His goals were always crucial and had given Super Eagles victory on a number of occasions from the 1994 Africa Cup of Nations in Tunisia and the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta to the Afro-Asian Cup at the National Stadium, Lagos in 1998. Diminutive Emmanuel Amuneke is no doubt a prolific striker. Kunle Adewale recently cornered the former African Footballer of the Year in Lagos…
Many soccer fans and those familiar with his game were surprised that “dangerous’” winger Emmanuel Amuneke was kept on the bench by Dutch tactician, Clemens Westerhof for almost the entire duration of the 1994 Africa Cup of Nations in Tunisia. However in the final game against a stubborn Zambian side, the former Julius Berger of Lagos player was introduced into the game and he did not disappoint. He scored the two goals that secured Nigeria’s second Nations Cup victory after winning an earlier one in 1980 on home ground.
“No player worth his salt likes to warm the bench but I’m the kind of person that respects coaches’ decisions. Even when such decisions are against my desire, I still abide by it. I must confess I was not really pleased that I was not featured in most of the matches of the Nations Cup in Tunisia, especially when I knew within me that I deserved a place in the team but the coach had the last say. I was very glad that when I was eventually featured in the last game and I was able to prove a point not only to the coach but to the watching world,” Amuneke said.
In spite of Super Eagles Africa Cup of Nations success in South Africa earlier this year and an appreciable performance by the Flying Eagles and Golden Eaglets in the African Championship, Amuneke, who played for the defunct Concord FC and Julius Berger both of Lagos says it is not yet Eldorado as far as Nigerian football is concerned.
Like most Nigerian football enthusiasts, he is not happy with the present state of the Nigerian league.
“In as-much-as I believe football changes from generation to generation but the fact remains that the state of our league is taking its toll on the national team. Players no longer play for a long time on the home front before travelling out of the country in search of greener pastures, unlike in our days when we were already fans’ favourites after featuring in the local scene for years before travelling abroad to further our career.”
He poured praises on Super Eagles Coach Stephen Keshi for injecting an appreciable number of home-based players into the national team, but said: “The team still needs the services of a good number of foreign professionals. If the coach should feature a good number of home-based players and fail to get the desired result he would be heavily criticised for excluding the professionals.
Though Keshi’s move has restored the confidence of the local players, which over the years has been badly shaken, is commendable, it is still going to take a lot of time and exposure for the local players to meet up with the challenges.
“He still needs the experiences of those foreign-based players that are willing to give their best, not merely putting on the national jerseys. Keshi should even reach out to Nigerians that are playing in some second division teams in Europe and are eager to play for the national team. Our options should not be limited to some categories of players.”
The former African Footballer of the Year moved to Spanish giants FC Barcelona in 1996 for a fee of $3.6 million. But he had his career at top flight cut short after he suffered a serious knee injury which in the process denied him a regular place in the Catalans team and also deprived him of a second consecutive World Cup with the Super Eagles.
Amuneke never fully recovered from his injury and was released by Barca to play for Spain second Division Albacete. He also had stints with Busan l’Cons of South Korea and Al-Wahdat SC of Jordan before retiring from football at the age of 33.
Amuneke spent some time as an assistant coach at Saudi Premier League side Al-Hazm, but left the club to become a scout for Manchester United of England.
He said: “It was very painful that the knee injury came at the time it came, especially after I just recently moved down to one of the best clubs in the world and already had a wonderful season with them. It was a moment of despair in my footballing career having to watch my colleagues in the national team play at France 1998. After our impressive outing at the ‘94 Mundial, most of us had moved to big clubs in Europe where we played alongside the best players in the world and were really looking forward to the France 1998 World Cup, unfortunately injury denied me of my dream. But I took solace in God like I always do in every situation I find myself.”
Asked what really was wrong with team in their second round match against Denmark and if he would have made any difference if he were there in France 1998, he said: “The team started very well, winning their opening game against favourite, Spain, which was the kind of spirit needed to do well at that level of the competition. Concerning what went wrong in the match against Denmark, I can’t really say because I was not there, but probably the team underrated the Danes because everybody was already talking about the clash with Brazil in the quarter finals, maybe that affected them against Denmark. In football it is one after the other, you don’t look beyond your immediate match. You win the first game before the second and that is one lesson we have to learn,” he said.
Speaking further, the two goals hero at the 1994 World Cup in the U.S. said: “After being voted as the second most entertaining team in the ‘94 Mundial and winning the Atlanta Olympics in a spectacular fashion, defeating football giants-Brazil and Argentina in the process - Nigeria cannot pretend to be minors in football any longer. Therefore, we were the team to beat and we paid the prize. Getting to the top is easier than staying at the top. After the Atlanta feat, the Nigerian team was like a golden fish with no hiding place.”
Amuneke scored a total of 27 goals for the Super Eagles in his less than eight years stint with the team. He is now an assistant coach with the U-17 national team. He said by time the coaching crew finished fine-tuning the team, Nigeria would boast of a true U 17 side.