‘A Black Coach Doesn’t Say No To Europe’: What Happens Next For Daniel Amokachi

Shola Lawal, Mail&Guardian

These days, when he’s not drilling his team in minus 38-degree weather, Amokachi is home in Nigeria making brand videos or lobbying for African sides. (Paul Childs/Action Images/Reuters)

These days, when he’s not drilling his team in minus 38-degree weather, Amokachi is home in Nigeria making brand videos or lobbying for African sides. (Paul Childs/Action Images/Reuters)

Daniel ‘The Bull’ Amokachi was one of African football’s first household names, powering Nigeria to Olympic glory in 1996. Now he’s coaching in freezing second-division Finland — and plotting his return to international superstardom

Abuja, Nigeria, and Oulu, Finland — Off the field, Daniel “The Bull” Amokachi rarely raises his voice. He speaks in a modulated, lyrical drawl, tilting his head up and to the side when he talks.

I had written to him asking for a chat after missing him in Finland and he had invited me over to hang out at the Reiz Carlton, a modest hotel in Abuja’s central business district.

On a damp, gloomy evening, he signals me to join him at the pool bar in the company of friends.

As he waits for his order of fries and sandwiches, he banters with the hotel staff in the sing-song Hausa language that rolls off his tongue with the ease of a native.

He is at home in a tiny blue leather chair, shaped in a semicircle with ridiculously high arms. A tall, patterned fila in shades of browns and oranges is perched on his head. His bulging, tattooed muscles, normally visible in his many Instagram pictures, are hidden by the long sleeves of a powder-blue traditional kaftan that matched his trousers. Occasionally, he lowers his head, typing on his phone.

Despite working some 5 000km away in Finland, Amokachi often finds time to come home to Nigeria — at least four times a year, he says, especially after the Finnish football season is over. His many brand commitments require his attention.

So do his other responsibilities. “The bills are here,” he explains.

He’s Christian and can’t go two sentences without mentioning God’s grace. But he comes home to predominantly Muslim Kaduna to hand out bags of rice during Muslim festive seasons such as Eid al Adha.

And now, having been recently promoted to technical director at JS Hercules, the second-tier Finnish club he coaches, there will be more frequent visits, longer stays and the flexible hours will allow him to “galavant”, he quips, flashing a gap-toothed smile.

In another interview, Amokachi had vented his frustration with coaching in Finland where he described football as “too nice”.

Sanjo Olutayo, a young coach with JS Hercules’s junior team, who describes Amokachi as “an open guy”, shares his pain. The level of aggressiveness and cockiness that is needed to go pro in football is missing, he tells me. Coaching in a country where ice hockey, and not football, is the number one sport is also tricky.

Harsh winters

On a recent August evening in Oulu, Olutayo pointed out JS Hercules’ office and walked me past the Raatii stadium, a 4 000-capacity multipurpose stadium built in 1953, where Amokachi usually drills the players during the season.

The sun, which stayed up until past 10, spilled orange light onto the surface of a lake next to the roadside as we walked.

When Oulu-based JS Hercules approached Olutayo last year, Amokachi’s presence as senior coach was one of the reasons he took it. The 24-year-old’s first encounter with The Bull had involved a frustrated Amokachi yelling “coach, get behind that line!” at him, he remembers fondly between fits of laughter. The conditions the team have to train in, he tells me, can certainly get one riled up.

Temperatures in the small city north of Helsinki dip to dangerously low levels in the winter, making training sessions hard.

Paul Obi, a JS Hercules striker who was scouted from Lagos three years ago, tells me getting through the dark winters is mentally tasking. When Amokachi himself arrived last fall, the temperature was -38℃ and he had bled through his nose.

A day before, Nadia Amokachi, his wife, had asked him if he really wanted to do this, and he had shrugged it off with a “Why not?”

“For a club in Europe to get a phone number and call a black coach from Africa is a grace on its own and you can never turn that down,” Amokachi tells me, fiddling with his phone.

He is a genuine African footballing superstar. His club career took him to Club Brugge, Everton and Besiktas, among others, and he was the driving force when Nigeria secured the most glittering result in its history: the gold medal at the Olympic Games in 1996. Amokachi, of course, scored in the final.

He has lived the life, he reminisces. “I did a lot of crazy stuff.”

He owned a private jet and modelled for brands such as Donatella Versace and Hugo Boss. “But I’m a grumpy old man now,” he jokes with a shrug.

An army brat, Amokachi was born to Tiv and Idoma parents originally from Benue in Nigeria’s middle-belt region. The family lived all their life in Kaduna, a state in Northern Nigeria that practices sharia law and where celebrations such as Eid are rooted more in tradition than religion.

Amokachi talks fondly of his father,  a smart military man who understood what it would take to succeed in life and had only one agenda for his children — education. “What we wore, what we ate, wasn’t a priority.”

To fund the American-style education he wanted his children to have, his father erected a compound big enough to accommodate 18 paying tenants. Pa Amokachi died in August 2016.

On Amokachi’s WhatsApp profile is a black-and-white snapshot of a straight-faced man in military headgear. On his status, a simple message: “You will always be in me.”

Raging Bull

Amokachi doesn’t like vegetable fillings in his sandwiches.

“This one is oyinbo food,” he grumbles to me, minutes after the bartender placed a platter of sandwiches and golden crisp fries on the rounded table between us.

Back when he was on the field, he didn’t like playing half-heartedly either. “If I’m not giving 120%, it’s not good enough for me.”

It is evident in the way he played. Watching Amokachi on the field was like watching an angry bull charge. It’s different from the dance of his former teammate and fellow striker, Kanu Nwankwo, who was light, lithe and subtle — a long-legged butterfly man in green and white. Amokachi was a bullet, barrelling past defenders in a blur. Dribbling, falling and getting back up to net the ball from impossible angles.

Often, talented players get discovered past their prime; the talent is there but age quickly catches up with them. Amokachi was one of the lucky ones who got discovered early on and who didn’t need to cook up a phoney “football age” to comply with requirements in going pro.

At 16, he got signed to Rancher’s Bees, a local club in Nigeria. Even then, there was a way he played, a power he possessed on the field that forced people to pause, forced them to pay attention.

Clemens Westerhof, a Dutchman and then Super Eagles coach, was certainly hooked.  He got in touch one day in 1989 and convinced a doubtful Amokachi to join the senior team at 17. Amokachi would help his team secure a regional cup later that year.

At the same age, when he was certain he wasn’t meant to go the academic route, he quit studying law at the University of Texas, signed on with Club Brugge in Belgium and moved to Europe.

“Most of us did not even know what we did,” Amokachi says now, reflecting on Nigeria’s gold win at the Atlanta ’96 Olympics.

He munches thoughtfully on his fries as though he was still trying to grasp the enormity of what the Dream Team had done all those years ago.

Head coach Johannes Bonfrere, another Dutchman, had lined Amokachi up alongside other greats: Jay Jay Okocha, Sunday Oliseh, Celestine Babayaro, Emmanuel Amunike, Kanu Nwankwo. It turned out to be a line-up that would announce the arrival of African football on the world stage.

Argentina stood no chance after Nigeria had beaten Brazil in the semis, Amokachi says. In the final game against Argentina, his goal, the second, seemed to defy physics — body facing north, legs kicking south — and he was enveloped by his jubilant teammates.

At the final whistle — 3-2 to Nigeria — the whole country went wild, relishing the distraction from the brutality of a military dictatorship led by General Sani Abacha.

Back home in Kaduna, Pa Amokachi was a hero. “People came to the house picked him up and went all over. They were celebrating, spending money. It wasn’t a Nigerian moment, it was a continental [moment]. The way we celebrated in Nigeria, that’s how they celebrated in Ghana, Ethiopia. That’s how it was.”

Finding love

Amokachi was not looking for love when he found it. During a 1994 African Cup of Nations game in Tunisia, he saw a girl in the lobby of a hotel while waiting for his room to be ready. With the help of a translator, he told her he would like to get married.

“She was shocked, like, ‘What is he talking about?’ I told the translator to tell her that we want to see her parents tonight. We took her address and in the evening we went.”

At the house, they were welcomed and served.

“I told the dad why I was there. Told him I came to marry his daughter. He said, ‘Do I know her?’ I said, ‘No, we met, but that’s all.’ He asked, ‘Are you sure you know what you’re saying?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ We kept talking through a translator and then he called his wife. He told her, ‘This crazy boy wants to marry your daughter.’

“And then they called her [Nadia] and told her the same thing. Her father asked, ‘Do you want to marry him?’”

“Yes,” a young Nadia had said.

One year later, the two got married.

“She is a beautiful woman,” Amokachi says without missing a beat when I asked why he chose to approach Nadia that way, before cracking up at his own forwardness. It was ordained, because he was usually too shy to pull something like that off, he says.

The pair now have three children. Kalim and Nazim, their 22-year-old twins, are identical and have their father’s gap-toothed smile. They also share Amokachi’s passion for football; last year they signed on with JS Hercules after a brief stint with Turkish club Besiktas — the same club Amokachi had played for until his retirement.

At first, the couple struggled because of language barriers, Amokachi says. “I don’t speak French, I don’t speak Arabic. She doesn’t speak English.”

So Nadia learned English.

Amokachi’s father was a big fan of their union. “He called her my queen till he passed away.”

The fall

Two things caused Amokachi’s eyes to water in the course of our chat. The first was the memory of the late Stephen Keshi, his former boss and Super Eagles captain who he had worked with first as a player and then later as coach.

“I met him way back. They were in their final years when we came in and he had always had that leadership quality.”

Amokachi had assisted Keshi in leading Nigeria to their African Cup of Nations win in 2013. Two decades ago, they had both won the same cup as players. They remain the only two to have achieved that double feat in football history. They had been close.

When he talks of Keshi in one video interview, Amokachi pulls his cap low on his face and then buries his head in his arm, voice starting and stuttering. Before Keshi died in mid-2016, he had coached foreign national teams in Togo and Mali.

“If you want to learn stuff, you always look up those people pick one or two things and he has always been there.”

The second was his injury. I had resolved to ask Amokachi about it towards the end of the interview, but he brought it up in the first five minutes after we began to talk, and it came up almost everytime after.

“Tell me about the injury,” I finally say.

‘’Ahh!” he grunts. He throws his head back and looks away, eyes narrowing, as though the mere thought brings him unseen physical pain.

“It was not my wanting, of course, to stop at an early age,” he says after a long pause. “It wasn’t what I wanted, it wasn’t what the fans wanted, it wasn’t what Nigeria wanted but I just had to let it go.”

The thing about great things and great careers is that they have to come to an end. For Amokachi, the end had snuck up on him a decade too soon. Right before a 1998 World Cup match with Spain, a match he was supposed to captain, he had suffered an injury to his knee.

“It just happened,” he says, his tone heavy with regret. “The bad part was it happened in training. That’s what made me furious. In training, not when I was on the field playing a game. I stumbled with one of the players and that was it.”

At the time, 25-year-old Amokachi had struggled with accepting that it was over. He played for one more season, battling excruciating pain after a corrective surgery gone wrong, leaving cartilage in his knee grating against each other.

In 2001, after failing several medical tests in Europe, he joined the Colorado Rapids for pre-season training. But one day after 9/11 had happened, he just couldn’t do it anymore — not the tests, not the rejections, not the false hopes.

“I wasn’t happy with what I was giving on the field. The way I play on a bad day, I give 120%. If I don’t give that, it’s not good enough.”

It was the end of an era. After some 10 glorious years on the field, the striker knew it was time to exit. “I just decided that I shouldn’t hold back any team I play for. I gave up.”

New chapter

These days, when he’s not drilling his team in minus 38-degree weather, Amokachi is home in Nigeria making brand videos or lobbying for African sides.

Earlier in 2018, Amokachi gave an impassioned speech before Fifa officials in support of Morocco’s bid to host the 2026 World Cup.

“For Africans, football is life, football is religion,” he had said, looking suave in a dark blue suit.

Just recently, he posted a commercial he had done for a betting company, encouraging his fans to sign up. He also runs One Child, One Pen, his charity organisation.

The thing about legends like Amokachi is that they stumble, they fall, but they don’t stay down. Barely five years after his retirement, Amokachi was back on the pitch, a new force coaching local sides such as Nassarawa United and Ifeanyi Ubah to major wins, as well as helping out with the national team. His transitioning from player to coach was way easier than he had initially thought.

A deeply religious man, Amokachi believes faith saw him through. “I’m still enjoying it. I don’t allow nothing to stress my life.”

There is still one thing left for him to achieve, however. His great ambition is to coach the Super Eagles to another major win. He’s in love with the crop of players in the team right now and he’s certain that, under his tutorship, Nigerian football would soar once more.

“When I end up coaching this team, we will win what Nigeria has never won before.”

It is, in fact, ordained, he says — and who would bet against him?

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