Afejuku… A Prince who rode from Sapele school to national teams
Prince Oritsuwa Afejuku is seen as one of the players that had the fastest transition in the national team set up.The Itsekiri prince, who began playing football when he started primary education at Council Primary School, Sapele, was still in secondary school when he was invited to the junior national team, the Flying Eagles in 1978. He played in that team for just one year before he was drafted to the Green Eagles alongside Henry Nwosu and Sylvanus Okpalla in 1979.
The Green Eagles then had such strong characters as, Christian Chukwu, Aloysius Atuegbu, Muda Lawal, Segun Odegbami, Adokie Amiesimaka, Felix Owolabi, David Adiele, Best Ogedegbe and Emmanuel Okala. But with such luminaries in the team, the young Afejuku was not daunted, as he set about carving his own path in the team.
However, his sojourn in the senior national team was short-lived, as he had to abandon association football in Nigeria in search of the Golden Fleece in the United States of America.
Reminiscing on his football career and the path he has taken since the day he first met with the legendary Coach Alabi Aissien, in 1978, Prince Afejuku told The Guardian that he was lucky to have come when Nigerian gave merit the right of place in the scheme of things.
“I started playing youth football with a team called 11 Brothers. Then, I was in secondary school at Okpe Grammar School. What we did was to play against other youth teams in our community, and sometimes, we went to neighbouring towns to engage their teams.
“In 1977, I moved to Edo Grammar School with which I won the national Principals Cup and was chosen to represent Nigeria in an international competition. I was also playing for the Bendel State Academicals, which was a formidable force in youth football in Nigeria.
“In fact, it was after a game against the Flying Eagles in 1978, which we lost 2-3, that Coach Radovic invited me to the Flying Eagles in 1978. I scored the two goals for Bendel Academicals in that game. My team mates in the Flying Eagles were Stephen Keshi, Sylvanus Okpalla, Bright Omokaro, Edema Benson, Lucky Imafidon, Franklin Howard, Henry Nwosu, Sam Igwenagu, Idris Musa and Humphrey Edebor, among others.”
Prince Afejuku was barely two months old in the Flying Eagles when Bendel Insurance invited him to join the team, which was then the reigning Challenge Cup kings.
I remember lying on the ground crying when Chief Obaseki came to console me. He told me that I did well and gave me the exact amount of money promised us for a win. We lost that match and he still gave me the money. I was in tears because we lost and I was still rewarded. I was happy and sad at the same time.
Prince Afejuku, who was barely out of his teens, was initially scared of rubbing shoulders with the big boys in the Benin team, but Coach Alabi Aissien assured him that there was nothing to fear.
“Coach Alabi Aissien believed that if I was good enough to play for Nigeria’s junior team, I should be able to play for his team. He took me as his son, which made it easy for me to fit into the team.”
From playing against school boys on the streets of Warri and Sapele, Bendel Insurance thrust Prince Afejuku into continental football, where he rubbed shoulders with such African giants of the game as, Roger Milla, Djonkeb Bonaventure, Rabah Madjer, Lakhdar Beloumi, Ekramy Ahmed, Mahmoud El Khatib, Olleh Olle and Emmanuel Kunde, among others.
Prince Afejuku, who still relishes those heady nights at the National Stadium, was in the Bendel Insurance team that represented Nigeria in the African Cup of Champions competition.
“My most memorable game in the Africa Cup of Champions Cup was our match against Sotema of Madagascar. We beat them 2-0 in Madagascar, but they came to Lagos to defeat us 2-0. It ended on a penalty shoot out and we won at the National Stadium in 1979.
“In the Bendel Insurance team were, David Adiele, the late Felix Agbonifo, Christopher Ogu, Peter Egharevba, Leotis Boateng, Kadiri Ikhana, Francis Omokaro, Francis Monidafe and Henry Ogboe, among others. After that match, the late Patrick Okpomo said if I could play for that Insurance team, I could also play for the Green Eagles. That was how he drafted me, Sylvanus Okpalla and Henry Nwosu to the Green Eagles.
“But I did not stay long in the Green Eagles, because I got a scholarship to study and play at North Carolina State University.”Like the golden fish that has no hiding place, Prince Afejuku was in his freshman year, when he was voted the most valuable player in the Atlantic Coast Conference of the United States Collegiate soccer.
“There were no clubs then, so, the schools were divided into leagues. I was the first student from North Carolina to win the award. The previous year, former Enugu Rangers’ striker, Nnamdi Nwokocha, won the award.”
Prince Afejuku recalls that even when he was schooling in the United States, “Bendel Insurance used to send flight tickets for me to come and play in important matches. I will fly in on Friday, play on Saturday or Sunday and fly back to the US on Sunday.”
After his studies, Prince Afejuku, who was now armed with a degree in Business Management and Economics, returned to Nigeria in 1990, to play for Iwuanyanwu Nationale. “From there, I joined Julius Berger and also played for Stationery Stores. I played for Insurance once again before I went back to the US.”
He picks the game between Bendel Insurance and Sotema of Madagascar as the best moment of his career. ‘‘The game was very emotional. It was also the match that made it possible for me to play for Nigeria. So, it is the high point of my career.
“You know after that game, when I came back to Benin, I was the talk of the town. Everywhere I went, people wanted to touch me. Most of the people did not know that I am Itsekiri. They thought I was Igbo, because of my name, Afejuku.”
To Prince Afejuku, Bendel Insurance’s match against Canon Sportiv of Cameroun, in 1979, was a sad moment he would never forget. “We lost the first leg in Yaoundé 0-1 and everybody believed we would turn the tide in Benin. But we played goalless with all the support and money promised to us.
“I remember lying on the ground crying, when Chief Obaseki came to console me. He told me that I did well and gave me the exact amount of money promised us for a win. We lost that match and he still gave me the money. I was in tears because we lost and I was still rewarded. I was happy and sad at the same time.”
Prince Afejuku returned to Nigeria in the late 1990s, but rather than go back to football, he decided to channel his energy on other ventures. He explains: “I found football still interesting but I had to quit because it was no longer attractive to me. You know one thing about football is that if you follow it too much, you may not know when you will lose it. And everybody cannot be a coach.
“I worked in Escravos as a station manager, before I left to do my own things, because one was not getting younger and there were many family challenges.
“Now, people ask me ‘why are you not a coach;’ and I ask, ‘will everybody be a coach?’ I left football and that is it. I still play weekend football with friends though.”
Looking at the current state of Nigerian football, which is highlighted by failing to qualify for two consecutive African Cup of Nations, Prince Afejuku says officials’ insincerity and misplaced priorities are the bane of the country’s football.
He says: ‘‘When we were playing, there was no money, but we were contended with what we had. The administration was good and the encouragement was good, we really loved playing the game. But now, it is like we are going backwards.”
To turn things around, he advises politicians to leave football for the footballers to run, saying, “the politicians have come to kill the game. They should face their politics and leave footballers to organise the game.
“A situation where you say you are managing a club and you do not pay the players’ salaries and their entitlements shows that you don’t understand the game. You don’t pay players for months, yet when they want to go to other clubs you demand so much money to clear them.
Another issue dragging us backwards is the animosity among the administrators. It is not getting us anywhere. People should allow peace to reign in our football.”
Prince Afejuku also heaps some of the blame on the attitude of Nigerian players. “One thing I have discovered is that the current players misplace their priorities. They want to emulate Kanu Nwankwo and Cristiano Ronaldo, but they lack the discipline to be professional players. They don’t know what it takes to reach such heights.
“You see the way they dress… their hairdo even when they have not done anything. They concentrate so much on being fine boys. You can only be a fine boy when you have achieved something in your career.
“Another thing working against our football is the attitude of our managers. When you promise to pay a player N10 and at the end of the day, you don’t pay him, you are killing his morale. You can’t expect him to perform a miracle on the pitch. The management has not realized that they are killing the game. I want the League Management Company (LMC) to ensure that clubs fulfill their obligations to players. That is the only way to get the best out of them.”