September 5, 2020

NDUKA UGBADE: How our sweet story turned sour

NDUKA UGBADE: How our sweet story turned sour

In this concluding part of the interview with the man who captained the 1985 FIFA U16-winning Golden Eaglets, Nduka Ugbade, he opens up on what Nigeria should do to turn her football fortunes around, leads us through their post World Cup travails and the failure of Nigeria to accord them their due recognition. He spoke with Weekend Editor Onochie Anibeze and the Deputy Sports Editor, Jacob Ajom. Read on.

By Onochie Anibeze, Jacob Ajom

Are you still in touch with your colleagues, members of that U16 squad?

Yeah, we are still in touch, at one time or the other, we are still talking. We also have a WhatsApp group for ourselves. So we are relating quite a lot. Through that group, we share, we talk and do so many things. We have one person who coordinates everything, Salisu Nakande is the Admin of our WhatsApp group. He is very active. For instance, if anyone of us is sick he visits the person in any part of the country and would let the rest of us know.

When the President wanted to invite us, he, together with Sani Adamu coordinated everything. He made sure he got everybody, wherever we were, all over the world. Kudos to him because even my captainship band, I feel like pulling it and handing it over to him because he is more than diamond to me.

How was it to be the captain of that great team? You were young and from your story, you gate-crashed and you were not the best. Maybe they saw leadership quality in you?

I think so. Apart from that, the only history which may have been a factor for me was that I had been a member of the YSFON Greater Tomorrow. I was staying in Lagos and YSFON was based in Lagos. Most of the people that started the whole process were YSFON. However, I believe because I was one of the few YSFON products that survived the screening, as most of us could not measure up, some went abroad, I was the natural choice for the captain’s role.

In the general sense of it, I was not the best. I wasn’t the most exposed, I wasn’t the most educated. I was not better, in terms of charisma because there were people like Imama, Salisu, Kingsley, Segun Fagbetun, Fatai Atere and a lot of others who could have been very good captains. Every one of them was fit to be the captain of the team. I cannot tell you here that I was the best man for the job, the lot only fell on me as God wanted to use me at that particular point in time.

It’s been 35 years since that historic moment and Nigeria has gone ahead to win more FIFA U17 tournaments. At the Senior World Cup Nigeria has not crossed the second round since her first appearance in 1994. Why have the successes at the U17 level not been translated to the senior level?

If you want me to talk like a football fan or supporter, I would say so many things can be involved in it. A very good domestic league can produce the required talent that will be able to put this in a very good perspective. Through the league, we will be able to harness talents that will pass through the junior national teams and eventually go to the senior team.

There are also many other things that have to do with footballing and science. Nutrition can be part of it, the quality of training can be part of it. Then the science that governs the game is practically 90% of it.

If I have to speak like a professional football educator, which I am now, and as a coach, honestly speaking, you are not going to take eleven friends and go to win the World Cup. There is more to it than just participating. To participate is one thing but to compete and contend is another. In this case, we need to bring in more scientific methods into our plans generally.

If I have to tell you, it was when I finished footballing that I realised the reason Brazilians, the Argentines or Columbians are paid so high when they are bought by European clubs. The reason is that they employ science into the game of football. There are so many things that we in Africa, Nigeria, in particular, do not know about the game.

For you to challenge me now, I would ask you, why is it that in the past nine years that I came into the game that a player like Kelechi Iheanacho, at a tender age, could start playing for Manchester City, scoring goals to the extent that Leicester City made him a record signing when he left City? Wilfred Ndidi, while he was playing in Belgium, was declared the best youth and now in Leicester City, he is among the best three or five central midfielders in the world? Mention Yahaya Mohammed, Sarudeen Bello, Jide Idowu, Ifeanyi Matthew, Simon Moses, Kelechi Nwakal and the rest of them that passed through the U17 camp I had a hand in.

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I am only trying to buttress the fact that we can translate our successes at the junior level to the senior level. This can be achieved when you give them a sound foundation and they begin to play in big clubs now in Europe and everywhere.

Kelechi Nwakali who was in Amuneke’s U17 squad just helped Huesca gain promotion to the La Liga, Samuel Chukwueze was in our camp as well with Amuneke and Manu Garba as our chief coach. We are churning out these players with the science that governs the game, things that they have known about reading the game, football control and positioning, technicalities and simple individual techniques and team intelligence on how to navigate the ball.

Then if you come to tactical discipline, how to create a situation where the ball can be won, understanding all parts of the pitch, marking very well and how to subdue and neutralise the opponents and so forth. If they know all these things scientifically, you also develop them physically. It is not just about going 30 laps, 50 laps or climbing the staircase. You must know why you are doing this and those reasons must translate into something good on the pitch.

The players must know all these things by reason of functionality; like this is why they said I must not take too much eba or fufu by six or seven pm, this is the reason they asked me not to take this or that. Nutrition governs the game so that you don’t get tired easily, but to remain agile.

When my height is about five or six feet, my waist should be about 62 or 58, so I can move and cover more distance, I have to be quick, I have to receive the ball offensively, see every other person on the pitch, etc. So by the time they imbibe this and are able to train in Europe, by the time they get to 23 or 24 they are ready for the world.

Brilliant points you have made. But why are some of these coaches not paying adequate attention to all this? I saw a little bit of Westerhof, he paid attention to every detail. Westerhof could change hotel accommodation if he realised that the foam on the bed provided his players was not good enough.

God bless you. You know these things because you were there from the beginning. When they brought him (Westerhof) I came to the NFA secretariat, I saw you at the gate when Westerhof was there to meet the then Chairman of the NFA, Justice Ikpeazu, and you asked me what happened. The NFA was angry that we travelled without telling them and we (U20) had an international assignment. We returned a day or two before the trip, I think it was against Mali or so and they did not allow me to travel with the team. That was the reason they removed my name and put Bawa Abdullahi.

Westerhof did wonderfully well and had the support of everybody.

Unfortunately, some of the coaches that came after him have not done so well, especially with some of the points you raised now about the scientific approach.

Those are the details that are important for Nigeria football. Those are details we have to follow because talent is no longer enough. I hear a lot of football writers, analysts and supporters always asking why among all the talents that we have, Nigerian players have not been able to grow from the junior to the senior national team.

They complain that most of our players fizzle out, some get injured easily and not able to fullfil their potential. I repeat, talent is no longer enough. Talent must be developed scientifically and otherwise, to become profitable for usage.

What you saw with Westerhof, Bonfrere, Christian Chukwu and all, this same thing can still be done. While some of us were at home those abroad were playing abroad, while Westerhof would pick us to play competitions. I went to one in Thailand. I was in Columbia to play against their national team.

I was among the squad that attended the celebration of 25 years of FC Internacional in Brazil, I played too against Fluminense. Everyday, throughout the year, things were happening for those that were at home. Most of these players, you may conclude they are not good but a lot of them have not been taught in a scientific way and compete at the highest level to build up technically.

Again, one must look at the issue of serious exposure. If you develop a player without exposing him to the stress of that same development, specifically, because I am not going to teach you everything in footballing and expose you to another thing. Now it will be specifically footballing. Once you have been taught the practicals, the scientific aspect of footballing is not difficult.

That is why I am in Nigeria, I am in Africa. My family is living abroad. I didn’t come home to start looking for a job; I am the job. I can do this at the grassroots and I can do it at the highest level. And it will show clearly. Look at Amuneke, he is doing so well. He took Tanzania to AFCON for the first time in 40 years. It was lack of experience that took them out of the tournament but they learned one thing or the other.

Exposure is very important for our home-based players. Once they are developed and they are taught the aspect of footballing scientifically, then automatically, exposure will be the next. Don’t bother whether they are beaten. If they are beaten in six or seven matches, the eighth one they are going to beat somebody as well. From there you will be surprised. I saw it happen. I followed the CHAN team of Morocco, the team that came to beat our home-based about 4-2 in the African Nations Championship, If they wanted to score 8 goals that day they could have done so.

They totally outclassed us in all departments of the game. The issue here is, we must copy from them. What are those things they are doing that are so good? It could be through simple discussion so that anybody can jot it down to practice on the pitch. It will be seen in practice, if anyone has a superior opinion we will still try it.

Now I know why the Brazilians are good at scoring through free kicks. It is scientific.

What exactly are you doing now?

I am a football educator. Wherever they invite me, I go. I travel all over Africa, wherever they pay me money I go. Even in Nigeria too, I go. I take two weeks to teach. The only thing is that in Nigeria, we don’t love education. I am so sorry to say this. There is a difference between one that is productive and one who is a consumer.

One who manufactures gets more profit than one who consumes. Although both of them will be living at the same time, one will be richer and better and much more vibrant than the other. In Nigeria, we prefer to be consumers than being manufacturers. An Israeli man asked me the difference between himself and myself. He is about 75 years old. He said he made all his money in Nigeria. When I told him the difference between us was in the colour of our skin. He said no, that colour is internal.

He said the difference between us is that he sees with the brain while I see with the eyes. He said eyes have great limitations and that whoever sees with eyes has great limitations. The brain has no limitation. That is the reason I would spend my money to buy a television set while someone is sitting somewhere trying to manufacture one or improve on one that has been produced already.

Translate this into football, we are not paying attention to producing footballers? Even our coaches now go for ready-made stars.

The reason is that the foundation is being destroyed. The scriptures say, what can the righteous do? Even when you search the Quran, it says that wherever there is wisdom, if it is found in China, you must make concerted effort to get there. Because this will lead you to become productive and proactive.

You will be able to perform at the highest level because to get to China, you must have gathered so much experience on your path to give more experience to these youths that are coming up. Tijani, captain of the Eaglets, today is worth 2 million euros, Taiwo Awoniyi was the most expensive junior player in Africa when Liverpool bought him for about 3 million pounds, Kelechi Iheanacho almost about 1.5 million pounds, Chidebere Nwakali, Kelechi Nwakali all of them have comfortable price tags.

So if I have N100 and I buy beans with N50 and bread N50, I can only eat once and come back to ask for more. But if you teach me how to cook beans and you give me say N500, I can bet you that that N500 might be enough for me for the next one week. Because I will buy and cook and would even add garri to it and eat. At night I will buy only bread and use it with beans and eat.

So equipping the youths to be able to perform at the highest level is very important and they need some specific footballing education, This would bring in millions and billions to Nigeria in no time. Neymar does not have two heads, Bebeto, Romario they all don’t have two heads.

When we went to Brazil with the U17 I saw the speed at which the ball moves now and I told our boys that U17 was no longer what it was in the past. So we must develop these players to meet up at that level through a lot of education. And like they say, we don’t have to win all the time but we must continue to produce all the time because quality is different from quantity.

You won the U17 trophy as a player and won again as a coach. Tell us how you felt when you won it again as a coach.

It was very interesting. It was interesting because after coming back from abroad, I was appointed by the Nigeria Football Federation to join Coach Manu Garba, who is like an elder brother to me because we have known each other for a very long time. We played together at El Kanemi and when I was in the U17, he was in the U20. I have assisted him now for about 9 years: in the U17, U20 and back to U17 again when I was called upon three weeks before the competition began. We went to Brazil, though we did not perform very well, our products are all over. Akin Amao, our product is in Sweden now, Tijani, Kunle is in Russia. A lot of them are still at home because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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As soon as everything returns to normal, a lot more, at least about ten of them will go out to play. It is quite interesting, the workload is much but this is what I am trained for. I have so much passion for football. I can do anything necessary to ensure that players are developed for 24 hours a day, 366 days a year. That is what I am called to do. If I die while doing it, I will thank God and I will tell him you gave me an opportunity so while using the opportunity, you called me home. Thank you.

What would you say were your happiest and saddest moments in football?

My happiest moment in football was winning the U17 World Cup. Not even the Cup of Nations in 1994 that Westerhof gave me the chance to win, with the Big Boss Keshi, Amokachi, Okocha and the rest we all played together.

The issue here is that the 1985 FIFA U17 World Cup made me who I am today in the Guinness Book of Records.

Then my saddest moment was when we came back and there was a military coup that removed the government of General Mohammadu Buhari and Brigadier-General Tunde Idiagbon who was his second-in-command. We were sad that most of the promises made to us were not fulfilled.

The second joy I had again (though it is not yet complete), I will never forget, was after 32 years, he still remembered to call everyone of us, wherever we were, the President called us back home to fulfil his promise. And of course, the President shouldn’t concern himself with what and what should be given to us. He has advisers.

His Excellency, President Buhari came to the podium and announced N20 million for each of us, knowing that 35 years was a long time. School fees that were supposed to have been paid, some of those guys would have been degree holders today, minimum Bsc or even Doctorate Degrees, but today they are not. So for 32 years he thought good of us and remembered us. One day somebody called me from the Ministry of Sports and asked what I thought should be given to me and my colleagues.

I said, most of us are parents now; with some having two, three or four kids. A lot of them are struggling through life working, some are poor. Please, a house in Abuja each, it could be a three-bedroom flat. If you rent it out in a year for maybe a million naira, it should be enough for you to take care of the family and extend your days on planet earth because some pressure would have been taken off your shoulders. It would be a mark for the children to see what their father achieved from his sweat in the past and the children would, on their part, be motivated to do more because to whom much is given, much is expected.

To our greatest surprise, the moment the president announced it, we knew we were worth that much. With N20 million, we would be able to build a bungalow or two at about N5m each in our various states and we would live well. We were also expecting national awards, at least MON, because a group got MON after winning the U17 tournament. How come that the winners of the inaugural edition, a victory that has given us recognition anywhere I go all over the world, but not at home.

I saw myself on a Lufthansa flight when FIFA was celebrating something. I was being shown on the television screen in the plane, how I lifted the U17 trophy. I was sitting next to an Indian man. I told him I was the one on the screen. He was indifferent to my promptings. Then suddenly, he called the air hostess and told her, ‘my friend sitting next to me said he was the one on television with the FIFA World Cup’.

I was shocked because he didn’t believe me. They took my passport and confirmed my story. To my biggest surprise, an announcement was made that they had an important person here, first U17 World Cup winner on the flight and everybody clapped for me while we were in the air. Everywhere I go all over the world, inclusive of my teammates, we are respected. Why would the President want to reward us and some people that were with him, some 60 years and above could not think that at least three-bedroom flats and maybe an additional N5m would have been good for me and my colleagues?

Immediately we finished, the minister, then Dalung now stepped on the podium and said that the President made a mistake, a slip of tongue. That the amount was N2m. Two million Naira for 32 years? Fatai Atere used about $6,000 to buy a flight ticket to come for the event, as it was a sudden invitation. What do I do as my colleagues are now complaining, saying I did not represent them well.

How am I going to defend myself because I was asked and I told them we had worked everything. This had never been done before on the planet earth. Some of us have left the country to other lands, doing menial jobs. Everytime I remember this, tears flow from my eyes.

Now one of us, Chukwuma Nwoha is dying, I read that they have to operate his leg because if they don’t carry out the operation he is going to die. You won’t believe it; I have not been able to call. What do I tell him? What am I going to say? ( Gets emotional and begins to sob)

I was talking to Segun Fagbetun, he just dismissed me with a wave of hand, saying “abeg, abeg leave me”. Captain, you have to fight for your people. I assured him I was actually fighting for them. But it is difficult to believe because they have not seen anything yet. It is very painful because anytime I remember this, I shed tears. I am not suffering, at least I can feed myself.

I am calling people of goodwill, the Femi Otedolas of this world, the Adenugas, the Dangotes, Ministry of Sports and the Nigeria Football Federation to come to the aid of Chukwuma Nwoha. They should not let him die.