At 70, Masteroudes reminisces on the team that changed Nigerian club football
Leventis United took Nigerian football by storm in the early 1980s. The team, formed out of one man’s passion for the beautiful game, became the toast of the country’s football followers when it breezed through the old Division Three League to Division One, spending only one season in each lower division before becoming the country’s undisputed champions in 1986. Before then, the team had in 1984 become the first Division Three side to win the prestigious Challenge Cup, a feat it repeated in 1986 this time adding the Division One league title to their trophy chest.
Speaking on the eve of his 70th birthday celebrations, John Masteroudes, who built the great Leventis United Football Club from the scratch in 1982, reminisces on the events that led to the formation of the club and the role the Ibadan-based side played in the evolution of the Nigerian league.
According to the former member of the Nigeria Football Association (NFA), Leventis United was formed out of two other teams owned by the Leventis Group. These were Iddo Tigers, based in Lagos and Sanyo FC, which was resident in Ibadan. That was on his return from Europe, where he had gone to further his education after his elementary education at the University of Ibadan Staff School.
“I was at a time living in Europe. We had a business of interior textile and we were trading with Nigeria. And if you remember in 1978/79, the government banned most imported items. And Mr. Leventis, my dad and the then Ooni of Ife (Oba Okunade Sijuwade) wanted me to come and put a factory here in Nigeria to produce the goods that I was importing which I did. So, I came here as a shareholder and the CEO of Carpet Royal in Ibadan. I chose to come back to Nigeria because it was my birthplace, my parents were still here and I liked the adventure. Actually, at the beginning I was reluctant to come, but ever since I must say I have not regretted the decision to come.
“Carpet Royal from the first year was up and doing and making profits. So it was boring. I have a great passion for football, so I decided to organise people who were working in the factory to start playing football.
“At that time, Leventis Group had two other teams, IddoTigers in Lagos and Sanyo FC in Ibadan. So I spoke to Mr. Leventis that we should create a team out of all these three teams and call it Leventis United. And he gave me the go ahead. So, it was in my mind that I was going to create a good team,” he said.
Masteroudes revealed that the team started its sojourn into big time football at the Ibadan local league level, which they promptly won to gain promotion to the first division of Ibadan local league. “By that time, I knew it was becoming serious and I started thinking of how to do a good job. Then, there was IICC Shooting Stars of Ibadan, which I was one of their supporters and I was scared to antagonise them.
“I don’t think there was any team that had more faithful supporters than IICC then. Stationery Stores had also, but they were more rowdy; Ibadan support was a different kind of support… it was like a religion. So, I decided to take people from IICC who their supporters loved and brought them into my team so it looked like IICC was giving birth to another child. I was also very fortunate that IICC benefactor, Chief Lekan Salami’s father and my father were close friends, so my father called Lekan Salami and told him, ‘look, protect my son,’ because I was a young boy then. As a matter of fact, the relationship I had with Chief Salami was amazing.
I also got very friendly with the chief supporters of IICC in person of Chief Olotu and Baba Eleran. These two guys also did not like Leventis United but they could not say it to my face and they did not make it difficult for Leventis United,” he said.
Leventis United qualified to play in the National Division Three league in 1983 and then never looked back. “It was my intention to create a good team. And I knew if you wanted to have a good team, you must have a good spine and the spine is the goalkeeper, your centre half, the midfielder and your striker. These four people were very important and I looked desperately to find them. The first person that came to my team at that time was Abdullah Alausa, he was my centre half. I asked Alausa if he knew any good goalkeeper and he mentioned Edward Ansah, who was playing for Railway in Lagos. Edward joined us, followed by (Team manager) George Hassan, Bunmi Adigun and Wole Odegbami, I got all of them in Ibadan, but that was not my spine yet.
“I called George Hassan who played a very important role in the formation of Leventis United and told him I wanted a good centre half; a midfielder and a striker and he went straight away to Bendel Insurance in Benin. He got me Leotis Boateng and Matthew Onyeama. So, these guys were the ones that put everything in place for Leventis United at that time. So, in the third division, my first team were Edward Ansah in goal; in defense, John Benson, Abdullah Alausa, Leotis Boateng and Andrew Uwe; in the midfield, Matthew Onyeama and Bunmi Adigun; forwards, Wole Odegbami, Sunday Daniel, Bala Ali and James Etokebe. Five years later, this was essentially the same team that finished with Leventis United with the exception of two players that managed to penetrate the first team; Friday Ekpo and Uwem Ekarika.”
Masteroudes revealed that he learnt early in life that any great team must have two great full backs because they defend, support the midfield and also join in the attack.
Leventis United won the third division in 1984 undefeated, won the Challenge Cup as well as the Champion of Champions Cup by beating Rangers that year.
The 1984 feat made Leventis United the toast of all Nigerian football followers. But good things do not last forever and such also was true of Leventis United.
“After the first year that we won in the first division, problem started happening in the club. Some of the directors at Leventis said this Leventis team, why is John taking all the glory? So, they started bringing in more people to run it, and by that time I was getting a little bit upset because I did not like it.
“It started as a joke and later became an expensive joke. At that time, the cost of the team was more than what was budgeted for but one thing they failed to realize was the kind of publicity it gave to the group. Leventis regularly enjoyed front page coverage of newspapers then. But by that time, I had given my all; we were champions every year for four years during which we rarely tasted defeat. But people didn’t realize the kind of things one has to put in place to win,” he regretted.
James Etokebe was one of the players that Leventis tick in those days, but his story was reminiscent of all the other super stars that joined the club from different parts of Nigeria.
“I was watching a Challenge Cup game in Ibadan involving Calabar Rovers and another club I can’t recall now. I was sitting with George Hassan and Niyi Soleye, my club Secretary. In the second half, Calabar Rovers made a change and brought in Etokebe. I watched him for 10 minutes and I told George that I wanted this guy in my team. Please, go to Calabar tomorrow, find his parents and make him come to Ibadan. George went to Calabar convinced his parents and he came. When Etokebe arrived, I made him realize that this is best thing that could happen to him and I wanted him to play for us. And soon he showed the stuff he was made of and he went on to play for the national team. He was a difficult boy, but very talented. I tamed him.”
Winning the Challenge Cup in 1984 gave Leventis United the chance to represent Nigeria in the defunct African Cup Winners Cup and the club played all the way to the final of the competition, where they lost to El Ahly of Egypt by 2-1 aggregate scores.
The team went to the African Champions Cup in 1987, but could only manage a quarterfinal finish.
Although he had a different world view, Masteroudes had to contend with distractions from people, who believed ‘Juju’ could win matches for his team.
He remembers some of the funny things that happened to his club through certain staff’s belief in the efficacy of the supernatural in football. “Well, in Ibadan, they call it ‘balubalu’. There is no babalawo in that area that did not come to meet us. Of course, I did not believe in all that but some of my players did. But I know that our team was so disciplined on the field, they were so focused and our system of payment was such that they could not even resist. The basic salary was not much but where they made a lot of money was from bonus. Every top player wanted to play for Leventis United.”
While Leventis United were at the height of its fame in the 1980s, Abiola Babes were also one of the best sides in the land. The team had as much financial power as Leventis United, but that did not stop Masteroudes from poaching some of Abiola Babes star players. One of such players was Friday Ekpo, who was Abiola Babes’ Captain when he joined Leventis United. How did that happen?
“Chief Abiola gave my team money for beating Abiola Babes and I said at that time that he had taught me how to behave in defeat. He showed me how to be graceful, and I really appreciated him so much. But he had a coach called Yakubu who wanted to take my players to Abiola Babes. We had an agreement not to touch each other’s players, but Yakubu took four players of mine and gave them money to play for Abiola Baba. When I was told, I said boys, we won together, we are in the second division now, I wish you all the best with Abiola Babes and we shall meet on the field of play. But 20 minutes later, their leader (Bunmi Adigun) came back and said that they didn’t want to go again.
“So, I told him that if they wanted to remain in my team, they had to return the money that they collected from Yakubu. And truly Hassan went with them to Abeokuta and they returned all the money. Then, I said since Abiola Babes tried to take my players, I want Friday Ekpo, their captain. Hassan went to Ekpo and brought him. I asked Friday if he was ready to play for me and he said yes. Friday was a great player; he really completed the midfield for me, he was an outstanding footballer.”
Masteroudes reveals that aside the troubles he had with some Leventis Group directors, the NFA’s attitude to clubs was one of the problems that eventually forced Leventis United and some other clubs to close shop. He said, “The people at the NFA were not doing what they were supposed to do. I remember in one Challenge Cup game, the stadium had minimum of 80,000 spectators here in Lagos but when we came out, they told us there were 9,000 tickets. These kind of things were happening all along. We were representing Nigeria in Africa and we were not given any money, we had to pay all the cost of traveling on our own.
“Chief Abiola, Chief Iwuanyanwu and I met and we agreed that we were going to disband our teams so as to shake up NFA a bit. Besides, our sponsors were not eager to pay that kind of money any more.
Abiola and Leventis kept their words but Chief Iwuanyanwu came back and said he did not own the team; that it belonged to his state, so he couldn’t disband them. He even requested from me that I passed some of my players to him, which I did.”
Masteroudes sees himself a true-born Nigerian and always demonstrates it whenever the occasion arises. Two of such occasions were when Nigeria was grouped against Greece at the 1994 and 2010 FIFA World Cup competitions. “I supported Nigeria on both occasions. I always made it very clear that even though Greece was my country of origin, I haven’t worked in Greek football but I have worked in Nigerian football. I have contributed to Nigerian football so it did not even come to my mind that I was going to support any country other than Nigeria. I remember when Amokachi scored the second goal against Greece at USA ’94. I jubilated because that was a great goal. I was there among Greeks wearing my Nigerian colors. So, there is no doubt about where my loyalty lies.”
Masteroudes’ story is an interesting narrative of a Greek national born in Nigeria, who has made good his sojourn in the country. Even though he has had the opportunity of living in Europe and the U.S, he says nothing can take him away from the country of his birth.
“I was born at Awolowo Road, Onikan in Lagos. It was then the Creek Hospital but today it is called Military Hospital.
I had my elementary education at the University of Ibadan Staff School before I travelled overseas to further my studies there.
“I am a son of the soil. As a matter of fact, the only thing that is missing is my tribal marks. I do feel very much at home and I am proud asI said to be born in Nigeria. I have upheld the Nigerian flag many times not only in Nigeria but also around the world. And I just would like to believe that I am supposed to be an ambassador of this country.”