A former governor of old Anambra State, Chief Jim Nwobodo, relives the victory of the Super Eagles in Atlanta Olympics of 1996 and how he saved Kanu Nwankwo from Coach Westerhof.
The Super Eagles won the gold medal in the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 when you were the Sports Minister. Can you share with us the story of what happened then?
They (Super Eagles) beat Japan, beat Brazil and also beat other big teams. That was the time we had wonderful players. You can only know the best team when they go out of the country and play the best teams in the world. Mikel Obi is playing in China and there are other young boys like Alex Iwobi, Ahmed Musa, Kelechi Iheanacho and many others.
There is one thing I like about Nigerian football. Nigerians are football lovers, there is no doubt about that and football has the ability to unite Nigerians.
I remember very well the 1996 event when we played in Atlanta Olympics. Nigeria was a pariah nation. The day we reached the climax was the day Nigeria met Brazil. We had a very strong team, those who were determined to do their best to make Nigeria proud.
Two things happened that day. We got into the field and, in the first half, they (Brazil) were leading Nigeria by 3-1. I sat by the side of then – FIFA President, Joao Havelange, a Brazilian lawyer, businessman and athlete who served as the 7th FIFA President from 1974 to 1998 and I told him we will beat Brazil and he started laughing because we were two goals down.
Half time break pep talk
During the half time break, I went to our boys in the dressing room and called them one by one, starting with Sunday Oliseh, then Daniel Omokachi, Kanu Nwankwo, Jay Jay Okocha, Victor Ikpeba, Celestine Babayaro and others. I urged them not to disgrace me and Nigerians and they assured me that they will beat Brazil. I then called the coach, Clemens Westerhof, who complained that Kanu was not playing well and that he would remove him. I ordered him not to remove the young man. I threatened to sack him if he removed Kanu. He complied with my order and allowed Kanu to play in the second half. In the second half, Okocha scored the second goal, making it 2-3; another goal was scored by Kanu to make it 3-3 and second half ended. In the extra time, we had what is called the golden goal then and, five minutes after, Kanu scored the golden goal and the match ended. Everyone was surprised but God was at work and I heard Him (God) when I said Kanu should not be removed. Kanu became the man of the match. We were excited and many whites and many Africans, who did not know about the Dream Team, started painting themselves in green white green. I was also told that families that were not in talking terms for ten years reconciled because of that match.
Then – Head of State, General Sani Abacha, who was not in the habit of answering telephone calls, called almost all of us, including my wife. He did not stop there. He had to wait for us alongside some state governors for two days under the rain at the City Gate, Abuja when we returned to Nigeria and that was what that victory did to Nigeria. What a sweet victory!
The second thing that happened was that Chioma Ajunwa told me that she and other Nigerian athletes were yet to be paid their 300 dollars per day on the day she would compete. I saw reason with her but I told her it was a very small amount. I promised her that I will give her 10,000 dollars if she won a gold medal, she was shocked. I advised her to go for the long jump if she was good at that. Her first jump earned her gold medal for Nigeria and I gave her 10,000 dollars. This thing is about leadership and encouraging people around you.
So, sport, in itself, is something that, if properly developed, will bring the country together. Look at what sport is doing in the world today. If you are a sports administrator, you are known all over the world. FIFA President is bigger that any President in the world. My worry is that Nigeria has not given proper attention to sports.
What is your rating of journalists in Nigeria?
Nigeria has the freest press in the world; journalists write anything and get away with it and they hold people accountable and nobody can fight them. In Nigeria, I can say that we have a very free and strong press. I really don’t see anything wrong with what they are doing, except that they should always get their facts right.
What is your take on employers owing workers?
Any employer that owes his workers should not expect them to be loyal to him. Such could expose workers to temptation because they have to take care of themselves and their families. It is not good to owe your workers; whether they are journalists, footballers, civil servants, you don’t need to owe them. Workers deserve their wages. So it is not good at all. You should do everything possible not to owe your workers.
What about state governments owing workers?
I mean it’s unfair. It is ungodly and unchristian. If you don’t pay workers, what do you want them to do? In fact, when I was governor, I didn’t have anything as salary arrears. Throughout my stay in Government House, I never owed anybody for one month because one thing you do as a leader is to pay your workers before any other thing. That is the first charge and, from there, you motivate them to work harder.
So, any governor that owes workers for months is not fit to be a governor. Although, some governors have said that the problem about payment of salaries stems from the many problems confronting them, that argument does not hold water because you can still sit down and arrange your budget to make the recurrent less than the capital. You give capital budget priority over recurrent.