The environment one lives usually affects the personality. A child reared in a ghetto can hardly behave in the same manner as one born and bred in a highbrow area of a metropolis.
Drunkards, smokers, prostitutes, gamblers, rapists and hardened criminals are often found in slums and shanties. This set of people, forming different gangs, fight for supremacy over ‘little colonies’. Here, life is brutish and nasty. Most children, who find themselves in such environments usually end up in crime, and in most cases, die or rot away in prisons as criminals. However, providence can play a part in the life of someone born in such environment and he or she could come out as a shining light. That’s exactly the case of Jonathan Akpoborie, ex-Super Eagles star, who confessed to TS Weekend that he would have turned out a criminal if not for football.
Akpoborie, an Isoko who was born in the ghetto of Ajegunle in Lagos, said: “Low income Nigerians populated Ajegunle. Everybody there struggled for survival. In fact, life was that of survival of the fittest, which did no child growing up there any good.”
But the former footballer made a lucky escape – his passion for the round leather game liberated him from the ‘criminal’ fangs of his environment, as winning the World Cup with the Golden Eaglets of Nigeria in 1985 gave him the opportunity to enjoy a scholarship to study in the United States.
With his sound educational background, Akpoborie later became successful as a professional footballer in Germany. As one who hated his early lifestyle, he invested heavily in a flourishing shipping business. But one day, the devil struck. His two vessels worth millions of naira were sunk in the waters of Republic of Benin and Togo following allegations of child trafficking leveled against his company. Akpoborie was wrecked, rendered redundant and his wife dumped him. But he says; “I am now ready to fight back and recover all.”
Read the exciting story of Akboborie and other regulars in this edition of TS Weekend.
By CHIMAOBI UCHENDU
Jonathan Akpoborie had a flourishing football-playing career and scored great goals in the process. But his venture into the turbulent waters of business proved to be his greatest undoing, as all that he laboured for came crashing in a moment when the United Nations Children Education Fund (UNICEF) accused his business concern of child trafficking.
When the allegation cropped up, Akpoborie thought that it was something that would not take days before he would clear his name. But that was not to be, as days turned into weeks and weeks into years and yet, he was neck deep into the trouble that visited him. 10 years after, he is still waiting for verdict from the global organisation. To add salt to injury, his twin vessels, which he acquired with his life savings, were sunk in the waters of Benin Republic and Togo respectively.
In a no-holds-barred interview with TS Weekend, Akpoborie said he’s now ready to reclaim all that the locusts and cankerworms had taken from him by dragging UNICEF, Benin Republic and the Togolese authorities to court. He narrated how the accusation by UNICEF turned his once happy family upside down to the point that his wife dumped him. His only consolation now is the two children, who are the products of the failed marriage.
The former striker, who was surprisingly dropped from Nigeria’s squad to the 1998 FIFA World Cup, made headlines in 2001, when a boat managed by his family, was intercepted in Benin Republic following an allegation that it was carrying children into slavery to Gabon. The incident was what led to Akpoborie’s suspension from his German club, Wolfsburg. And after a brief sojourn at Saarbrucken, he finally retired from active football.
The 32-year-old striker, together with his family, ran a shipping agency with business name, Titanic Investment Limited. The agency had two Nigerian registered passenger and cargo ships named MV Etireno and Xmas Day, which the company bought from Denmark in 1998. As at the time of purchase, each of those ships worth more than $500,000. But they were sunk within a space of time following the allegation of child trafficking levelled against the company.
Akpoborie confessed that growing up in Ajegunle, a suburb of Lagos would have turned him into a criminal, but for football. He revealed that most of his peers had died, while others were detained in prison for one act of criminality or the other. But ‘Jonny’, as he is fondly called, being a member of the Under-17 Golden Eaglets that won the World Cup in 1985, grabbed the scholarship opportunity the Nigerian government offered members of the team for their feat and went to study in the United States.
While in America, and football still hot in his blood, Akpoborie combined his educational pursuit with being active in collegiate football. Soon, it was time for him to have a shot at professional football career, and Germany was the destination.
Akpoborie joined FC Saarbrucken, a club in the lower division and later, Carl Zeiss Jena and Stuttgart Kickers.
“I knew the beginning was going to be difficult for me, but I was determined to make a career out of football,” he said.
It was from Stuttgart Kickers that he moved to a division one side, Hansa Rostock FC, where he became the club’s leading scorer for two seasons. Thereafter, he joined VfB Stuttgart. His goals helped Stuttgart to reach the 1998 European Cup Winners Cup final, which they lost to Chelsea of England.
He would have represented Nigeria at the 1996 Nations Cup in South Africa but for the then Head of State, the late General Sanni Abacha, who barred Nigeria from participating in the showpiece, which the host country won. Akpoborie still rues missing that golden opportunity till date, as his tone in this interview with TS Weekend revealed.
Where is Jonathan Akpoborie from?
I am an Isoko man, from Delta State.
How did you come into football?
I was born in Ago Awusa area of Ajegunle, Lagos. But I grew up at the Ojo Road end of the city and was into street and school football like most children do. However, I started my professional career in football at Julius Berger FC, before I moved to the US.
In 1990, I joined FC Saarbrucken of German, a second division club in the Bundesliga. I also had spells at FC Carl Zeiss Jena and Stuttgart Kickers, where I scored 37 goals in one season. I played for Waldhof Mannheim before joining Hansa Rostock, a top-flight team, in 1995.
After spending two years at Hansa, I moved to its Bundesliga rival, VfB Stuttgart and thereafter, to VfL Wolfsburg in 1999.
What was life like while growing up in Ajegunle?
Low income Nigerians populated Ajegunle. Everybody there struggled for survival. In fact, life was that of survival of the fittest, which did no child growing up there any good.
And you broke away from that condition. How did you do it?
Football saved me from all the juvenile crimes that characterised life in Ajegunle. I would have ended up as a criminal like most of my friends and peers who are either dead or are serving varying degrees of prison sentences if not for the love I had for football. And I must confess that if I have the opportunity to come back to this world after death, I will still choose football as a career because it has been my saving grace.
But I must say that it wasn’t all about crime in Ajegunle; the city has some positive sides, one of which is the togetherness among the youths and neighbours living there. There is no city anywhere in the world that can boast of having the kind of camaraderie people living in AJ City (Ajegunle) enjoy.
You never had enough time playing for Nigeria, what really happened?
I wore only 12 caps for Nigeria. It could have been more, but for the decision of Nigerian government in 1996. That year, we had a formidable team that could have won the Nations Cup in South Africa, but the then Head of State, the late Gen. Sanni Abacha, barred us from participating at the African football fiesta because of his personal fight against the South African authorities.
Is Akpoborie married?
Yes, but now divorced.
What caused your marriage to crash?
The pressure that followed the problem I had with UNICEF, which accused me of child trafficking, was what consumed my marriage. The problem wracked me to the point that I was virtually redundant. When I couldn’t play football again, my woman felt that she had had enough of me and so, decided to separate from me.
Did the marriage produce children?
Yes. I have two lovely kids; a boy and a girl aged 13 and eight respectively.
Any plan to remarry?
Definitely, the plan is in the pipeline. But I want to be extra careful this time around in making choice of a partner. I am always on the move. I hardly stay at a place for too long. So, I need a woman that will hold me down for a blissful marriage.
What have you been doing since you retired from active football?
Before I quit football, I had a flourishing shipping business. I established a shipping company and acquired two vessels. Everything was moving fine until one of my vessels was accused of trafficking children for child labour. That was the accusation that destroyed my business. It eventually cost me the two vessels and my marriage also.
Who actually accused your company of child trafficking?
It is now over 10 years when the incident happened and UNICEF has not established the crime it accused the company of or has it charged us to court for any misdeed. I had waited patiently all these years and I think it is time to fight to recover my lost property and also, to redeem my name. I am still bewildered over what they are investigating for more than 10 years to the detriment of my business, my source of income and reputation.
In fact, I have instructed my lawyers to write to them and if there is no tangible response from them, I will have no option than to go to court and clear my name.
Where are your vessels now?
I lost both of them in the process. The Beninoise maritime authorities sank one of them, while the Togolese government did the same thing to the remaining one. Both vessels were sunk in 2007 out of jealousy, because I am a Nigerian.
The fact was that one of the vessels was under investigation because of the child trafficking allegation levelled against my company. And for the fact that both vessels looked alike, I decided to park them to avoid them being wrecked on mistaken identity. But one day in 2007, the Beninoise authorities told me that they were going to sink my vessel because it was causing an obstruction for them. Before I could say Jack Robinson, they had accomplished their threat. The same treatment was meted out on the one I parked in Lome, Togo.
Unfortunately, if you go to the ports in those two countries, you will see all kinds of wrecked vessels, but they were pleased to consider mine as constituting obstacles for them and so, went ahead to destroy my sources of livelihood.
However, I am now ready to reclaim my belongings. I have told my lawyers to write the concerned authorities and demand for the replacement of my vessels. I will see to the end of the matter this time around.
What is your opinion concerning football academies in Nigeria?
Football academies all over the world are meant to groom youngsters for replenishing the ageing players both at the club and national teams. They are usually non-fee paying institutions. But what we see in Nigeria is entirely different.
Academies in Nigeria charge fees before they admit children. It is unfortunate. This is the area the Nigeria Football Federation should step in and do something before it will completely destroy youth football in the country. It becomes necessary because with the current arrangement, poor but talented children cannot have access to such academies due to high fees.
Would you say that football is properly administered in Nigeria?
I wouldn’t like to comment on this issue because I have been branded a critic by a section of the Nigerian football family simply because I had always said the truth concerning the state of football in the country. Be that as it may, I would still want to say that we, as a people, must change our approach if we expect the round leather game to develop in the country. Unfortunately, government has become a big liability to sports development in the country and the earlier we correct this, the better for us and sports in Nigeria.