MUTIU ADEPOJU: The Damman Miracle of ’89 Remains My Best Moment

  • Why I’m Called the Headmaster

Deft feet, athletic body, intuitive fast pace, expansive vision on the pitch, robust midfield management and a head for goals; few footballers have that genius at a go. One of Nigeria’s greatest football midfield maestros, Mutiu ‘Headmaster’ Adepoju, fits that bill. An illustrious player, intrepid and indefatigable, he worked his socks off on behalf of the national team – be it the junior or senior national team – to ensure victories. Unassuming and a man of few words, Adepoju has won laurels on and off the pitch. Funke Olaode in an encounter with the footballer, who was part of the ‘Miracle of Damman’ in Saudi Arabia in 1989, reveals the side of a man many might not know before

His aura, mentality, sense of devotion and history-making success all made him earn a place among the pantheons of football greats in Nigeria and in the world. Known to walk the walk and talk the talk when it matters most, he is head and shoulder above many of his peers. Ex-Super Eagles midfielder, Mutiu Adepoju is one of Nigeria’s football legends who have written his name on the sands of time. Soft spoken, humble and down-to earth, from the back waters of his hometown in Ibadan, Oyo State, Headmaster as he is fondly called played his way into the nation’s consciousness and later put Nigeria on the global map.

His first goal at the famous ‘Damman miracle of ‘89’ when Mutiu and his teammates metamorphosed from ‘zero’ to heroes remains one of the greatest moments for Nigeria, making the whole world to stand still. After 20 years of playing football, Adepoju retired in 2005 to nurture the younger ones through his Headmaster Sports Academy. His name refuses to fade away; his contributions have become a reference point just as his moment playing the soccer was remarkable. Like David Beckham of England, the Argentine football icon, Maradona, the Italian Roberto Bagio of that era who all wrote their names on the sands of time as football legends, ex-international soccer star, Adepoju, belongs to the league of unforgettable stars in Nigeria.

From Ibadan, the Oyo State capital, Adepoju went on to become an international football star, and at the age of 19 put Nigeria on the global map. Not many Nigerians would easily forget the tension-soaked match between Nigeria and the former Soviet nation in 1989 during Under-20 FIFA World Cup in which Nigeria came from behind to win what many considered a ‘lost’ battle.

That feat late became known as the ‘Damman Miracle’ of 1989. As the narrative goes all the football personalities that mattered in the world converged on the oil-rich emirate in a football match between Nigeria and the former USSR. What made that moment memorable was how Nigeria came from trailing USSR 4-0 to winning the match.
The country later bounced back thanks to the first goal scored by Mutiu Adepoju, which later opened the flood gate of three other scores. Nigeria not only equalized but beat the opponent to reach the semi-final later against the United States. The ‘miracle’ continued as Nigeria beat the United States to reach the final. Nigeria, however, lost the final match to Portugal.

But that tournament remains one of the glorious moments as many football enthusiasts still remember that tournament with nostalgia. The memory refuses to go away just like the team that made it happened. He was only 19 with his eyes fixed to conquer the world. Adepoju played roles in the golden era of 1994 squad that conquered Africa and later became fifth in the world. He played the qualifying matches for the USA 1994 World Cup. He was a member of the national team alongside Austin “JJ” Okocha, the late Rashidi Yekini and Peter Rufai. He appeared for the country in the world cups and the African Cup of Nations.

Following his good performance at the Saudi tournament, Adepoju moved to Spain where he plied his football trade for the next 12 years scoring good goals over the course of seven seasons mainly representing Racing Santander and Real Sociedad. He played for the Real Madrid junior team, Castila.

Adepoju has not lost his athletic body, an attestation to his many years of sporting activities. Soft-spoken, down-to-earth and friendly, Adepoju has remained true to himself despite his international exposure and popularity.
The Super Eagles star had his primary education at Cocoa Research Institute of Nigeria (CRIN) Staff School, in Ibadan where his father worked. He went on to attend Prospect High School, Aba Nla, in Ibadan. For his higher education he studied Physical and Health Education at the University of Ibadan.”

Adepoju had initially seen football as a pastime. By the time he grew older it became a passion and by the time he was 15, he saw playing football as a career. At what age did he develop passion for the round-leather game?
“At a very early age and just like every other boy of my age that might have interest,” he began. “I developed interest and actually played in the Cocoa Research Institute of Nigeria (CRIN) Staff School team and that was where I learnt how to play football. Although my uncle was a footballer, I took it a bit higher.

“I started playing in primary and secondary school. I became a professional footballer after finishing secondary school. Although while still in secondary school I was playing for the junior team of Cocoa Research and later moved into the senior team. But everything started at CRIN Staff School.”

The former Super Eagles player added: “I continued to play for CRIN Football Club and later represented Oyo State in National Sports Festival in 1985. And later I was signed by FEMO Sports Club of Eruwa owned by the late business mogul, Chief Adeseun Ogundoyin. From there, I got admission into the University of Ibadan and was still playing for Ogundoyin Club. I later moved to Shooting Stars Football Club of Ibadan. When I was with Shooting stars I was invited to the under-20 national team.

“From Under 20, we went to play Saudi ’89 – the famous miracle of Damman of ‘89. We lost in the final but the miracle of 30 years ago is still being talked to date where the Nigerian team moved from zero to become a hero. We almost lost in quarter final to Russia but miraculously equalized after 4-0 to move to get to the semi final against the United States. Again, we beat them to move to the final but Portugal beat us. It was one of the best moments for Nigeria as the entire world stood still.”

No doubt, Adepoju has written his name in gold as one of the most valuable players Nigeria has ever produced. He has recorded many feats in his career life. The best moment, he said, remains the ‘Miracle of Damman’ at Saudi ‘89. That moment redefined his career. Adepoju stopped playing football professionally in 2005.

He is known as the ‘headmaster’. What was the genesis of that alias? “Well, it emanated from my ability to score goals with my head in the early 90s. I was in the national team then and when I was with under-20 I used to score many goals with my head and all that. It was Mumuni Alao of Complete Sports that gave me that name,” Adepoju explained.

Nigerians are lovers of European football in Nigeria and as someone who played for a long time in Spain, how does he think Nigerian football can be repositioned to be as relevant as European football?
His response: “I am La Liga ambassador in Nigeria and La Liga has a partnership with the Nigerian Football League. As you know I played in Spain, as an ambassador, I am working towards making the partnership a great one and to benefit Nigerian football and youth development and all that. From the youth development it will revive Nigerian football.

“That is what we have been doing since 2016. We have organized football activities in conjunction with NLC. We brought coaches and in 2017, we organized under-15 tournaments for Nigerian clubs. With that we are trying to make sure that the Nigerian football grows and we have been trying on how clubs can be organized. La Liga is helping in making Nigerian football works.”

If there is anything that gives the football legend a dose of regret it was his inability to play for Real Madrid. His gave his reason: “The essence of signing for Real Madrid then was to get into the main team. For instance, while I was playing for Nigeria’s Under 20, I aspired to play for the senior team. I worked towards it and God granted my heart’s desire. I worked hard to play Real Madrid’s main team but the problem then was that only three foreign players could play in the Spanish league and not like today where foreigners can be as many as possible.
“I actually played some friendlies with them, received training with them but didn’t play in the league. I felt it not as a form of regret because I realized that not everything you aspire for that you get. For me, discipline, determination, and dedication are key in whatever one is doing. If you follow your heart, work hard and pray, your wishes will be granted.”

Apart from playing football, what other passion does he have? “None, because since when I was a child I had always wanted to be a footballer. And once I knew that one can actually earn a living from it I embraced it wholeheartedly,” Adepoju stated.

“Although people didn’t attach much importance to it back then, I was able to go abroad and played professionally. Again, my Physical and Health Education degree could have given me an opportunity to coach one club or another but my passion was really in football.”

How rewarding is the game? According to him, football in his days was not raking figures like nowadays. “In terms of satisfaction and fulfilment it is rewarding – that what I know how to do best I get paid for it. Again, people knew and respected me for doing that and people appreciated one’s commitment to one’s calling. Honestly, this gives me joy,” the happy-looking former Super Eagles star told THISDAY.

How is life after football? “It is not bad and I thank God for life of fulfilment that one is able to make a name and earn a decent living at the same time,” he answered. “I currently run Headmaster Sports Academy which is centred on improving and invigorating the mind of children in sport, exposing them to the value, ethics and the wonderful world of football both locally and internationally.

“For instance, we just went into partnership with Corona Secondary school to organize a sports programme themed ‘Easter Soccer Camp’.”

The first batch would open from April 7 to 12, while the second batch will kick off from April 22 to 27. The programme is for youths between 10 and 17 years. The unassuming ‘headmaster’ thinks that is own little way of “catching them young”.

Adepoju plied his trade for 20 years without falling into any scandal. He shared his life lessons: “If you want to be a successful footballer or sportsman you have to be disciplined. In life generally too one has to be disciplined because if don’t have self-discipline one can go astray. As a sportsman being disciplined has helped me to know when to draw the line when it comes to certain areas. And this has helped me even up to this moment to know what I can do and what I shouldn’t do.”

Adepoju has been married for over 20 years and blessed with four wonderful girls. Any regret not having a male child? He waved it off, saying: “My girls are wonderful. In fact, all of them are into sports. My first daughter stopped playing basketball when she gained admission into the university to study Telecommunication Engineering. Today, she is an engineer. My second daughter is in her final year in Queen’s University in Charlotte. She plays football actively and she is one of the best in her team. My third daughter is about to get out of school and has stopped playing basketball too. And my last child who is 16 is into football. I am contented and happy with what God has given me.”