Coach Samson Siasia did not pass through the four walls of a university. He got admission to read Physical and Health Education at University of Ibadan but he dumped the offer and took up a professional soccer career that took him to Belgium, France, Israel and Austria among other countries where he earned big bucks and fame as a top striker. Coming from a very poor background and having parents that could not pay his school fees, the young Siasia carved a niche for himself early in life when he realised that football could take him to Eldora do.
With determination and doggedness, he completed his secondary education, which he believed could take him anywhere in the world. The former Under-20 strategist actually started playing football in the streets and on the sandy pitches of Ajengule where most notable footballers in Nigeria equally started. He grew to become a force in the national team, the Super Eagles, where he was considered as one of the controversial players that constituted the ‘Eagles Mafia’. But Siasia had argued that if he would accept that tag, he would do so on the ground that the Mafia was united in doing good and fighting for the weaker players in the team.
Siasia was grateful that he did not play professional football in the Premiership, where according to him, paparazzi and the media would always scandalize celebrities, especially footballers. And to wade off women, he made a good decision to take his would-be wife to Europe even before he signed for his first club abroad. In this edition of TS Weekend, we bring you the inspiring story of Samson Siasia. Readers will also find interesting other regulars like Skoops, Uptown, Gourmet Lounge and Lifestyle. >GBOLAHAN 08037618840
By ROMANUS UGWU, Abuja
Hate him or like him, Samson Siasia has built himself into a brand to become a household name both in Nigeria and beyond. The former Flying and Super Eagles’ chief coach has always been in the public radar right from his playing days, when he was a cynosure, to his steady rise and fall in his coaching career.
Although Siasia has remained the toast of many Nigerians, only a few persons knew what made the then sensational striker the real man. The Dream Team’s former chief coach told TS Weekend his story; disclosing the journey of his life, even how he met his delectable wife.
He also revealed how the early discovery of his wife and love for her saved him from any sex scandal, the story of his rough journey into stardom, the hostility of his parents towards his decision to take football as career, the emotional story of his dogged battle against poverty and many more.
Not done yet, Siasia corrected the impression about his many controversies against his Super Eagles’ teammates, his tribulations and role as Super Eagles’ mafia boss, the ultimate gang up that denied him participation in the France 1998 FIFA World Cup and his encounter with the Joseph Yobo-led players that eventually cost him his Super Eagles job.
In the beginning
I actually started playing football in the streets and on sandy pitches at Ajegunle, Lagos, where incidentally, most footballers in Nigeria equally started and made it to stardom. I started by kicking and dribbling balls around. I guess we didn’t have anything to do then than just to play football.
From there, football became my passion. I joined third division club at the age of 15 or so, to see if I could make it. Apart from following my passion, I also found out that I could use football to sponsor myself in secondary school. I practically paid my way through my education.
I was lucky to have a coach, who was handling Gaskier College. He helped me, and from there, I found myself in St Fimbas College where we played good football. It was from St Fimbas that I got invitation to the junior national team and the rest, as they say, is now history.
Parents as stumbling block
My mother actually chased me around, urging me to abandon football and help my sisters in the kitchen. But I told her that I’m a man. My parents almost disowned me because of football. My mother eventually surrendered when I started to take care of myself with the proceeds I got from playing football.
My parents were very poor that they couldn’t pay my school fees and that of my siblings. They couldn’t take good care of us. They actually wanted me to go to school, but they could not afford what it takes. So, I persisted in playing football and it eventually paid off.
I saw football as a ticket to good life for someone like me who was living in an environment where most kids lacked the basic necessities of life. Growing up in Ajegunle was not easy, especially when one was trying to combine playing soccer with education.
Eventually, I was lucky. I got a scholarship in my secondary school. When the coach saw that I could play very well, but could not afford school fees, he talked to the school management and I was considered for a scholarship. That was how I passed through the secondary school otherwise; I couldn’t have become what I’m today.
I did everything to get to where I’m today, though my parents were always there to whip me into line. My dad did the best he could, but I really started early to struggle for survival.
Football, the only profession
I’ve never thought of taking up any other profession outside football. None has ever crossed my mind. But I knew that I needed to get the basic education to excel in my football career. I knew that with basic education, I would succeed outside the shores of Nigeria.
Dropped admission to UI
I got admission to study at the University of Ibadan, but I turned the offer down because higher education was not part of my plan for the future then. I was rather bent on playing professional soccer. Again, I was not sure whether studying Physical and Health Education was what I actually wanted, even though the course is related to sports. My fear was that taking up the admission might truncate my chances of becoming a professional player. I later resolved that though schooling was good, what I have got from secondary school was enough to carry me on. So, I waved the admission when I got the opportunity to travel to Belgium.
The opportunity actually came in 1988 when an agent came from Belgium to pick the late Osare Obabaifo, Benjamin Nzeako and myself. We started trials with a second division club and I was lucky to make it in my first attempt because I was fully prepared for it. I knew that it was a ticket to getting me out of Nigeria to realise my professional soccer dream, which I had nursed since my early days.
I think it was Genk FC that gave us our first trials before we went for another club with a division one side, Lokeren FC, where I equally made it at first attempt. I later settled for the first division side. I started with Lokeren in the 1988/89 season. I spent six years in Belgium before I moved to France.
Playing in Europe and in the national team eventually gave me the needed satisfaction that made me never to regret not taking up the UI admission. I considered it a wise decision. I was the first Nigerian, with Peter Anosike, to play in Austria. It was a great experience to play in that nice country. I was there for a while before moving to Israel where I picked injury and finally retired from active football.
Never fancied the Premiership
I never had a chance to play in the Premiership. Meanwhile, I never liked the way they play football in England in those days. English football was characterised by long balls and if you are not strong and physically built, it would be very difficult for you to cope with.
What we have now is improved English League with improved clubs like Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea, among others that can keep the ball on the ground and play good football. I never fancied playing in England in my time. But now, if I’m still playing and have the chance to play in England, I will gladly accept the offer because that is where we have the greatest league in the world now.
If there is a club I regret not playing for, it is Barcelona FC. I like its pattern of play and everybody enjoy watching the team. It’s fun watching the players. Or what else do you want in a club that can make 271 passes without losing the ball? It should be the dream club for every player.
Barcelona has a crop of young players that make right decisions with the ball. They make the job of coaches easy. I would have also loved to play at Real Madrid, Manchester United or Arsenal. These are great clubs every player would want to play for.
Missed African Footballer of the Year award
It’s painful that I couldn’t win the award with all my achievements in football, but I never allowed it to bother me. Perhaps, I wasn’t good enough to win the award in the thinking of the people in charge. I might not have also played in the right club to give me the chance of winning it. Sometimes, the club one plays in determines the level of attention one gets. I never had the opportunity to play for big clubs.
In fact, I was lucky to have played in France, where I could count I played for one of the big clubs. I enjoyed my time there because I played with the French champions. We had eight great players in the team, who were in the French national team.
Breaking into Super Eagles
It wasn’t that easy breaking into the Super Eagles. It took me some time to grab that opportunity. But after doing well in the youth team, I had hope that one day I would play for the Super Eagles. However, I never faced any serious problem getting into the team.
Then, the competition in the senior national team was very tough and frightening because of the quality of players that were fighting for shirts in my position. That competition was what helped the coaches to build the solid team we had then. Our squad was good enough to compete with any team in the world. Above all, we had great character and were disciplined both in and out of the field of play. Ours was well organised.
Cabal in Eagles
It’s unfortunate that some of us were called Mafioso, but I don’t think it’s the right word to use for us. When people fight for their right, they are giving derogatory names. What we ensured was to see that everybody got equal treatment. We fought for our teammates and made sure that everybody was treated equally. That was why they called us mafia even when we still hold the records of being the best team the country has ever had.
I have no regrets over my actions in those days. Some players will never talk or fight for themselves. In such a situation, stronger ones among them should take up the fight. Ours was not a selfish one, but a fight for the benefit of others. We kept the team together, which was why they tagged the Keshis, Siasias, Eguavoens and others as members of mafia.
If I must accept that tag, then I would say that we were a mafia group trained to ensure that the right things were done in the Super Eagles and we did not do it to spite anybody.
However, we were the junior mafia, while the then administrators constituted the senior group. We ensured that they did not owe players what was due to them. We stood our ground and insisted that players must be paid their dues. We did everything to keep the team together and would always confront the administrators when they were wrong.
Fracas with Sunday Oliseh
It was just a little issue on the practice pitch. I was already in the national team before Sunday Oliseh came in. But he would always make the mistake of kicking somebody and watching him react. That was all that happened, which was not out of place anyway. We almost fought after some exchange of words.
The chief coach, Clemence Westerhof, did not feature me in the next game, maybe because of the fracas. The question the coach did not answer was why he fielded Oliseh, who quarrelled with me in the next match and dropped me. That was the only game I did not play in the USA 1994 World Cup and unfortunately, we lost it.
Westerhof should have known that one does not change a winning team. I don’t know if he had actually thought about his action, especially as many believed that it was his decision that cost us that match. From my understanding as a coach, Westerhof would not have allowed what happened on the practice pitch to affect the real match. If he had allowed Oliseh to play, what stopped him from fielding me in the game?
Even when two players were injured during the game, I had expected him to bring me in having played three matches in the World Cup tournament already, but he failed to do so. He rather brought in Mutiu Adepoju and Thompson Oliha when he had a good player who could play as a striker and midfielder as well.
Missing France 1998 World Cup
It was a gang up against me. Our problem was that they told the officials that Keshi and myself were the gang leaders in the national team and insisted that we must not get into the team. We were tagged as such because we fought to ensure that the team was strong. But we know what happened in that tournament, it was one of Nigeria’s worst World Cup outing.
Sabotage by senior Eagles
I don’t really believe that any national team player could embark on a mission to sabotage his country. That was the worst thing any player could have done. But if they actually sabotaged me, they would live to regret their action for the rest of their lives. If they did it, it simply means that they did it to Nigerians who were really very passionate about the game. They would have killed many both physically and psychologically if it were true.
Accepting national team job again
For now, I cannot give a categorical answer because it is the same guys that fired me, despite knowing that I was building a strong team for the future, that are still on the saddle. I think they fired me because they felt they could not toss me around. Or what did I do to deserve sack? Did I lose any game? What kind of game did they play with my sack? It was the same day they concluded my sack arrangement that we lost the ticket against Guinea. That was also the day they called Keshi for the job.
I don’t have anything against Keshi. He is my very good friend, which was why I was at his unveiling ceremony to pledge my solidarity. But those guys that fired me, especially Barrister Chris Green, really offended me. I think that future will judge if they actually did the right thing or not. I have resolved not to hold anything against anybody, but I can never be in the same circle with them anymore, especially working as a coach with them still on the saddle.
If I must go back, I would want to work with people who are honest; people who can tell me, coach; you have failed, we will fire you. Not the ones that will keep lying to me, promising that they are with me, but only to go back and pay journalists to write bad stories concerning me.
I was surprised when I read a report that said nobody could sack me because President Goodluck Jonathan is my brother. What they said was ridiculous because as the president of the country, Jonathan should be the father figure to every Nigerian. Even though we came from the same place, he was not the one that gave me the Eagles’ coaching job.
They would have stood on the reason that they fired me because of the bad contract I signed with the federation, instead of involving the president. If I had done a good job, which I did, they would not have fired me. Why should they pay editors to lie against me with the name of the president? I did not expect that from adults like them.
The next move
I’m regrouping, re-strategising and trying to put myself together because I cannot mourn the national team job forever. I have to move forward with my life. While I await new job, I have my academy to contend with.
Wife did not love football initially
Of course, my wife is my number one fan because my happiness is also hers. She was very sad when Nigeria failed to qualify for the 2012 Nations Cup, because that would have been the greatest moment of my coaching career. When I was playing, she never liked football, but her mum who was into sports, knew everything. My wife gradually got into the game and when she did, she became a great enthusiast.
How they met
I met my wife at the stadium, I think in Benin around 1986. From there, we started talking and dating. She came to Lagos and we travelled together to Belgium before the rest became history. It was love at first sight, but she did not show any surprise when I made a proposal to marry her. She was the only lady I was dating that time and she knew it.
She was only surprised when I decided to take her along with me to Belgium to start my professional career. We got married when we came back from Belgium.
Pressures from European girls
Then, my wife and I were youth lovers. We were always together that European ladies could not threaten our relationship. In fact, I could not have faced the pressure from the ladies; that was why I took my wife to Europe. With her presence, I didn’t have pressure from other ladies.