Emmanuel Amuneke:Playing for Barcelona was Special

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His goals were always crucial and had given Nigeria victory on a number of occasions. From the 1994 Africa Cup of Nations in Tunisia to the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, to the Afro-Asian Cup at the National Stadium in 1998 and many others. Kunle Adewale cornered Emmanuel Amuneke in Lagos; he opened up on his career and much more

Many soccer fans were bemused that dare devil winger, Emmanuel Amuneke was kept on the bench by Dutch tactician, Clemence Westerhof for almost the entire duration of the 1994 Africa Cup of Nations in Tunisia. But in the final game against a stubborn Zambian side, the former Julius Berger of Lagos player was introduced and 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 deserve a place in the team but the coach has the last say. And I was very glad that when I was eventually featured in the last game, I was able to prove a point not only to the coach but to the watching world,” he noted.

Amuneke, who played for the defunct Concord FC and Julius Berger, both of Lagos, like most Nigerian football enthusiasts, is not happy with the present state of Nigeria football and passed the bulk of the blame to the 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 traveling out of the country in search of greener pastures, unlike in our days when we are already fans’ favourite after featuring in the local scene for years before traveling abroad to further our career. It is painful that Nigeria can no longer get a place in the Nations Cup final.”

Against the backdrop of calls in some quarters that new Super Eagles Coach, Gernot Rorh, should inject an appreciable numbers of home-based players into the national team, the former Nigerian international has a different opinion.

“The team still needs the services of the 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, it is a good move to restoring the confidence of the local players, it is going to take a lot of time and exposure to meet up with the challenges. He still needs the experiences of those foreign-based players that are willing to give their best, not only putting on the national jerseys. The coach 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 Barcelona of Spain player said.

Speaking on the dominance of Barcelona, which he once played for, Amuneke attributed high ‘mental speed’ of the players of the team as the main reason behind their dominance in club football till today. Amuneke, who played for the Spanish giant, when former coach of the team, Pep Guardiola was the captain, disclosed that the club would still dominate for a long time.

“I am glad to have been part of the great club in my active days in football, but the present generation is far better than my era when the likes of Guardiola, Ronaldo de Lima, Patrick Kluivert and Rivaldo were the star players of the side.

“When you look at this present generation, their mental speed is very high and gives them the ability to read their surroundings and make accurate passes on the field. When a group of players play cohesively and have field vision far greater than other teams, there is no doubt that they will be a terror to other competitors.

“In my era, we had a collection of talented star players and played good football as well but today these lads are ready to dominate with their accurate passes. If you press forward, you leave your rear exposed and they’ll dominate you greatly. It’s really a complex situation,” Amuneke explained.

The former African Footballer of the Year, who moved to Spanish giants FC Barcelona in 1996 for a fee of $3.6 million had his career at top flight was 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 play for Spainish second division side, Albacete, Busan l’Cons of South Korea and Al-Wahdat SC of Jordan before retiring from football at the age of 33. He also 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.

“It was very painful that the knee injury came at the time it came, especially after moving 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 in France 1998. After our impressive outing at the ’94 Mundial, most of us had moved to big clubs in Europe, 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,” he said.

Asked what really was wrong with team in their second round match against Denmark at Frnace ‘98 and if he would have made any difference if he were there, 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, but I can’t really say what went wrong in the match against Denmark 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 USA ’94 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 price. Getting to the top is easier than staying at the top. After the Atlanta feat, the Nigerian team was like golden fish which has no hiding place.”