By Jacob Ajom
One of the iconic figures of Nigerian football is Jonathan Akpoborie. He was one of the lads that won the FIFA/JVC U-17 World Cup in China in 1985. In fact he scored one of the goals against the then Western Germany in the finals.
That set of the Golden Eaglets became the first team from Africa to win a FIFA organised tournament. Jonathan graduated to play for both the U20 and the senior national teams, the Flying and Super Eagles respectively.
Till date, he believes he was denied the opportunity to go to the World Cup due to ‘official conspiracy’ as according to him, “some people believed only their preferred choices should go.”
He played for the defunct Julius Berger FC of Lagos before traveling abroad, where he spent all his professional years in Germany. He has since returned home and is living a quiet private life as a businessman.
In an interview with Sports Vanguard the former Stuttgart forward expressed his disaffection with what has been going on in the Nigerian football scene. He said the administration of football in the country has to change in style and structure. He lamented the non-qualification of the Super Eagles to the World Cup in Qatar but remarked that he was not surprised.
“As an ex-international and as a Nigerian, in particular, our failure to qualify for Qatar 2022 has caused me a lot of pain. To imagine that the green-white-green flag of Nigeria won’t be hoisted in Qatar has a devastating effect on all of us,” he said.
However, the FIFA U16 World Cup winner said that even before the first ball was kicked in the double-header playoff tie between Nigeria and Ghana, anybody who was acquainted with the dynamics of football knew Nigeria’s chances of qualifying for the World Cup were slim.
“In football, like any other sport, adequate preparation is key. And that is the bane of our football. Successive administrators in this country are guilty of this. Even during our active days, we had the same problem but we were able to cover up and produce results because of the abundant talents at our disposal then. Today, we don’t have such talents.
“Even when the talents are there, we lack developmental programmes to horn them. In those days when we were growing up, we had so many competitions like the YSFON, Principals Cup, Campos Square tournament, the Mock Nations Cup in Ajegunle, Ojo tournament and so on.
The children were kept busy throughout holiday periods. In Lagos,for instance, the LADFA League with sub divisions in Ikeja, Ikorodu, Badagry and I think Epe, provided very good competitions and players passed through this system and gained the desired experience and maturity before they got to the national league.
The league had tiers before the top flight. Before one got to the national league Division 1, the player would have been very prepared for the rigours of the top division having passed through the various layers of football. At the top flight the player was confronted with advanced coaching techniques because the standard was higher..
“Today, administrators take things for granted; anything goes in as much as they get the funds to spend. They have no clue about the developmental aspects of the game. That is why our football is at the lowest level.”
Asked what next for Nigerian football, particularly, the Super Eagles after their failure to qualify for the World Cup. He spoke with a tinge of anger and frustration. It showed in his tone. “Every time we fail they always say, ‘let’s go back to the drawing board’. He added.
“The stage we are now, there is no going back to the drawing board. If we want to move forward, the first thing to do is to dismantle the existing structure which favours those who are not qualified to run football in the country and gives them the ample chance to occupy high decision making offices that affect the game negatively.
We should rearrange our football from scratch. There must be massive reforms; from the coaches to the top. You can’t start a building from the second floor without a foundation. The foundation must be solid before any structure can stand.”
It’s easier said than done. The task of ‘repairing’ Nigerian football has been a worrying concern for so many years as the country lacks messiahs. Having identified the problem, who will carry out the fight for reforms? Who are the capable hands that can lead Nigerian football to the promised land? We asked.
“We have several of them and you don’t need to go far to find them,” Akpoborie said. “I won’t mention names. The major problems with our football are sentiments. The moment we put sentiments aside, you will discover that we will move faster and go far”.
He also spoke on the Nigerian Professional Football League, which he assessed as “very poor in quality and standard.” He said, “Some people are being celebrated today because they claim they are running the league.
Ask them, is this league as good as when they were playing? If the league was entertaining and competitive, they would not have been begging fans to come out and watch games. Look at the English Premiership, do they beg people to watch their matches? Millions of football fans both within and outside England and around the world spend their hard-earned money to subscribe to cable tv in order to watch EPL and other European leagues. That translates to billions of pounds to rights owners, other European leagues and the Premier League.
“I am not saying we can turn our league overnight to become like the EPL. A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. Yes, we can change our league if we have the will, I know we have the capacity to do it.”
He said it was untenable when people talk about lack of adequate infrastructure and sponsors for the Nigerian league. “I laugh when I hear of such complaints. How many months has Samuel Eto been in charge of Cameroon football? Do you know that a lot of Nigerian companies that have been shunning the Nigerian Professional Football League are patronising and sustaining the Cameroonian football league?
“Can anybody show me what the NFF or the League Management Company have invested in the Nigerian league? It is unfortunate that we have allowed the Nigerian political environment to pollute our football. I thought they said you don’t mix football with politics. But in Nigeria, that is the case.”
Nothing can be further from the truth when an NFF boss can openly confess that he forced a player on a national team coach. More than that, the recent appointment of coaches for the various national teams was an eloquent demonstration of the political undercurrents that permeate the management of Nigerian football.
He cuts in, “That is what I am telling you and that is why our football is where it is.”
Despite the disclosure in an interview on Arise Television by the NFF President Amaju Pinnick that he would not contest for another term in the forthcoming elections, we have gathered that he is under immense pressure from a powerful bloc in the football house to rescind his decision and stay on. The NFF boss’ body language and actions, especially the recent appointment of coaches for the national teams tend to add credence to that assumption. Should Pinnick, despite his public statement, still go for a third term?
Akpoborie exploded. “He wants to go for third term because they feel we Nigerians are stupid. We allow them to do whatever they like. That is why I am talking about reforms. To see Amaju and his ilk out we must start working on changing the NFF Statutes that give them so much power. If we do that, people like Amaju cannot play on our intelligence. Football is too sensitive to our national psyche and can contribute a lot to our GDP to be left in the hands of people who know nothing about football.
“Nigeria is a very big market for football and if you turn it into private hands, you will marvel at what can be achieved.”
He emphasised on the importance of unity of purpose among former internationals but the problem is how can they all come together for the common goal? Akpoborie said he would not need a crowd. “Of course, if we can get three or four of my former colleagues to work together, we can achieve the desired change.
“I am talking selflessly because of my passion for and belief in our country, Nigeria.”
He was reminded of the polarisation of the players’ union and how it can affect his postulations.
He remarked, “all that brings them together is money. But Samuel Eto in Cameroon is running the FA without collecting salary
“However, a lot of my former colleagues are not poor. Nigeria is 3 or 4 times bigger than Cameroon. With a population of over 200 million. All you need is to get just 10 million Nigerians to be interested in our league and you will make billions. When the league is developed to that level the money will come. We must develop it first before the gains can start coming in.
“Our league is down because of maladministration. When I got to Germany, all the big clubs had no academies. I learned and grew in the system. Now all the big clubs have academies and they invest so much in their youth players. They cannot take, for instance, a Nigerian and throw him into their academies. They would rather invest on their own than train a foreigner.”
Despite the surge in football academies in Nigeria today, Akpaborie said he may not have got a chance of becoming a footballer if he was born at this age.
“If it were today, I doubt if I could have grown up to play football. I would not have played at all because my parents would not give me one kobo to pay a coach or an academy owner to fix me in the team.”
In his youth Akpoborie passed through top class local coaches who laid a sound foundation for his career. Unlike today, in his active days, a player could leave Nigeria straight into the first team of top European clubs. Finidi George and Nwankwo Kanu, for instance, did not last one month before they began to feature in Ajax first team. Why is it difficult for Nigerian players of this age to break into first teams in Europe?
“That’s a delicate question, ” Akpoborie started. “The quality of our league today, the tactics and techniques leave much to be desired. Not that we don’t have the talent, talent is in abundance but the quality of coaching is poor. I have watched a number of matches, talent abound but no tactics.
“In our days, we had the Bazuayes, the Sinclairs, the Ericos, etc. all top class coaches. When I arrived in Germany, it was like I just continued with what we were doing back home at Julius Berger FC under coach Joe Erico. Most of the coaches handling teams in all tiers of the league are not qualified and when a coach is not good, his products too cannot be good. It is difficult for a player to leave our league to Europe and shoot his way to the first team of a European club.
“That takes me back to what I was saying about reforms. When the NFF Statutes are changed, and credible people who can change our football are brought in; where every department will be occupied by specialists with specific duties assigned to them, sanity will return to our football.
“For instance, if we had a functional technical department, there wouldn’t be frequent interference on its duties by the executive committee of the NFF. Gernot Rohr was kept for too long at the instance of the executive, even after Nigeria’s poor outing at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Those who left him to continue had no cogent reason to do so because everybody saw how bad our team was in Russia.”
Akpoborie also spoke on the trending issue of foreign born Super Eagles players whose role in Nigeria’s failure to qualify for the Qatar 2022 World Cup has come under public scrutiny. He disagreed with those who hold the opinion that those players born in the diaspora have a different mindset from the rest.
“I find it unreasonable when I hear people talk about mindset, patriotism and the like. Who can be more patriotic than those boys who agreed to come and play for their fatherland? It’s absolute nonsense for some people to think that they are not patriotic.”
Vanguard’s Saturday editor, Onochie Anibeze maintained this position on Ray Power sports programme where he reasoned that the hot Abuja weather affected their play and not lack of patriotism. He faulted the coaches for making up to five changes in the second match, arguing that the boys who played in Ghana would have adopted better in Abuja than the new ones, expressing shock that the handlers did not consider weather factor in football. Anibeze said that what Austin Eguavoen needed was tactical change and not players unless in a case of injury.
Ex international, Idah Peterside also said taking the match to Abuja where the weather is always hot was a huge mistake by the authorities.