like to talk about in a special way and bring some insight, so as to help Nigerian footballers, because if you look at the rate our footballers die in their prime, you begin to ask yourself questions ‘what is behind it?’
Some of them that are dead, their senior colleagues are still waxing strong elsewhere. ‘
What really happened? Was it during training or in a match that this happened?
It was in a football match against a team I cannot recall now. I was standing alone on the pitch and I felt as if somebody hit my leg from behind. And my leg was broken. I started vomiting blood. Meanwhile I didn’t see anyone hit me. It was my right leg. I didn’t know what hit me. Till this moment I don’t know what happened. My people took control of it. I started going for treatment on my leg. By that time the Doctor had written that I was going to die within days or weeks.
Why did the Doctor say that?
He said I had a deformed heart, incurable heart disease, that I had heart malfunction; terrible things that didn’t give me hope at all. I looked at myself and I wondered that since I started playing football I never had any injury, why now? How come overnight? That is an area most of us don’t have an insight.
There is a god of football and most people have not come to know that. I will avoid that because I don’t want to lecture on that here. All I know is that my leg got broken in that match and the doctor didn’t give me any hope of surviving.
So what did you do?
When I came out of the hospital, my maternal grandfather and my mother’s eldest sister took me to a place where they would treat the leg. That was something I had never experienced in my life before. I saw death with the pain as I collapsed. But finally, they got me walking again and my leg began to mend, to the extent that I could stamp my foot to the ground. I began to learn to walk with it. I was told never to use it to do any exercise, saying that if I tried anything of that nature it would send me to my early grave.
At some point, I began to feel strong. So, in the night, when people were beginning to go to bed, I would create space within the parlour and would begin to jog. I did that every night as my calling was still pushing. Nobody told me to commence training but I felt the urge, that push within me. When my mom, my grandfather went to the farm, I would come out in the afternoon and begin to jog, do some things I used to do. But once they were back, I would behave myself and be seen as the good boy. That was hope and it showed that the doctor’s report was politically motivated.
I began training every night until the time came when children in the village started gathering around me whenever I was training. I became a coach/player. I began to build up again and when the whole thing came down, I saw I could move again. Then I said to myself, ‘now is the time for me to move’. So, from home, I moved back again to Aba. This time, I joined Falcons Football Club of Aba.
By then you had lost your place in Spartans?
Yeah. They never cared about me. Nobody came to check me, nobody cared about how I was doing. As far as they were concerned, I was finished. In short, they pronounced me dead. Some of the players told people that I was a dead man, that I was no longer in this world. That was exactly what they told them. It was almost two years but by then, my condition had improved for me to play.
It was at Falcons Football Club that I played myself to limelight again and it was there I became born again. It was there the Lord met me and I had a covenant with Him. My covenant with the Lord was that He should take me to the top again so that it doesn’t look like because I couldn’t make it in football then I chose the way of religion. That was the covenant. It was sealed.
From that third division, ACB came for me. That was how I landed at ACB and there we had coach Patrick Ekeji. I had it rough with him. Our exchanges were hot, and I told him that I would show him that I was from Mbaise. . . He was shocked to hear that. He didn’t know me, neither did I know him, but we came from the same village.
It was a challenge. He was asking me to do something and I told him, coach, I use my own initiative in certain situations, outside what you have taught me. You can teach me to use the right leg to kick the ball when it is coming from this way. What if it is coming from the other direction, do I have to turn myself round and still use the right leg?
That would be stupidity. At this point, he insisted he was the coach. I said, yes, but I am the player. Your talent would determine the initiative you use in a situation on the field. I am so shocked that many people that play football today are so unintelligent that sometimes, even when they score, it is out of sheer luck, not that they created it. However, I admit there’s luck.
At that point of our argument, he said he was the coach, he hired me to play for him. I told him he saw that I was good, that was why he came for me. I said I was talented, that was why he came for me. You can’t go on the road and pick a roadside mechanic to come and play for you; you can only go for a player. So it was in that hot exchange that he began to question me, ‘Which Mbaise do you come from?’ I told him the clan; ‘from Ufuro, that is Ehito village’. Then he knew we were from the same village, when he said, ‘come, you are from the same village with me?’ And we started talking and that was it. I believe it was meant to be.
After that, when we went into training, he began to see that my game was different from what he had seen. That day he summoned a meeting and offered me the captain. Everywhere I went, there was that leadership aura around me but I always try to run away from it. I know that leaders are born but not made. A leader is one that leads people, stays in front of the rest, while a ruler is the one that rules people, he pushes others, while he stays behind.
They are not the same thing. When a leader is leading the people, he stays ahead but when a ruler is ruling the people he pushes them to danger. That is very dangerous because that is what is happening in Nigeria today. All that we have in politics today are rulers. They just want to rule you by all means, if you disagree, they crush you by all means. But a leader listens to the cry of the people, he has the wisdom with which to solve problems that will come around and knows how to neutralise them.
Why am I saying all this? It is because when you look at our World Cup campaign in 1994 there was a situation when Roberto Baggio had almost scored a goal, he was just alone and I didn’t know what next to do. Out of instinct, I had to go up in the air, in a manner that I used my chest and just pushed the ball in a way it would touch the back of my head and away from him. And that saved the situation. These are not things you planned to do. It is at that moment you do what you have to do to save a situation. That goes a long way to show who you are in that football game. These are things that are lacking now.
From ACB, how did you move to Europe?
From ACB, when the national team were in Germany, preparing for the Seoul ’88 Olympics. They had left and I didn’t know what was happening. I had no clue. But what did I do. I went to my tailor and asked him to make a suit for me. I had a complete suit with a tie and shoes to match. I told my colleagues that the suit would be for my journey. I had no clue from where the journey was going to come. I just made it for a trip. I never heard anybody do a thing like that. Suddenly, somebody showed up at ACB camp and said, where is Chidi Nwanu?
I said yes, how can I help you? And he said, ‘prepare to travel’. I told him travel to where? I didn’t have a passport. He promised to work on one and the next night, the passport was ready. I went to my tailor, took my suit and returned to the ACB camp and dressed up. Then I told my colleagues, Alloy Agu, Uche Okafor, Victor Ezekwesili and others that I would not come back here again.
They said what? I repeated, I would not come back here again. Then I travelled to Germany. I landed in the morning and they took me straight from the airport to the training ground. Immediately I arrived Coach Paul Hamilton said just change.
He gave me military training that morning. I never had any sleep on the plane the whole night neither did I have breakfast on arrival. We finished that training around 10 O’Clock that morning. It was tough as Coach Manfred Hoener was riding a bicycle at full speed and we would be chasing him, like military training. We trained three times a day.
Meanwhile, when Manfred Hoener saw me he said, ‘I don’t need you. It’s not you I was expecting, Chidi. Well, you train with the team, let me see’. Every evening somebody would go. They decamped somebody every evening.
That was my fate. Every night I packed my bag because I felt I was never wanted. But whenever I went out for training, I trained with all my heart and did what I was supposed to do, putting in everything I had because that was what I knew how to do best. I organised the defence and when things stabilised I joined the flow of the game.
Every night I packed, until they played me in the right back position and Bright Omokaro was decamped, in the central defence, Sunday Eboigbe was decamped, left back, I can’t remember who was also decamped there, but they played me in almost every position in the defence to the midfield. It was only in the attack that I was not played during training matches.
So it happened that in every position I played, I did better than the person there. And what was the secret. The secret was that when I started playing football I used to play as a flank player. You know that requires speed, and in the midfield. I played in almost every position on the football field. So while in camp, my experience came to play.
But my proficiency on the pitch did not go down well with a lot of people, including some of your colleagues. There was nothing one of them did not write against me. A particular journalist(name withheld) was all out for me, questioning, ‘who is this Chidi Nwanu that is decamping every established star from camp?
He said, this guy(Chidi) is climbing his age ladder faster than he should.’ That was the language he used. He hated me for it. He never wrote anything good about me. I may not have known him in person but I will never forget that name. There was nothing like encouragement, nothing newsworthy or anything good about me, as far as he was concerned.
Eventually, as I was packing, Manfred Hoener was passing by. He knocked on my door. I opened the door and he asked me, what are you doing? I said, that is probably why you are here; to ask me to go, since you never wanted me, from day one. But his response startled me. ‘I am here to ask you to go with me for dinner. We go to the restaurant and eat together.’ It was a surprise to me because he told me he didn’t want me. And at the end of the day, every night they would call names of people to go and my name would not be there. It was shocking to me.
So you went to the restaurant to eat with him?
We went to the restaurant but I refused to sit with him. I told him to eat with fellow officials and leave me alone. I am a private person and didn’t need anybody to lean on. I knew I had to earn whatever position I aspire to be in. I don’t want to have that kind of connection for special favours. If I deserve to be considered fine, if I am not okay forget me. But I knew I was okay. After the dinner, in the morning we went for training.
Hoener called the whole team together, very unlike him, he said he had one request to make. He asked the whole team to help him apologise to Chidi, that he was sorry. He told the players that I told him that he had told me that I was not the one he was expecting. And that now, I had proved to him that I was the man he could not do without.
The whole team held me up and Hoener came to me and shook my hand, and congratulated me. He said, ‘you have the heart of a lion. You have disproved me and today I doff my hat for you, Chidi. So, what happened? That thing boomeranged instantly. The late Stephen Keshi was no longer needed in the central defence. Manfred Hoener told Keshi, in the presence of some Nigerian journalists who were in Germany in plane language that I don’t need you anymore because I have got a good replacement for you, a better one. So that became the beginning of the hatred, the animosity that held me back from coming to the national team again especially as Hoener left Nigeria. And it almost took my life.
You know before, there were so many dirty games going on in Nigerian football, where a player would hold the entire national team to ransom; where they would say a club was asking for some money from $10,000 to 20,000 dollars or more for the release of a player otherwise, they won’t let him go. And NFA would come to Europe for release of players with thousands of dollars.
When I came in, that door was trending and they wanted to kill me for it. Onochie you remember when I came home when they were preparing for Tunisia ’94.
You remember they sent a search party to search for me in Lagos. It was through you I gave them my farewell message. It was tough because my life was at stake. It was my man at the FRCN that informed me. My mother heard it and called me and was crying, begging me, why not leave them. I told her I was not there. That was the extent to which they went to get rid of me. They even told the government to get rid of me. They did everything they could to destroy me but God was on my side. So he was dropped from the Olympic team because of me.
Was Keshi in the Seoul Olympic camp in Germany?
No, no, no. He was expected to just walk in as the big boss, before the Games. But Hoener told him he didn’t need him again. He kind of lost it there.
So after the Olympics, which I played all the matches, even though we did not do well in that Olympics because things were so disorganised…I have never seen that kind of preparation before. At the end of the day, while we were training in Germany, a club came for me and promised that after the Olympics they would come and fetch me from Nigeria. That was what happened. After the Olympics I came home and a few days later, the club came.
What was the club? Westerlo?
No, it was a Dutch manager that came. I had to leave Germany for Westerlo in Belgium. I was supposed to be in Dutchland but they said there was a club that needed me immediately in Belgium. That they needed a player in central defence urgently, that was how I left Germany to Belgium.
What was your first club in Europe?
My first official club in Europe was Westerlo. I played in that club for two years before I left on loan. I was loaned to Diest Football club, a second division club at that time. I was still a Westerlo player when Beveren came for me, Diest directed them to Westerlo. From there I went to Beveren. Till date, that is the highest transfer money Westerlo have ever realised from the sale of a player. Paul Uzokwe and Mark Anunobi were there too. Yisa Sofoluwe, Friday Ekpo all were in Belgium too.
From Beveren I moved to Anderlecht, during the preparations for the World Cup
Anderlecht was one of the biggest teams in Europe then, how did they come for you?
They had no choice because my coach in Beveren then, Johan Boskamp left Beveren to Anderlecht and their defence was bad and he recommended that they should come for me. By then, a club from Columbia also wanted me, but I hesitated.
I didn’t want to go. Another team from Mexico too came and I almost left with that one before Anderlecht came. I saw that they had good arrangements and plans for me. I then went to Anderlecht. It was a big club, everything was well arranged, good plans. They were winning championships every year. I was able to win two cups, one Super Cup and we got to the quarter final of the Champions League.
In Anderlecht I got an injury and when I felt I had recovered, well enough to play, I started on the bench. I told the coach, I was not a reserve player. If I start on the bench, that means you don’t need me, whether you are losing or winning. I said I got to start. I had to put up a loan request. Eventually, they sent me on loan to Sint Triuden. It was a six-month loan. When we played a cup match against Anderlecht we defeated them on their home ground. Everybody began to talk.
We defeated them there and I stood like a rock. One day Johan Boskamp came to Beveren, and he said, Chidi come. Come with me. I know they like you here because you enjoy a cult status here. Everywhere I went in Beveren and when fans saw me there was this ovation that erupted wherever we went.
Where did you have your best football in Europe?
Beveren and Anderlecht.
How did you return to the national team?
I came for a few qualifiers against Ethiopia and Kenyia or so. I also came to play another match which I was benched, and another against Angola that ended up in the death of Samuel Okwaraji. At that particular match, something showed up in the dressing room. Money was being collected for a player. And I said, that can never happen here. Nobody ever takes a dime from me.
Why was the person collecting money from players?
They said they were the ones arranging for the players to come and play for Nigeria. There was a mafia group in the Eagles, and in Nigerian football. There is also the culture of corruption there that needs to be investigated, terrible corruption. It has been there for years and somebody needs to stand up and expose it.
Was it players that were collecting money from players or the coach?
Players, about four of them I know, three of them are late and one is still alive, that came up with that idea. It was only me and Etim Esin that refused that nonsense. The rest paid. From there I was again removed from the national team. I was not recalled for some time and I was not surprised.