When David Beckam got injured in April 2002 prior to the FIFA World Cup, England went numbed and an anxious country went into prayer mode, beseeching God for the miracle that would get him well enough in time to lead the country at the Mundial.
Nigeria had our ‘Beckham moment’ in 1987 when ETIM JOHN ESIN, arguably the crown of a star-studded Flying Eagles team to the FIFA U-20 team was shot by armed robbers just weeks to the World Cup. The whole nation was united in prayers for this incredibly talented no. 10 aptly named ‘African Maradona’ for his incredible talent…
At the football pitch of the University of Calabar, sometimes in early 1985, the great Calabar Rovers Football Club were in action and they had chosen to play against Oron Young Stars. It was a routine pre-season friendly game that ought not to have any significance, save to help Rovers prepare for the upcoming season, but fate decided otherwise.
In the Oron Young Stars team on that day was a young boy who had finished secondary school just a few months earlier. However, by the end of the match, his name was on the lips of everybody who witnessed the spectacle which was served to spectators. Such was the influence and dominance of the youngster that he was forced to change his soccer pants three times as each one was torn to shred by the Rovers defenders who could not cope with his pace, strength and silky moves. After 90 minutes, Rovers’ officials were practically lining up to persuade him to sign for them. That young boy was ETIM JOHN ESIN.
It was not a coincidence that Etim Esin was nicknamed ‘African Maradona’ by the inimitable radio commentator, the late Ernest Okonkwo. He shared a striking resemblance with the Argentine superstar, even if their skin colours are different. Apart from both favouring the number 10 jersey, the two are both stockily-built with thick thighs and, more importantly, both possessed an incredible amount of talent which had fans eating out of their palms as they packed stadia wherever they played.
Etim had always been a special talent, the kind so rare you see them only once in a generation. Born in Oron, in present day Akwa Ibom on October 5, 1969, he attended St Mary Catholic School and Methodist Boys High School in Oron for his early education and at each of these schools, he was a star pupil in sport even if not the biggest physically.
From a priviledged background, the young Etim did not suffer the deprivations of most players of his generation although his father wanted him to go to school rather than take to football. This caused a rift between them for long and it wasn’t until he became a household name before the senior Esin accepted the inevitable.
His first club was Oron Stars but it was not long before he was snapped up by Calabar Rovers, the league side based in the state capital.
Etim recalls: “I finished from Methodist High School in 1984 but I was already playing for Oron Young Stars at the time. We had an opportunity to play a friendly game against Calabar Rovers and I think that was how I got my big break. I was adjudged the best player of the match and Rovers came for my signature. It was easy for me to take the leap because Rovers was the dream of every young boy at the time and was a move up the ladder for me. I joined them in 1985.”
But, like a gold-fish, Etim had no hiding place. His signature was highly sought-after and it was with the high-flying Flash Flamingoes of Benin that he pitched his tent the following season. He had Samson Siasia, Waidi Akanni, Mike Obiku, Ndubuisi Okosieme and other equally talented youngsters as teammates but still emerged the leading goalscorer for the Benin side.
This sparked another mad rush for his services and he left Flash after one season to join Iwuanyanwu Nationale of Owerri (now Heartland). As he was shining like a million stars for Flash, the handlers of the Flying Eagles were taking notes and it was not long before he was invited to the team which was playing the African qualifiers of the FIFA U-20 World Cup slated for Chile in 1987.
The team breezed through the African qualifiers to emerge winners of the Tessema Cup for African U-20 teams and such was the quality of the team that pundits have argued that it was the best Flying Eagles team ever assembled in terms of talent. The final squad list had players like Willy Okpara, Peter Nieketien, John Okon Ene, Ladi Babalola, Adeolu Adekola, Ikpomwonsa Omoregie, Thompson Oliha, Nosa Osadolor, Etim Esin, and Lawrence Ukaegbu who had made their marks in the domestic League with various clubs as well as Nduka Ugbade, Jonathan Akpoborie, Lucky Agbonsevbafe, and Victor Igbinoba who were members of the victorious Golden Eaglets squad of 1985 so you could understand those who felt the U-20 World Cup was theirs for the taking.
A NATION AT STANDSTILL
After securing the Tessema Cup and bagging a World Cup ticket with the Flying Eagles, Etim raised the blood pressure of millions of football-loving Nigerians when he sneaked out of the team’s training camp to go clubbing and ran into armed robbers in Surulere, Lagos who shot him in the thigh.
“I guess everything that happened at the time was due to youthful exuberance and my spirit of adventure. It’s what I tell the younger ones now when I do clinics and motivational talks on having focus and listening to those who know more than you do. I guess success came at a very young age for me. Fresh out of secondary school, I was already a big star and playing for one of the best teams in the country. I was already riding a car. As a matter of fact, I think I was the only one in the Flying Eagles who had a Peugeot 505 car as at then. So life was on the fast lane and I thought I could not do any wrong. I was shot in Surulere when I went out to have a nice time. On hindsight, it was the wrong thing to do but I didn’t know that at the time.”
The nation stood still as everyone thought the dream of seeing the Flying Eagles improve on the third-place finish by the 1985 set was going down the drain. Prayers were said and get-well wishes sent to the recuperating star on his hospital bed. Never before, and possibly never since then, had a whole country waited with bated breath on the health of a sportsman like Nigeria did for Etim. Finally, he was declared fit by doctors and pronounced ready to join his teammates to prepare for the World Cup and suddenly hopes became high again among the fans that the U-20 World Cup title would be coming to Nigeria.
However, results-wise, Chile turned out to be a disaster. The Flying Eagles lost 4-0 to Brazil, drew 2-2 with Canada and lost 2-0 to Italy in their group games and were booted. 28 years after, Esin is still not sure what caused the team’s capitulation.
He recounted: “I agree we had one of the best team at Chile 87 but unfortunately the results we had did not reflect that. We lost two and drew one of our three games so we cannot claim to be the best because we had no result to show for it. Maybe we believed the hype surrounding our team or we were just not experienced enough for that level of the game. We also were in a group comprising Brazil, Italy and Canada so we could say it was a difficult group. Maybe we were just fated to crash out in that manner, I just cannot explain what happened but anybody who saw that team knew we were the best bunch of players ever assembled at that level.”
Chile ’87 was a disaster for Nigeria but, on a personal level, it was a blessing for Etim. Prior to the World Cup, Belgian side AA Genk were visiting Nigeria on a playing tour and they engaged the Flying Eagles which beat them 3-1 with Etim scoring all three goals. The Belgians were so impressed that they wanted to sign him immediately but for the approaching competition. They signed a pre-contract with him and after the World Cup, he travelled out to join them, thus swelling the burgeoning number of Nigeria’s foreign-based players.
Etim continued his impressive career in Europe with Genk and it was not long before he was invited to the senior national team, the Super Eagles. He was arguably Nigeria’s most popular player at the tail end of the 1980s and made his senior debut against Gabon (1-0 win) in a 1990 World Cup qualifying series match played at the Nnamdi Azikiwe Stadium, Enugu in January, 1989. He made the assist with which Wole odegbami scored the only goal of the game but scored his first goal against Zimbabwe (3-0 win) in Ibadan six months later in July in a 1990 African Cup of Nations qualifiers. He was a central figure in the Super Eagles ultimately futile bid to qualify for the 1990 World Cup. Unfortunately he was not to last too long in the national team as clouds were already gathering over his career as a result of off-the-pitch events in his Belgium adventure. He played his last match against Ghana (0-0) in Lagos in a 1992 AFCON qualifying series game in April 1991. He had 8 caps and scored one goal for Nigeria.
He had left Genk for Lokeren and by the beginning of the 1990s, he was on the books of another Belgian side, Lierse. It was at Lierse that Etim’s world came crashing when he was accused of rape and he had to flee Belgium in order to escape being jailed.
20 years have gone by and Etim feels vindicated at the turn of events in the case but he’s still a sad man because the incident cost him his career in Europe and, possibly, a chance to be at the 1994 World Cup in USA.
He said: “I have said this a thousand times and I will say it again. The girl in question was my girlfriend. I was going out with the white girl but her father was a racist who was not happy that his daughter was going out with a black guy. When the girl put to bed, it was a white child. I know you will ask why I didn’t stay but if I had stayed, I would have gone to prison. They would have jailed me. So why go to jail for what I didn’t do? It was better to leave and fight from a distance. It is a well-known story. I’m not saying anything new or trying to make myself look good. The journalist, Mumini Alao, knows the story because he came to Belgium to investigate it and he wrote a report about it. The late MKO Abiola also learnt about it and was willing to help. He offered to engage a lawyer for me and would have helped me to fight the case but for the politics of June 12, 1993 which scuppered the case. I’m sure if I was not innocent, Chief Abiola would not get involved. Anyway, I thank God the way everything turned out.”
Fugitive from Europe, Etim came back home and joined local side Julius Berger with whom he won the FA Cup and played in their Cup Winners campaign in 1997. The following year, he left Berger for Port-Harcourt based Eagle Cement and was also a part of their CAF Champions League season. Etim made his last hurray in football when he for 3SC of Ibadan and retired from active football at the end of the season, aged 30.
Etim retired but, unlike most of his contemporary, he refused to become a coach. On the contrary, he chose a different trajectory. “It’s not possible for everyone to become a coach. We can be team coordinators, welfare officers, commentators, soccer pundits, team managers, state FA chairmen, sports commissioners, Advisers on sports etc and we’ll still be involved in the game. If every ex-international became a coach, how many teams do we have to go round?”
In his storied career, Etim has only one regret and that was the fact that the rape allegation was possibly responsible for why he missed out on going to the World Cup in 1994. However, he has a lot to be thankful for, chiefly the fact that he’s still alive and still appreciated by fans despite his relatively short career.