By Oyediji Oluwaseun Babatunde
Sports Writer, kick442.com Nigeria
Kick442.com continues to examine the greatest players that have represented the Nigeria National Football team since 1945 as compiled by Soccernittygritty.
Number 9 on the list is former African Footballer of the Year and Barcelona player, Emmanuel Amunike.
Few good seasons with Barcelona and Nigeria ‘could’ have produced a candidate for Ballon D’or. He definitely ‘would’ have at least equaled Kanu’s 2 Africa’s Player of the Year (APOTY) feats. Perhaps, had he the slightest of premonitions, he ‘should not’ have featured in that off-season game in 1997 with Barcelona that effectively put paid to a career-ready to ambush the attention of soccer buffs like wildfire. Such was the career of Emmanuel Uzoma Amunike- laced with Brian McKnight’s chorus from the classic track – “Shoulda Woulda Coulda”.
He was destined for greatness from the get-go. He once attributed the apparent discipline in his game to the philosophy instilled in him by his school team coaches through Badia Primary School and Cardoso High School both in the Ijora suburb of Lagos. Amunike was fiercely adored in this neighborhood. He broke into his High School team only in his second year as 15-year-old left-wing dynamite whose presence on the pitch alone ensured packed terraces at the Navy Barracks, Ajegunle in the Principals’ cup competitions. He was the most popular footballer amongst the locals residing in Ijora-Badia through Orile to Ajegunle, he was a hero. Fresh from High School in 1989, professional Lagos side- Nigerlux FC signed him on for 2 seasons before moneybags -Concord, owned by late multibillionaire, Moshood Kashimaso Olawale (MKO) Abiola snapped him up.
The move proved a veritable foundation upon which a great career was built.
By 1991, his name wasn’t alien to the local league, hence, easy for Julius Berger to spot him. The move to the famous Lagos side coincided with his first national team call-up en route 1991 All African Games in Cairo.
Amunike was the shining light in the tournament regardless of a semifinal double tragedy- first, losing to bitter rivals, Cameroun 0-1 before being shown a red card – the marching order ensured Nigeria’s time at the continental competition was up.
Not so, Amunike’s career. He’d barely returned home with the rest of the squad before an intimidating Zamalek delegation touched down on Nigerian soil. Their mission was easy: ‘Return Amunike to the land of the Pharaos’- they hadn’t seen enough of him. So he was quickly whisked back to the land of the Pharaos amid heroic welcome as though he was a son of the soil.
Amunike didn’t disappoint, he churned out such superlative performances on arrival so much so he was voted second best Player of the Year (POTY) in the entire league on the back of clinching the league title. It was the beginning of a flurry of trophies as replicated in 1993 after winning the then prestigious Sekou Toure Cup which many Nigerian clubs had found eternally elusive, he followed it up by being instrumental in Zamalek ’s clinching of the African Super Cup at the expense of holders and bitter rivals, Al Ahly.
Back home with the Super Eagles, he quickly filled a void that looked impossible since the exit of a malleable winger, Friday ‘elastic’ Elaho. Amunike had done enough to turn a few heads in Europe following three very successful seasons clocking 71 games and impressively netting 26 goals from the wings. As a result, Sporting Lisbon knew spending $1.9m on Amunike wouldn’t be a gamble.
Consistent with his pedigree, the pocket-dynamite exploded on arrival.
However, It was obvious Sporting would play catch-up with FC Porto, yet, Amunike’s imperious form in the Primeira Liga didn’t go unnoticed. 2 years, 51 games, 17 goals, several near-misses on titles as a result of a Bobby Robson-inspired Porto side littered with such qualities as Joao Pinto,Emerson, Jorge Costa and Vitor Baia to mention a few- Porto had Portugal under lock and key.
Then came the Barcelona episode. It was a widely celebrated $4m move. His resume was loaded having been named Africa’s Player of the Year (APOTY) in 1994, British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) APOTY in 1996 and a shiny gold medal hanging down his neck following a glorious outing at the Atlanta Olympic Games in the summer. He was a big boy. Unfortunately, fate played a fast one on the explosive winger when he picked up an ugly knee-injury in a practice game off-season, 1997. This singular incident kickstarted a new episode that saw a most painful free-fall and irreparable dip in form. It swapped the mouthwatering probabilities in Amunike’s career for a most agonizing reality. He stayed injured for 2 straight seasons.
Remember Bobby Robson? He was stupendously successful at Portugal with FC Porto, yet, the whole time, he definitely had an eye on the explosive Amunike who was playing for a rival team, Sporting. Little wonder he didn’t hesitate to spray the cash on the Nigerian when he arrived in Barcelona. By the following season, the Catalan side hired Luis van Gaal (LVG). He was as optimistic about Amunike until he picked up the injury. LVG patiently kept faith in the Nigerian while he anticipated a miraculous turnaround. By the time Amunike recovered, he hardly rediscovered the form that tossed him into the limelight. In the end, played just over 20 games for the Spanish giants, netting once away at CD Logranes.
Admittedly, Amunike in his prime inadvertently failed to light up Europe at the biggest stage, his prime coincided with the gory knee injury. He would have been on a different countdown had he also failed to light up national colors.Thankfully, his heroic contributions engraved his name in the annals of Nigeria’s history.
He was sorely missed in France 1998 as his no-nonsense demeanor could have impacted an apparently complacent Nigerian side. Perhaps, an in-form Amunike could have popped up with a winning goal in the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) 2000 painful loss on home soil to Cameroun.
It is safe to say he carefully chose the right games to be counted. When AFCON title had eluded Nigeria for 1 and a half decades and the West African giants needed redemption, guess whose goals in the final handed the trophy to Nigeria? Amunike.
A few months later, it was a maiden appearance in the World Cup and the Super Eagles were 2 goals up in the opening game, yet needed an ‘assurance goal’, guess who showed up? Amunike. His fearless approach to games put Nigeria up against Italy in the second round of the USA World Cup. A couple of years later, Nigeria, against all odds were in an Olympic final against the dreaded Argentina, minutes away from regulation time and the game was still tied at 2-2, it was none other than Amunike who popped up with the winner. In the end, he scored 9 mostly historical goals in 27 caps.
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