Emmanuel Amuneke was one of the “golden generation” of Nigerian football players and was amongst the players at the FIFA World Cup finals in the United States, in 1994.
Amuneke scored in Nigeria’s 3-0 victory over Bulgaria in the Super Eagles’ first game and also in the round of 16 versus Italy. Earlier the same year, he scored twice as Nigeria defeated Zambia 2-1 in the final of the Africa Cup of Nations, to claim their second African title. That same year, he was named African Footballer of the Year in recognition of his consistent high performance.
Amuneke’s knack for scoring important goals continued in 1996 as he scored the decisive goal against Argentina in the Olympics. Winning the match 3-2, Nigeria became the first African side to win Olympic Gold in the men’s football event.
The feared attacker didn’t only do important things for his country – he also played for a host of top European clubs like FC Barcelona and Sporting Club of Portugal.
Amuneke sat down with SPNAfrica’s Sammy Wejinya to discuss the biggest talking points of his playing and coaching career.
“Those days, many footballers were viewed as illiterates and a nuisance in society”
SPN Africa: How did you begin your football education?
Emmanuel Amuneke: First of all, I will say it (my talent) is a gift from God. I come from a generation of footballers because my father was a footballer as well.
I started with my youth team; Osjac which is based in Mushin. We trained at Ikeja Grammar School in Lagos. At that time, I was a student of Cardoso High School, Badia, Apapa. To this day, I still maintain a good relationship with my former teammates at Osjac and my first coach, Raphael.
I also played for the Lagos State under-13 team. The team was coached by (former African coach of the year), Yemi Tella and we represented Lagos State at the National Sports Festival. Those days, many footballers were viewed as illiterates and a nuisance in society.
I always had the dream to play for the Super Eagles. Many sacrifices were made as I recall embarking on road walks from Badia, Ijora to the National Stadium (Lagos) and then jog back to the school with my teammates at youth level. We did these things because we wanted to fulfil our dreams of playing at the highest level.
Did you have any heroes back then?
Yes. I looked up to David Etemere who was with Julius Berger. I think this played a role in me eventually joining Julius Berger FC (now Bridge FC) before I moved to Egypt to play for Zamalek. I played for Berger for one season.
You didn’t play for any other Nigerian club before you moved to Egypt?
I did. I played for Nigerlos, a state team based in Lagos. I also spent a short time with Concord FC before I joined Julius Berger FC. Those clubs prepared me for my professional career in later years.
My participation at the All Africa Games in 1991 in Cairo also helped in my move to Egypt because it was at that tournament that Zamalek scouts spotted me.
I thank James Peters (coach of the Nigeria team) for the opportunity because he already had a settled squad before I joined the under-23 team at the time.
“I had the chance to go straight to Europe from Nigeria but choose to start my career in Egypt”
You scored over 25 league goals in over 70 appearances for Zamalek. What were your best memories in Egypt?
I wanted to build a legacy for myself because I knew it offered me the opportunity to further develop as a footballer.
I had the chance to go straight to Europe from Nigeria but choose to start my career in Egypt. This gave me the opportunity to get a lot of insight about African football because I met players from other parts of the continent in Egypt. I won two Egyptian league titles with Zamalek and also won the CAF Champions League title during my time in Egypt.
I also won the African Super Cup and the Egyptian Cup during my three seasons with the club.
It was during that period too that you helped Nigeria win the 1994 Africa Cup of Nations but you didn’t get to play until the final. What was it like playing second fiddle to Samson Siasia, Rashidi Yekini, Daniel Amokachi and the rest?
No footballer loves to sit on the bench but I also had to be realistic. I knew there were 22 of us in Tunisia and that not everyone would play. Those who were playing were doing very well so I was happy for them and respected the decision of coach (Clemens) Westerhof.
I also worked hard in training to put myself in a position to be able to help the team whenever I was called upon. To be honest, I was surprised when the coach told me I would start in the final against Zambia.
This was because the closest I had come to tasting action was during the quarter-final against Zaire when I was asked to warm up. In the final, I was able to make a statement for myself and help my team by scoring our two goals.
“At that time, it was unheard of for an African team to win Gold in the football event at the Olympics”
You recorded another high while representing your country two years later. Talk us through those memories from Atlanta in 1996?
At that time, it was unheard of for an African team to win Gold in the football event at the Olympics because it had never been done before. I was fortunate to score the winning goal in the final as we defeated Argentina 3-2. It was a tournament that opened doors for a lot of Nigerian players.
Soon after, you began your sojourn at FC Barcelona.
Yes, I was the first Nigerian to play for FC Barcelona. It was an important time in my career because it showed I had the quality to play at the highest level. However, injuries did not allow me do everything I wanted to do with Barcelona.
I had the opportunity to play with great players like (Hristo) Stoichkov, (Pep) Guardiola, Luis Figo, Ronaldo (Nazario de Lima) and Rivaldo. I am happy for that.
The reason I sustained such a serious injury is because I am a box-to-box player who is not afraid of taking risks but I am grateful to God for allowing me set a standard even with the limited amount of time I played.
You mentioned Guardiola. Did you ever notice the traits of a coach in him during your playing days?
Yes, I did. He always showed the capacity and intelligence to understand and interpret the game. However, I think it is difficult to tell if a footballer can end up as a good coach.
Guardiola was given the best conditions to work irrespective of the fact that he did not have so much experience in the beginning. The people he worked with deposited confidence and belief in him and it paid off. As a footballer, Pep was quite intelligent and I am pleased he is doing very well as a manager today.
But you still had some great memories at FC Barcelona, didn’t you?
In my first season with the club, we won the Copa del Rey. I joined in mid-season. It was a very tough season and that was the only trophy we won that season. That was not the objective of FC Barcelona, a club with very high standards that always wants to win the league and Champions League titles.
You were named African Footballer of the Year in 1994. What was the feeling like?
Every footballer wants to be recognized as the best especially during my generation when there were a lot of great players like George Weah, (Rashidi) Yekini, Abedi (Pele) and (Augustine) Okocha.
There were also the Hassan brothers from Egypt (Hossam and Ibrahim) and Naybet (Nouredinne) from Morocco. It was remarkable as I was still playing in Africa at the time I won the award.
In 2000, you were part of the Nigeria squad that finished as runners-up to Cameroon at that year’s Africa Cup of Nations. How painful was that?
Very, very painful especially as the team went all the way to the final where we had the chance to win the title in front of our fans. Cameroon are our big rivals and we wanted to win the title that year especially as were the host nation.
It was a very sad moment for us.
“I communicated more with Bonfrere and he seemed to believe in my ability more but I also appreciate Westerhof for first giving me the chance to fight for a shirt in the Super Eagles.”
You worked with two of the most successful coaches in the history of Nigerian football, Westerhof and Johannes Bonfrere. What are the major differences between the two coaches?
First, I want to thank both men for giving me the opportunity to play for the national teams. I respect them a lot. They are totally different.
I communicated more with Bonfrere and he seemed to believe in my ability more but I also appreciate Westerhof for first giving me the chance to fight for a shirt in the Super Eagles. They gave us, the players, the chance to discover the other side of the world of football.
How painful was it for you to miss the 1998 FIFA World Cup in France?
It was painful because that would have been my second World Cup. Five months before the start of the World Cup, I picked up a serious injury which meant I was not in a position to compete at a very high level. I was not in a position to help the team because of that injury which I sustained in our last qualifying game against Guinea in Conakry.
Some persons at the time said I should be included in the World Cup squad but I knew it would be a wrong decision. I am an explosive and box-to-box player and if I am not totally fit, I will not be at my best. So what was the point in going to France when I knew I could not help the team?
Will you describe yourself as an injury prone footballer?
The thing is, injuries are a part of football. No one plans to get injured.
It happens and I accepted it in good fate.
“You can build a strong team which can be lost in the blink of an eye because key players fail the MRI tests”
You coached Nigeria’s U17 team, the Golden Eaglets between 2014 and 2017. What were your highs and lows?
It is not an easy job because of the structure that we (do not) have on ground (in Nigeria). In Europe, there are youth leagues that enables the coach to go and watch the players. The coach spends months having screening exercises to select players while also keeping an eye on the MRI (Magnetic resonance imaging) which is a major factor.
This is because a player who is selected by a coach may end up failing the MRI tests and the player then becomes ineligible.
It is a very difficult job because you can build a strong team which can be lost in the blink of an eye because key players fail the MRI tests and you have to start rebuilding again.
Winning the World Cup with the Golden Eaglets was great for me. I had won it as an assistant to Manu (Garba) in 2013 so to do it as the head coach in 2015 was fulfilling.
Working with Manu helped me gain experience in the aspect of knowing the kind of players to introduce into the team to get the best results.
You led Tanzania to a place at the 2019 AFCON. Why did things not go as well as you planned with the Taifa Stars in Egypt?
The objectives we set out to achieve initially which was leading the Taifa Stars to a place at the finals was achieved so every other thing, for me, was irrelevant. The idea was to gain experience at the AFCON in Egypt and grow from there.
Was Tanzania going to win the AFCON? I will say only an unrealistic person would have expected that so for me qualifying saw me achieve the target. It was the first time in 38 years that Tanzania was qualifying for the AFCON so it was a great feat.
I thank Tanzanians for the opportunity to qualify for the AFCON and I hope they can build on that success and qualify for the next edition of the AFCON.
What went wrong at Egyptian club, Misr El Makkasa sports club?
But it was reported that you were sacked by the club after spending just 28 days in charge….
That is not true. I wasn’t sacked. I am still in Makkasa. The thing is, a committee set up by the club wanted me to help get them (Makkasa) restructured.
The team has been struggling from the beginning of the season but we are improving. The club president wanted me to be in a much higher position but the only thing I disagree with is the manner in which it (the redeployment) was done.
I wasn’t informed before that decision was taken. But it is not true that I have been sacked because I am still with the club.
“I have worked with many coaches like James Peters, Carlos Queiroz, Louis van Gaal, Sir Bobby Robson and Jose Mourinho. If I am to select one, I will choose Queiroz”
Who was the best coach you ever worked with and what qualities stood him out?
I have worked with many coaches like James Peters, Carlos Queiroz, Louis van Gaal, Sir Bobby Robson and Jose Mourinho. If I am to select one, I will choose Queiroz who I worked with while I was at Sporting Lisbon. He knew what I could do and believed in my abilities.
However, I appreciate all the coaches I worked with because I learned a lot of things from all of them.
Tell us about the best goal you ever scored.
That is hard to choose because scoring goals is not easy. All the goals I scored in my career are important. However, the most significant were the goals I scored in the final of the 1994 Africa Cup of Nations finals because they were important in helping Nigeria win the trophy.
Also the goal I scored [in the 1996 Olympics] against Argentina in the final of the men’s football event was also significant because it was the winning goal that saw an African team win Gold at that level for the very first time.
Who is the most difficult opponent you ever faced?
Rigobert Song, the Cameroonian. I still remember a UEFA Cup (first leg, round of 32) game we (Sporting Club) played against his team (Metz at Saint-Symphorien, France on October 15, 1996) where he did not give me any breathing space.
It was almost impossible to go past Song on that day as he gave me a very difficult time.
Who is the most talented teammate you ever played with?
It has to be Finidi George because he crosses brilliantly, very pacy and also makes the game look so simple.
Best moment in football?
Winning the AFCON title in 1994 and winning Olympic Gold in 1996.
Worst moment in football?
Being injured is always difficult for me.
Thank you for your time, Emmanuel.
You are welcome.