LAGOS – The death of Joseph Bassey Eric, popularly called ‘Joe Erico’, former assistant coach of the Super Eagles, further added to the death of Nigeria’s managers that have fallen to the cold hands of death in contemporary times.
It also added to the death of former Nigerian internationals who served the nation at various levels of the game in the course of their careers but have very little, if any, fond memories of having to sacrifice their youthful ages in the course of their fathers’ land.
To appreciate the late Erico, it is imperative to briefly look at his foray into the hearts of Nigerians through his involvements with football first as a player, then as a coach.
An indigene of Odukpani Local Government Area of Cross River State, Erico was one of the best Green Eagles goalkeepers who represented Nigeria at many international matches and won several records.
Erico started out his football career with the Nigerian Police Force, before having various stints with Nigeria Railways, NEPA (then Electricity Connectors of Nigeria (ECN) and Julius Berger – where he won several silverware.
‘Jongo Bonito’ made his debut for the then Green Eagles in an Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) qualifying match against Zambia in Lagos in July 1973 (which Nigeria won 3-2), and then kept goal in all of Nigeria’s six matches at the 1976 Africa Cup of Nations in Ethiopia, where the Green Eagles finished third – the first time Nigeria would win a medal at the AFCON.
He was also in goal in all of Nigeria’s pre-tournament friendlies against Kenya, Zambia and Tanzania just before the team flew to Ethiopia.
In 2002, Erico, Stephen Keshi and Shuaibu Amodu, all late, were brought in to turn the tides around for Nigeria as the country was preparing for the 2002 FIFA World Cup finals after unimpressive results under Dutchman Johannes Bonfrere.null
With three matches left in the campaign, and a must-win mandate for all, the trio got the job done and qualified Nigeria for Korea/Japan 2002.
They also led the team to a bronze-medal finish at the 2002 Africa Cup of Nations finals in Mali early in 2002. They were sacked soon on arrival from Mali.
But just like the duo of Keshi and Amodu, who went before him, Erico had bad takes about his relationship with the then his employers, the Nigeria Football Association (NFA), a body very notorious for owing both players and coaches of the various national teams.
Until Keshi and Amodu died, they reportedly spared no word in telling those close to them how the NFA could not pay them outstanding salaries and other entitlements, regularly resulting to frictions in relationships.
For instance, the last time SUNDAY INDEPENDENT spoke to Erico at the Basketball arena of the National Stadium, Surulere in Lagos, he didn’t mince word in explaining how the football house had abandoned him and his colleagues, some of whom had died then.
He reiterated his curse on the NFA over monies owed him by the football house, saying until he was paid, the football house would not know peace.
“I swore for them in the NFA or NFF when we came back from Mali 2002 African Nations Cup. They treated all of us: Shuaibu Amodu, Stephen Keshi and myself just anyhow.
“What basically happened was that, I was very angry at the time. So I went back home, stripped naked and put a curse on Nigeria football and they will know no peace until I am paid my money.”
The agony of Erico in death, sadly, is also the same with so many others who sacrificed for the country and were given a promised but till date those promises were not fulfilled. Many like Erico have died without getting the reward of the promise made to them while the ones alive have no hope of getting theirs.
Late Keshi and Amodu who both passed away in 2016, like noted earlier, were owed by the NFF until their death. The likes of Christian Chukwu, Eucharia Uche, John Obuh, Austin Eguavoen, Florence Omagbemi, Samson Siasia and Sunday Oliseh – key stakeholders in the Nigerian football – have all taken to the media to complain over outstanding salaries at one point in time or the other, having coached the national teams, also at a point in time or the other.
The attitude of the NFF and indeed the sports managers in the country towards past and present heroes is legendary.
A peep into such unpleasant attitude towards the heroes past, some of whom are dead, and even to present heroes will further lend weight to this ignominious attitude to those whose efforts in the times past helped to shape the image of the country for good.
Take ex-footballers such as Haruna Ilerika, Peter Fregene, Peter Anieke, Teslim Balogun, Willy Bazuaye, Anthony Igwe, Augustine Ofuokwu, Samuel Okoye, Segun Olumodeji, Samuel Opone, Oshode Muyiwa, and Paul Hamilton, for example. They made good impact for the country and respective clubs.
Same for others like Kenneth Olayombo, Mohammed Lawal, Durojaiye Adigun, Willy Andrews, Sebastian Broderick-Imasuen, Clement Obojemene, Ganiyu Salami, Fred Aryee, Julius Aghahowa, Yakubu Ibrahim, Yakubu Mambo, Alfred Kossi, Bunmi Adigun, Emmanuel Okala, Stanley Okoronkwo, and Christian Madu.
Today, none of them is living joyfully in retirement that is if all of them are even alive at this time. They are living in bad health and extremely poor economic state. Like said, some have died in penury and unsung while the ones that are alive either live in obscurity and forgotten or in ill health and abject poverty. Yet in their heyday, these were shining stars, blessed with special talents.
Recall that Peter Fregene was in goal for Nigeria at the Mexico Olympics in 1968 where the team held Brazil to 2-2 draw. Peter also played across three decades from the 1960s up until the 1980s.
Years back, Fregene suffered stroke that left him paralyzed from waist down to his legs.
He was bedridden for months under severe condition of lack of funds before the then Governor Babatunde Fashola of Lagos State, who had watched him as a lad, rehabilitated him and made him walk again, albeit painfully and in difficult state.
Like Fregene, Peter Anieke also made the Olympics team in 1968. A player with grace, he was deadly with his left foot and his head. He was nicknamed ‘Eusebio’ after the Portuguese football icon because of his scoring instincts.
Hon. Tajudeen Ajide, an ex-footballer (ACB FC) and Chairman, Surulere Local Government, once described Anieke thus: “He (Anieke) was the most brilliant scorer on air and on land in Nigeria. Anieke is our hero, our mentor.”
Anieke suffered under poor state with swollen and painful legs. The former free-scoring Stationery Stores and Green Eagles’ sensation started feeling an unusual swell and pain in his legs three years ago when he turned 65. The mild bloat degenerated to a bigger pain in his life.
Anieke was bedridden and slumped regularly all day long in his room in Lagos. Before his death, he once ascribed the unbearable pain to a result of neglect and poor health care system. “If I had got people who watched me play that had come out earlier than this time, to see my condition, maybe I would have been okay.
“My children have spent a lot of money to no avail. I am all alone now but for my wife and friends who come to visit me and cheer me up. I need help from all quarters, from people I have inspired through my game, politicians, friends, and those in government. My health matters a lot.”
He later succumbed and died in 2015 under very poor situation undeserving of a footballer who gave all to his country.
Meanwhile, Sunday Oliseh, the man who has also tested the bitter pills of being owed salaries by the NFF praised the life of Erico, noting that the NFF was so hard on the coach and his colleagues who rescued Nigeria when the country was on the verge of missing out on a place at the World Cup.
“Erico, Keshi and Amodu rescued Nigeria when an expatriate coach was almost not qualifying the country for the 2002 FIFA World Cup final and these gentlemen took charge and won three remaining games to qualify Nigeria for the Mundial.
“Unfortunately, their reward for the rare feat was getting sacked after placing third in the 2002 AFCON final in Mali”, Oliseh lamented.
The former Ajax Amsterdam of Holland libero insisted that Nigerian football authorities were still owing all former coaches of the Super Eagles including himself monies, adding that Erico fell in this category.
“Coach Erico was owed money by the Nigeria Football Association just like Coaches Amodu, Keshi and myself are still being owed by the Federation. This is most unfortunate,” he told Channels Television.
Former Super Eagles captain and winger, Segun Odegbami, was more clear in his submission on the issue through a lecture he delivered on November 2012 during the third Best Ogedegbe Memorial Lecture.
In the lecture which SUNDAY INDEPENDENT stumbled upon, Odegbami painted a gloomy picture of the lives of past heroes in the six-page excerpt.
He said in parts: “When footballers complete their assignment as players and retired from the game, they enter another phase of their journey completely different from the first. There is little or no provision in the system to adequately accommodate them. Therefore, they end up in jail of neglect, sickness, joblessness, depression, and premature death.
“Many of us, heroes of our various generations in the chronology of football, are still alive but barely living through a journey that has turned from good to bad and now to the ugly.
“Let me tell you about the physical damages you cannot see under these fine clothes. My thigh muscles, once taut and toned like that of a racing horse, is now thin and drooping with wrinkles like the withered breast of an old woman. The muscle cannot even now support my body weight properly anymore.
“Therefore, I walk wracking with pains and I limp. For over 10 years, I have been having palpitations, my cholesterol level was high, I have been on a daily dose of pills I must take for the rest of my life in order not to go blind.
“There is pain in my waistline. I suffer from more. Yet I count myself as one of the lucky among our generation. Have you seen Adokie Amaisimaka lately? Or Emmanuel Okala, Kadiri Ikhana, Joe Erico, George Omokaro, Mike Okotie, Peter Fregene or Demola Adesina. All these great football heroes are alive (some of them were still alive then), but every single of them has become physically challenged.
“Ex-players have gone through difficult process and it is when they are settling down to enjoy themselves that the danger sets in, so they must be supported in every sense of the word. Special homes, welfare packages, and hospitals to cater for their needs must be institutionalized if we want them to live and die well.”
For Tajudeen Disu, former Flying and Super Eagles defender, ex-players must form a common front where their welfares are discussed and catered for. He was quoted as saying sometimes in the past.
“I think we are the problem of ourselves. We have refused to love ourselves, we have refused to come together as one by having a players’ union that would cater for us. It is because of greed and selfish interest. There is no way we can help ourselves if we don’t speak with one voice. Therefore, we must come together. Elsewhere, players union is very strong and we know what we can do when we are together.
“We don’t need two or three players unions but one strong union. If we are together, we must support ourselves. We even clamour for the downfall of our members in positions so we can take their places. We dug pits for ourselves to fall. It is sad but that is the reality on ground. We must get into the politics of football.
“Ex-internationals should aspire to be FA chairman in their states so that we can position ourselves for the national FA. It would be my joy to see ex-players at the helms of affair as NFF president and to be on the board. We must begin to act now. We have qualified ex-players who are capable of running our football.