Kingsley Obiekwu was a member of Nigeria’s football team that won gold at the 1996 Olympics and former Super Eagles Defender. He has transformed from being a tyre mender, a bus conductor and now to a driver, TANA AIYEJINA writes on Obiekwu’s tough battles of life
On Valentine’s Day, while lovebirds hugged, cuddled and shared beautiful memories, Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games gold medallist Kingsley Obiekwu also hugged the headlines.
On the day, a Facebook user, known simply as Okwuluora, posted on his page the plight of Obiekwu.
“At Abakpa Motor Park, I saw former Super Eagles Defender Kingsley Obiekwu (Shagari Udoji) loading buses and driving Sienna to Nsukka,” Okwuluora wrote on Facebook with a picture of the retired footballer in action for Nigeria.
“I hugged and greeted him then cried like a man. Life can be cruel Yes. He never made it to the highest level, Yes, but where are his teammates. I will tell Kanu Nwankwo about this. They won Olympics together in Atlanta.
“Obiekwu last made headline when his younger brother died in the field of play. A NATIONAL HERO, AN IDOL TO MILLIONS, AN OLYMPIC GOLD MEDALLIST. We can help lift him again If he is willing. That environment is not for him.”
Obiekwu’s life had plunged from enviable Olympic heights to the dusty Abakpa Motor Park, where he now drives a commercial vehicle to earn a living for himself and family.
“I have four children at the Enugu State University of Technology and my last child is in primary five.
“I have coached Rangers International FC, Ifeanyi Ubah FC, Delta Force FC, Asaba, Giant Brila and also Union Sportif, Krake, Republic of Benin. All of them owe me.”
According to him, he was owed N6m cumulatively from all the clubs he managed.
Now, wind back to the 1990s and you had an imposing Obiekwu, the tall, big and strong defender. Standing at 6ft6in, the giant Obiekwu was a nightmare to strikers during his playing days.
The towering centre-back, popularly known as Shagari, was the only outfield player who didn’t play a game in Atlanta despite playing a major role in qualifying. His ferocious long range stunner against the Egyptian U-23 team in Lagos helped knock out the North Africans in the final game to Atlanta.
But he was often unheralded despite his on-field contributions; he was also a leader, one who kept the dressing room intact. This was evident at Atlanta: while the likes of Nwankwo Kanu, Austin Okocha, Daniel Amokachi, Taribo West, Emmanuel Amuneke, Celestine Bayaro and others were the familiar faces of the Atlanta history makers, Obiekwu hardly had a mention.
The retired footballer agrees; he’s never been one for the limelight.
“The first game I played for the Super Eagles was against Zambia. I felt very proud to play for the Eagles. I went on to play more games for the Eagles, but a reporter once said I never played for the Eagles. I told him I did play. I represented Nigeria at the LG Cup in Tunisia, I played in Carlsberg tournament in Hong Kong, which we won, I played an invitational tournament in Morocco. I also played against Jamaica and then against Switzerland, when Nigeria was preparing for the World Cup. I played lots of games for the Eagles but I just didn’t represent the country in a major tournament at senior level,” Obiekwu added.
His teammate at Udoji United Chikelue Iloenyosi described Obiekwu as “a great individual and leader.”
“He led by example and was disciplined; a great character in the dressing room,” Iloenyosi, now the Chairman, Board of Trustees, All Nigeria Football Players Union, said.
Now 47, Obiekwu’s life has been riddled with challenges, football only providing succour at some point.
“My life’s full of challenges,” he told Sunday PUNCH in an interview in 2013.
“In my family, everybody had to fend for themselves. My father married three wives and he didn’t care for everybody. At a point, I vulcanised tyres. I was also a bus conductor but at the same time, I took my football seriously.
“I played street football and we organised ourselves; went to friends and families to raise money for our jerseys and register for competitions. That was the challenges that we faced then.”
It was thus no surprise when Shagari got the desired big break in life, through football.
“The opportunity came after I represented Imo State in the football event of the National Sports Festival with the likes of Kanu and Mobi Oparaku in 1991. I played for Police FC against Enugu Rangers and I had a very good game and Udoji United came for me and asked me to sign for them,” Obiekwu said.
He featured for Udoji from 1992 to 1995 before joining Dutch top division side Go Ahead Eagles. But his sojourn in European football was short-lived due to a medical issue after just three seasons.
“When I went to Go Ahead Eagles for my medical, they told me that I had an enlarged heart. And I asked them what the effect was. They told me that what it meant was that I would get tired faster than any other player on the pitch,” Obiekwu added.
“Really, that was what I was experiencing. I wanted to know what medication I could use to regain my fitness 100 per cent but I was told there was nothing I could do about it; its natural, something that I was born with. That was why I couldn’t give my very best even though I was one of the best defenders.
“In the 1997/98 season, I played against VVV Venlo and they wanted to sign me but my club refused because they didn’t want my heart issue known to other clubs. I still thank them for what they did for me because if I had gone to Venlo, it would have become a big issue. So, because of that, I couldn’t go beyond what I achieved as a player (in Europe) but I don’t have any regrets.”
He left Go Ahead Eagles for Al Ahli Shabab Club in Dubai in 1998 but returned home to Enugu Rangers, his boyhood club, featuring for them in the Nigerian topflight from 2000 to 2002, before another sojourn abroad to Egyptian side Al-Masry, where he spent just a season. He finally called it quits as a player, at Rangers, in 2006.
On retirement, he obtained a coaching pro-license certificate in the UK and had stints at Rangers, Ifeanyi Ubah, Delta Force and USS Krake in Benin Republic but couldn’t get an NPFL coaching job, which required CAF Grade A and Grade B certificates.
Financial challenges afterwards almost made him sell his cherished Olympic gold medal.
“Honestly, I wanted to sell that gold medal at a point,” he stated. “That was in 2008, when I was in the United Kingdom. I wanted to sell it because I had financial challenges at that time and I thank God I didn’t sell the medal at the end of the day. Since nobody cared for you from your country, you had to fend for yourself.
“Surprisingly, even the Member of The Niger award that was given to us is not recognised. When you go to some offices and tell them that you are an MON, they won’t even look at you. They will ask you, “Is MON above the law?” Somebody has asked me that. It’s surprising. What is the need of giving me an MON award if I cannot enjoy the benefits and privileges that come with it?
“But when I see the Olympic medal now, I feel very proud. It gives me joy. When I was in London, my white colleagues in my office felt very proud working with an Olympic gold medallist. The coaches that trained me were also impressed. You know whites like evidence. When I told them I was a gold medalist, they didn’t believe but when I showed them the medal, they were surprised. They said, ‘What are you doing here? You are a superstar and you need to work in your country.’ So, it was somehow disappointing.”
Now, there seems to be a shining light at the end of the tunnel for Obiekwu.
Ahmed Musa, current Eagles captain, sent the retired footballer N2m on learning of his plight, while players union ANFPU has also made headway in Obiekwu’s rehabilitation talks with the Nigeria Football Federation.
“The NFF has pledged to give Obiekwu a coaching role with one of the national teams after I told Amaju Pinnick (NFF president) about what Obiekwu was passing through. I thank the NFF president because of his quick response concerning retired footballers’ welfare. He responded same way when Wilson Oruma and Femi Opabunmi also had issues. I’m happy Obiekwu will enjoy a new lease of life again,” Iloenyosi, a member of the Flying Eagles squad at the 1999 U-20 World Cup, said.