The Story Of Etim Esin
Fame and success early in his career; part of an elite class of the Green Eagles of Nigeria (the national team) which included players like the Late Great Samuel Okwaraji, Superlative Samson Siasia, Ruthless Rashidi Yekini and Peter-The Great-Rufai; attacked and shot by armed robbers; rape allegations in Belgium; fled back home; football punditry after an active career in football, Etim Esin’s story is the stuff of Hollywood, or Nollywood as the case may be.
When you are compared with the legendary Maradona of Argentina (skills-wise that is), you know you are on top of your game as a creative midfielder and that there is something special about you. Referred to as the Black Maradona early in his career, Esin was destined for great heights. However, a combinations of ‘mistakes’ – as Esin himself often describes these – would bring what was a flying career come crashing to earth like a pack of cards and a European football career in tatters at a prime stage.
Esin has used numerous platforms to advice up and coming footballers to learn from the errors of his ways as a footballer. For instance, a few years ago when he was appointed by the National Association of Nigerian Footballers (NANF) as the Ambassador for youth programmes, he said in an interview that he would use his new position to ‘counsel up and coming players on how to stay out of trouble in their careers’.
Born in 1969 in Oron the present day Akwa Ibom State, Nigeria, Esin was somewhat of a rebel in his career choice. This so because he chose a career path of football in a family that valued education, white collar jobs and business. Indeed his siblings were lawyers and international businessmen. His late father had been an advisor to the Governor of the then Cross River State, Nigeria. In fact when Esin was growing up in the 1970’s and early 80’s, parents would not encourage their children to take up a career in football. They would much rather prefer and encourage their children to pursue ‘proper’ careers like medicine, law and business administration. In fairness, parents back then did not expect footballers to travel and ply their trade abroad, earn fantastic wages, gain international exposure and bring glory back home. Times indeed have changed.
Early Signs of Greatness
Etim Esin was a midfield maestro. His strengths laid in his passing abilities and dribbling skills. He could be likened to other midfield marshals like fellow Nigerian Jay Jay Okocha and Zinedine Zidane of France (in certain aspects of his play like distributing pinpoint passes from the midfield). His presence of mind, awareness and football technical acuity drew comparisons with football greats. He was nicknamed ‘the Black Maradona’ by seasoned sports commentators like the late Ernest Okonkwo of Radio Nigeria.
He started his career in the 1980’s with Calabar Rovers FC, a first division football club in Nigeria. He later moved to the now defunct Flash Flamingos and then to Iwayanwu National (now called Heartland of Owerri) in 1987; both Nigerian based. Fans of these clubs were often treated to football mastery which made their efforts to go and watch him play all the more rewarding.
Throughout the early 80’s, it was obvious that the young man was a star in the making and that his choice of a career in football had not been misplaced. His club form predictably attracted interest from the national team handlers and he was invited to the National Under-20 side to qualify Nigeria for the FIFA World youth championship to be held in Chile in 1987.
The Flying Eagles – as the Under-20 side were known – won the African youth championship with ease en route qualifying for the World youth championship with Esin shining like a million stars. Nigerian fans could hardly wait to see him strut his stuff on the global stage.
National Team Career
Paradoxically, Etim Esin never achieved success with Nigeria in any major competition despite his abundant skills. His greatest success came in qualifying Nigeria for the FIFA World youth tournament in 1987 in Chile and winning the African youth championship which wasn’t really a proper competition. His under-20 squad to the FIFA World youth championship in Chile however failed miserably, losing two matches, drawing one to come bottom of their group. They scored only two goals but managed to concede eight losing their first game 0:4 to Brazil.
“When it dawned on me after the first game against Brazil that we have lost the match by 4-0,” he said in an interview with Nigeria’s National Mirror, “I was seriously demoralized.” It seemed the entire team felt demoralized and never bounced back from that massive defeat. Much had been expected from that squad that included some players who had won the maiden edition of the FIFA Under-16 World cup in 1985. These included Nduka Ugbade and Jonathan Akpoborie. Etim Esin scored no goals in that tournament.
Esin was not part of the impressive silver winning Nigerian squad that narrowly lost 0:1 to Cameroun (via a penalty competently dispatched by Cameroun legend Emmanuel Kunde) in the Final of the African Cup of Nations in Morocco in 1988. He was however part of the squad that lost 0:1 to Cameroun (again!) in Yaoundé, Cameroun on 18 October 1989. Nigeria only needed a draw to be all but certain to win one of the two African tickets up for grabs to participate at the FIFA World cup in Italy, Italia ‘90.
Esin had had a fantastic qualifying campaign. He caused problems for opposing teams with his dribbling skills, sleek passing moves, occasional man-marking duties and ability to dictate play. They had in fact beaten Cameroun 2:0 on the first leg of their qualify matches played at the Adamasingba Stadium in the historic city of Ibadan, Oyo state, Nigeria. Esin had a man of the match performance on that day.
Tragedy however struck during the penultimate qualifying match against Angola on 12 August 1989 at the National Stadium in Lagos, Nigeria when Samuel Okwaraji slumped and died during the match after 77 minutes. Okwaraji, spotting a Ruud Gullit of Holland style dreadlocks, was an up and coming highly respected and highly educated Nigerian midfielder. His sudden death from congestive heart failure sent the whole nation into mourning.
So, going into the last match against Cameroun, the Nigerian players – who all wept openly upon the news of the death of their comrade – went to it still grieving. “So many things went wrong that affected us psychologically in that match because we were afraid of losing another player after the death of Sam Okwaraji”, he said in the interview with National Mirror.
“In that Yaoundé game, our goalkeeper David Ngodigha collapsed and we had to continue the game with a replacement. It was a sad experience! Oman Biyik scored against us and that goal gave Cameroon the desired victory they needed to qualify for Italia ‘90 FIFA World Cup finals. It was a match we needed a draw to enable us qualify but that loss cost us the qualification ticket. It was one loss too many!”
Etim Esin – who played in all six matches – scored no goals in the qualifying campaign.
Indiscipline and Rape Allegation
Indiscipline plagued the career of Etim Esin. In 1987 while preparing for the World youth championship, Esin disregarded camp rules and sneaked out. His luck ran out as he got shot by armed robbers on this occasion. The robbers had spotted him by his Peugeot 505 (the sport version of the ubiquitous Peugeot 504) and shot him in a robbery attempt.
The incident occurred a few months before the Under-21 World cup but the national team handlers included him in the squad anyway. “I want to say that my inclusion in that team was a big mistake from the coaching crew”, he said in the interview with National Mirror.”
“But I won’t blame them because they were also under intense pressure to field me. Even when I was in the hospital at LUTH, the NTA (Nigerian Television Authority) crew will come to my hospital bed to interview me to know how I was recuperating and beam the interviews to the world. And to cap it all, so many Nigerians were with me in prayers.”
He said further “Nobody gave me the chance of a possible return to the Chile ’87 squad because of the nature of injury I sustained from those robbers. The bullet wounds were so painful and I was put under painkillers even during the Chile ‘87 tourney. My fans and even the government wanted me to showcase my talent to the world at such big stage. So, the coaching crew led by Chris Udemezue of blessed memory was under intense pressure and had no option than to include me in the Chile ‘87 train.” The team failed.
In the early 1990’s, he took his established position in the national team for granted expecting to be begged to play for his fatherland. “When some of us threatened not to play for our country, Westerhof took the bold step in dropping about 50 percent of the players of the national team including myself” he said in an interview with Nigeria’s Newswatch magazine. “In our place, he brought in Finidi George, Daniel Amokachi and a number of others. The team he hurriedly assembled went on to beat Burkina Faso 7-0 (in 1991) in a Cup of Nations qualifier”. Esin’s national team career was effectively over.
Dutchman Coach Clements Westerhof had a vision for the Nigerian national team and he was not about to allow pompous players disrupt it. The ‘raw’ and ‘hungry’ talents he discovered, nurtured and developed along with a handful of established (and disciplined)players like Rashidi Yekini went on to win silver (1990), bronze (1992) and gold ( 1994) at the African cup of nations. These players qualified Nigeria for their first ever world cup appearance, reaching the second round and only losing narrowly 0:1 to Italy.
The single most important incident that ruined his European club career was rape allegations in Belgium in the early 1990’s. While under contract with AK Ghent of Belgium rape allegations were made against him. “It was a racial treatment”, he said in the interview with Newswatch magazine. “My girlfriend framed me up. She was pregnant and the kid turned out to be white. She knew I wouldn’t marry her.”
The damage was already done and his version of these events notwithstanding, he sadly fled from the country soon afterwards. His contract with the football club was discontinued; he would not secure any professional football contract in Europe at any level again. Although he continued for a while to play in the Nigerian local league, his top flight football career was all but over.
Esin is still a prominent character in Nigeria football circles. His views are always sought after by the Nigerian press about leading football issues of the day. He recently worked for HiTV, a Nigerian television station, as a football pundit.
“My working on the television station is another opportunity for me to inspire the young footballers and other sportsmen in the country that at the end of their career, they can have something else doing,” he said in the interview with Newswatch.
Asked if he had any regrets for choosing a career in football, “No regrets because the game brought me popularity and made me come closer to God during my trial period” he said.“So, no regrets for now!”