If he could turn back the hands of time, Etim Esin wishes he could showcase his talents at the World Cup but that would forever remain a wish.
Nicknamed the African Maradona for his abundant football skills, off-the-pitch incidences marred what was a glowing career destined for the very top.
However, with some of the allegations against him now found to be false, Esin is ready to tell the world his unique story which he believes no African player has the same.
In this interview with PREMIUM TIMES, the African Maradona speaks on varying issues including a planned documentary about his controversial life.
PT: Nigeria will be celebrating 60 years of independence in a couple of weeks from now. What is your general assessment of Nigeria sports in these six decades?
Esin: We are not there yet but we have been making progress since independence. We have won two Olympic gold medals in long jump and football, we have also won the Nations Cup three times and qualified for the World Cup five times, which is not a bad performance but we can do better.
PT: Someone asked why those who served the country wholeheartedly were not rewarded for their effort, where are the benefits of serving the country
Esin: If you turn around you will discover most of them are no more; we have lost lots of ex-internationals because there was no health insurance for them while those still alive are living in penury. I think we haven’t done badly, but in terms of making sure that the labours of our heroes past are not in vain, we have not done enough. The labour of our heroes past is in vain; look at late Keshi, Rashidi Yekini, Sam Okwaraji, Muda Lawal, Ekarika, Okafor, Thompson Oliha and a whole lot of these heroes are no more. We should look inward and do a lot for our heroes before they pass on.
Look at John Fashanu, he still gets his benefit because he played for England. We should put our house in order and see what we can do for our ex-sportsmen and women who at one point in time represented this country be it welfare or trust fund that they can easily fall back on when they get older.
Have you seen any son of ex-internationals following the footsteps of their father at all? If you go to Ghana you see two of Abedi Pele’s sons playing for Ghana. My take is for us to make the right changes by putting a bill forward at the national assembly and deliberate over this because once it becomes a law, it is binding.
Thank God we have someone like Daniel Amokachi who is now a special adviser to Mr President on sports, it is a sign of good things to come because it has never happened in the history of this nation to have an ex-international in such a position. I really wish Mr Amokachi the best because he can effect changes.
PT: Have you by any chance been able to speak with him since he ( Amokachi) picked up that portfolio?
Esin: He knows what is needed to be done before he got there. I know he can do it, he has the gut to do something. He is one player with a good heart and he will surely do something that will impact coming generations positively. He will be remembered for his deeds and I believe he will etch his name in gold in the history books of this nation.
PT: Would you say winning three AFCON is a pass mark for a 60-year-old nation considering the pool of talents at her disposal? Is it an administration, coaching, or talent problem?
Esin: I’m not even rating the African Cup Nation but the World Cup now. We were the fifth-best football nation in the world in 1994, then you ask yourself if we can ever get to that level again. We should have built on that after the World Cup seriously, but we can work hard enough and get back there if we put our house in order. What is important to me now is how we can get to the semifinal and final of the World Cup and be the first African nation to achieve that feat. Our target shouldn’t be the Nations Cup but the World Cup itself.
PT: AFCON 2022 qualifiers will resume in November; how would you score Super Eagles gaffer, Gernot Rohr’s reign so far compared to his predecessors like Clemence Westerhof and Jo Bonfere?
Esin: Those coaches won trophies and took us to the World Cup but Mr Rohr is yet to win anything for Nigeria even though he also qualified us for the World Cup too, but if he can win the Nations Cup, that will be a huge plus for us but I wouldn’t give Mr Rohr Nations Cup target, rather I will task him to do better at the global stage.
PT: Would you say players like Etim and Jay Jay seem to come around once in two decades as Super Eagles continue its search for a playmaker. What,in your best opinion, is the problem?
Esin: I think it has to do with our grassroots football. There should be another player to take over when Jayjay is no longer playing football. I mean we have U-17 players who are expected to make steady progress to U-20, then to the senior national team, that is the transition we’re talking about. There are lots of Etim and Okocha in this country today, all we need to do is to pick talents from the Governor’s Cup and Principal Cup once these age-grade competitions are well structured. You see our players running to Azerbaijan, Albania, and some countries I don’t even know about. How many South African players exit their country to play in lower leagues abroad? It is simply because they have everything well-structured by putting in place a good welfare package while investors come around to be part of sports growth. I still remember the good old days of Udorji, Flash Flamingos, and Iwuanyanwu, this was when football was properly managed in Nigeria. We must attract investors and stop the government from running sports.
PT: You once had an issue with JayJay Okocha during his birthday party some years back even though both parties had to settle the issue out of court. How has your relationship with Okocha been since then?
Esin: We’re friends, he is my junior in the national team and I believe respect is reciprocal. In football, there is what we call generational difference; I wasn’t in Odegbami’s generation and JayJay’s, but each generation must transcend one another. Our problem has to do with one generation feeling superior to the other, some feel they’re richer and better than you and all that stuff but things shouldn’t be heading in that direction. I mean every player that featured for Three Lions of England share equal respect once you put on that jersey. At the end of the day, all that matters is you have played for England, Italy, or France. They now come together and help one another with life after football. Some will embrace coaching while others will become sporting directors, team managers, scouts, or pundits. If you watch sports programmes, you will discover most of the pundits are ex Internationals that is the way it is designed to be. But it’s a different ball game here, maybe it’s the education or orientation and that has to a large extent affected our way of life generally. That is why Odegbami, Owolabi and other top ex-Internationals would rather advise their children to embrace education instead of becoming a footballer.
PT: Do you think the appointment of Joseph Yobo as Super Eagles assistant coach is a right step in the right direction?
Esin: I believe his presence will add value to Super Eagles in a huge way. He has captained the team before and his wealth of experience will also come in handy just like Stephen Keshi did in his playing days. Yobo will bring more life into Super Eagles. Imama Amakapabor was there before but I believe he really doesn’t have the exposure, he never played at the World Cup even though I’m not trying to run him down, but Yobo has all of these and his presence will help the team grow.
PT: You must be excited to see Victor Osimhen sign for Napoli, how best can Nigeria manage his progress to ensure the young man doesn’t become a flash in the pan?
Esin: I’m not trying to say that he made the wrong choice now, but I wouldn’t have advised him to go to Italy because it’s such a difficult league itself. Let’s just hope he is injury-free then we can rest assured that we have a potential in that boy. He is a box to box player who can make things happen for us but again, you must also play around good players too if really you want to excel. I feel with the emergence of Chukwueze and other young players, it won’t be out of place if Nigeria wins the next AFCON.
PT: You were cleared of all rape allegations after 25 years, were you in any way compensated for those gruesome years of long wait?
Esin: Not at all! Is it not until 25 years that they had to prove my innocence? That explains what I have been passing through, it explains the racism we suffered while playing abroad. You can’t turn back the hands of time, I would have loved to go to the World Cup and showcase my talents, but who knows maybe I would have been dead by now. Every disappointment is a blessing.
PT: At that time you were angry and wanted to kill yourself and lots of people asked why go into drugs.
Esin: God has already compensated me, I thank God for my family, I am happy where I am today and I’m not desperate about life. I’m trying to do a documentary and also write about my life; from gunshots, rape case to drugs. Maybe my compensation will come from selling it online. It is an African story that most people will like to read. No African footballer has my story, they play football but they don’t have my story. I’m working with a publisher in Canada but we were slowed down by COVID-19 lockdown.
PT: On a final note, what is your candid advice for upcoming footballers?
Esin: They have to be disciplined and focused, that is what they need to succeed in their career. It’s even good football agents now exist and they help you plan your future unlike in our days when there was no agent to guide us through our career. The younger players must be disciplined, if they must succeed in their careers.
PT: It’s been a pleasure talking to you sir