Lagos — He was an embodiment of sultry soccer skills, so much so that he made his mark in his short spell with Green Eagles. Ndubuisi Okosieme held the entire country spell bound with his delicate touches, but his blossoming career was cut short by injuries writes Niran Adesanya
But for a dramatic twist of fate during an inter-class match in 1977 at Adolo Primary School in Benin, Ndubuisi Okosieme may not have become the household name he is today in Nigeria's soccer circles.
The incident saw young Ndubuisi, who started football as a goalkeeper converting himself to an upfield player to become the hero of his class after scoring the decider in the semi final of an inter-class match.
"My first real experience in football was in this inter-class competition at Adolo Primary School. And my talent became known in a semi final game in which I was the goalkeeper for my class. The match was tense because both teams were good, but tried as we both did, we did not have a goal to show for the several chances we created, with my team being the more culpable.
"With the way the match was going I felt we needed to score because if they scored us first we would lose and I was not ready for that. So I now called in over reserve goalkeeper. You know how things were in those days," so that I can go forward because I believed I could score and that was exactly what happened. I scored a beautiful goal which put us in the final, where I again scored the lone goal that gave my class victory in the competition.
For Ndubuisi, that was the beginning of his sojourn into the exciting world of football as he was later selected into his school's team which competed in and reached the final of the then Bendel State primary schools competition that same year, but they eventually lost 0-1 to Oroghene Primary School in the final. The exploits of Ndubuisi's school (Adolo Primary School) in that state championship saw them becoming the toast of other schools as they played numerous friendlies with other schools including the popular Edokpolor Grammar School, Benin. The match which was played against a mixture of Edokpolor's Class 1 and 2 players was won by his school.
In that same 1977, he was admitted into Oba Khavbaye Grammar School, Benin and within his two-year stay there he made his impact felt, playing for the junior team when names in Nigerian football like Mike Odu, Loveday Omoruyi and Humphrey Edobor played for the school's main team (senior). Due to the change in the status of the school, the fragile-built Ndubuisi, who was born in Ayilara Street, Ojuelegba, Lagos to Mr. and Mrs. Cyril Okosieme had to move to Edokpolor Grammar School in 1979.
It was at the famous school that young Ndubuisi had his first feel of the much-talked about Bendel State Principal's Cup competition and in his second outing for Edokpolor Grammar School alongside other stars like goalkeeper Wilfred Agbonivbare, Friday Elahor, Augustine Igbinabaro, the late Osaro Obobaifo, Christopher Edomiaya (a.k.a. Police of Senegal) they won the championship which they successfully defended for two years consecutively. He recalls that though his school's team was generally good, he was infact the thorn in the flesh of opposing other teams.
"Then I was a real headache for many defenders from other participating schools because of the way I ran rings around them," he said joyfully.
In 1983, Edokpolor represented the old Bendel State football event of the All Secondary Schools Games held in Ibadan tagged "Lagelu 83" and it was there that he first gained national recognition as he and some other notable footballers like the Addi brothers, Albert and David, Tandoh and Charles Osuji defeated the enterprising Lagos State Principal's Cup champions, St. Gregory's College, Obalende to win the football gold.
Ndubuisi, on returning to Benin after his exploits in "Lagos 83' got a rare opportunity to attend the great Bendel Insurance's screening ahead of a new season, but sadly he narrowly missed making the team.
"The coaches at Insurance then told me that I could not make the team because I was too small to play in the national league. It was very painful for me because some of my peers, Rowland Ewere, Ikpomwonsa Omorege and Augustine Igbinadalor made the team. I was really downcast about it and because of this I swore to help beat Bendel Insurance whenever I played against them", he remarked.
The following year, Ndubuisi had his opportunity in a pre-season friendly between his new club, Nigerian Rubber Board FC and Insurance played at the Ogbe Stadium, but he failed to actualise his promise, as the match ended in a stalement. Much later, that same year, another opportunity came calling, this time it was in the Boyos Cup in Benin, where he made the most of the privilege given him.
"I was simply unstoppable that day. I was full of determination and was some how turbo-charged for the match. Insurance didn't know what hit them when I scored the first goal and set up the second with Osaro Obobaifo making an assist in the third goal of a 3-1 victory over the "almighty" Bendel Insurance. Our coach, Ufere Nwankwo, was really very proud of our performance," he recalled.
Rubber Board, with the help of Ndubuisi and the like of late Obobaifo, later gained promotion to play in the national Division Two but were disbanded by the management due to financial constraints and were soon to be bought over by Flash flamingoes. At that time, two other elite division clubs, NNB of Benin and Julius Berger of Lagos showed interest in him. After weighing his options he settled for NNB. Unfortunately for him the deal later fell through.
"What happened was that the Director of Flash Flamingoes, Mr. Patrick Osakwe, wanted me to play for his club but I elected to play for NNB which was already in Division one. Mr. Osakwe who was bent on having me then threatened to withdraw his money from NNB (the bank) if I was not returned to Flash. This made me very angry and I decided that if I wasn't allowed to play for NNB, I won't play for Flash. Rather, I said I would play for Berger and see if he (Osakwe) can stop me from doing that. However, Mr. Osakwe, who knew my late father prevailed on him to pacify me and I later accepted to return to Flash", he reminisced.
That same year was quite an eventful one for Ndubuisi who was then about to clock 20 years of age as he made Nigeria's national Under 20 team which featured in and won the 1984 Ecowas competition tagged "Shagari Cup," beating old rivals, Ghana 2-0 in the final.
Ndubuisi, while still with Flash which he played for until 1988, was selected to be a part of Nigeria's U-20 team that won the African championship known as the "Tessema Cup," beating Tunisia 2-0 in Lagos after losing the first leg in Tunisia by a lone goal. This feat was what paved the way for his first trip outside the African continent, when alongside the national U-20 team skipper, Andrew Uwe, Mike Odu, Augustine Igbinabaro, Waheed Akanni, Aloy Agwu and late Osaro Obabaifo, among others, he represented Nigeria and Africa at the Junior World Cup staged in Mosow, then USSR.
The 1985 junior World Cup Team brought honour to the continent as they finished third in the championship after beating the hosts, Russia via penalty shoot-out in the third place match. However, Ndubuisi believes the team could have gone all the way to the final. If he had not missed the semi final match against Brazil which Nigeria lost.
"I strongly felt that we wouldn't have lost that match if I had played because it is in those kind of matches that I usually make the difference. I've always been like that since my early days in football, just when everyone thinks it is all over, I come out from the blues to do the magical," he noted.
The following year, after his impressive showing in Moscow, would have offered Ndubuisi his first international cap but this was not to be because the Green Eagles' opponent, South Korea's National team which was expected to turn up in Lagos for the tie never did. The opportunity presented itself in 1987. This time around, Ndubuisi took full advantage of it, playing a great part in Nigeria's qualification for the Seoul '88 Olympic Games. Sadly, again after his role in the qualifiers for Seoul '88, Ndubuisi was denied a place in the final Olympic squad by an injury.
Despite this misfortune, Ndubuisi still had a fruitful year in the national team. Apart from being a part of the qualifying squad, he played an active role in the Green Eagles' second place finishing at the 1988 Africa Cup of Nations played in Morocco.
"I had a great time at Maroc '88 because I played almost all our matches except our group match against Cameroun which we drew 1-1 and the semi-final clash with Algeria. What made me happy was the fact that I played in the final even though we lost 0-1 to the Indomitable Lions of Cameroun," he said with a tinge of nostalgia.
Surprisingly, despite the immense skills the nimble-footed right winger possessed and the quality of his game, Maroc '88 was his last international outing for Nigeria. Other games that followed which saw him getting a call up to camp went only as far as sitting on the bench. A case in point was the 1989 encounter against the Angolan national team in Luanda, when a minor case of athlete's foot cost him the opportunity of featuring in the match.
Before this encounter, Ndubuisi had returned to Nigeria after the Nations Cup and signed for Division Three clubside, El-Kanemi of Maiduguri and a year later, he joined the wave-making ACB FC of Lagos but did not stay for long following his departure for London in search of greener pasture.
"My trip to London was not fruitful as I had anticipated, so I came back to Nigeria and again left for Belgium and signed a two-year contract with a Second Division Side, KFC Eeklo.
"Two years later I had some problems with Eeklo because I had completed my contract, but they still wanted to keep me. I asked them to renew my contract but for no genuine reason they refused. And that same year (1991) I moved to Germany, where I joined FC Trier in the Third Division but the contract was bungled by my former Belgium Club, Eeklo. I later found out that the problem I had was from my Belgian Manager, Willy Plum, whom I immediately cut ties with and crossed over to London".
While, in London, Ndubuisi found it difficult playing in any of the professional leagues, so he settled for amateur teams, Winsden Constantine and Petersfield Town between 1992-95, determined to play his way back to top flight football.
His plan was at the verge of materialising when he came back home in 1995 and proved his mettle in camp ahead of the Super Eagles' Afro-Asian Cup match against Uzebekistan. After Being allowed to join the Eagles Camp by the then coaching trio of Amodu Shuaibu, Kelechi Emeteole and Aloysuis Atuegbu (Blockbuster) fate dealt him a hard blow.
"It was just a few days to the match and we were in training. I was called up to fill in for an injured player. The most painful aspect of this incident was that I had already made the team because the previous day one of the coaches had asked me about my boot size, my passport and other travel documents, this meant I was travelling with the team.
"But after I came on I fractured my knee. I made a dribble and took a shot at goal and the next thing that happened was that I fell and I noticed I could not straighten my left leg. My knee just gave way without anybody tackling me," he said in an emotional tone.
The thought of what happened on the fateful day still brings back painful memories to Ndubuisi who says his greatest regret is the fact that "after my contributions to Nigerian football, playing for both the junior and national teams, the country's soccer authorities refused to treat me for the injury sustained in camp. They said I was not officially invited for the match. Can you believe that"?
Determined to make something out of his football career, Ndubuisi with the little money he made while playing abroad, paid for the treatment of his knee by one Dr. Ozoni at the Military, Base Hospital at Yaba in November, 1995. He returned to full fitness level again but the wishes the highly skilful winger, who was given the sobriquet "Garincha" by one of the then national team coaches, Tunde Disu because he (Ndubuisi) reminded him (Disu) of the great Brazilian Soccer star, Garincha, never came to pass.
"I tried afterwards to get back to top flight action by going for trials with some local clubs because I felt I still had something to offer, but all the efforts were fruitless. Virtually all the clubs wanted me to assist them in training their players because of my wealth of experience. I turned down their requests because I felt the job of a coach was not for me and that it was too hectic", he remarked.
The easy-going, ebony-skinned player who has been based in Benin for a greater part of his life after missing an opportunity to travel to Dubai in July 1999 due to his father, Cyril Okosieme's death, later bowed to pressure and accepted the offer to coach at the Paulson Football Academy in Benin, owned by sports philanthropist, Humphrey Paulson. Ndubusisi who is still coaching at the academy believes God is trying to use him in another way to contribute to soccer development in Nigeria.
"You see in life man proposes but God disposes. I think God is trying to show me something. May be he wants to use me to develop players who will be bigger than me. My focus is to do what I am doing now to the best of my knowledge. It has really been hectic being a coach but the interesting thing about it is that I'm now at the receiving end. What I used to do to my coaches in my days as a player is now being done to me", he expressed.
Ndubuisi, in spite of what he has gone through as a footballer says he doesn't regret taking to the sport . According to him, football has always been a crucial part of his family. His father and his younger sister, Nkiru Okosieme have donned Nigeria's national colours, while another younger brother of his, Chigbuo is presently playing for the academy he (Ndubuisi) handles.
Getting more personal, Ndubuisi is full of praise for his mother and long term hearthrob, Nina, for always standing by him during his travails. He adds that both his mother and Nina who still calls him Garincha and his family are the source of his happiness.