Christian Chwukwu: My father once dubbed me a vagabond for opting for football
35 years from being the first Nigerian to lift the African Nations Cup trophy at the National Stadium in Lagos, Christian Chukwu, the former Eagles captain tells JOHN EGBOKHAN that the rewards for playing soccer before their historic feat in 1980 were oranges and lucozade drinks.
Chukwu, who was named the best player of the 1980 AFCON and played in three consecutive African Cup of Nations from 1976 to 1980 also recounts how his father called him a vagabond child for daring to opt for a career in football. He spoke at Nnewi during the league match between Ifeanyi Uba United and Enugu Rangers. Excerpts
What is your assessment of the state of the league?
As you can see, we have started our leagues, which is now growing gradually, and I am sure that before we get to the half-way stage of the season, our players, our teams, our coaches would have put their acts together to give fans better football. You can see that the crowd is gradually coming out to watch the matches, which is the most important thing in the development of our league. When our matches start attracting the right kind of crowd, the sponsorship will come and the game itself will be very interesting, exciting and attractive.
Moving from the league to the national team, there is a vacuum in the Eagles top hierarchy as no substantive coach has been appointed long after we crashed out of the 2014 World Cup and the contract of coach Stephen Keshi ended last July. How worried are you and have you ever seen such a thing like this before?
I’ve not seen such a thing like this at the national team. That they would be without a coach for about nine months is amazing. But I think that the Nigeria Football Federation should be in control of this because we voted them in to handle the game and I believe that they know what they are doing but we are all having our fears that up till now, we have not gotten our national teach coach.
I don’t know or understand what the problem is that the NFF is yet to appoint a coach for the senior national team. If they do not want the former coach to continue, they should get another person to take charge but they are leaving us in a state of confusion. We don’t know what is happening. It’s not compulsory that it must be Keshi. And if they want to give it to Keshi they should stop wasting time. The federation should be decisive.
Can this long delay affect the preparations of the Super Eagles for the 2017 African Nations Cup as the qualifying race starts soon?
Of course, the delay is not good for the team because if we had a coach in place by now the coach would be going round for matches for the national team. If we had a coach in place, he would be going around to watch league matches in the country, to select players. By watching matches regularly, he will not have to rely on others to know who to invite for matches. But if you name a coach one or two months before the start of a qualifying campaign things will be pretty difficult at least at that initial stage.
35 years ago, you led the Eagles to win their first Nations Cup trophy at the National Stadium in Lagos. 35 years on, we have won two additional titles. 35 years after, many of your co-heroes are no longer alive? What has it been like for you all these years?
Glory be to God for His mercy, for making some of us to still be alive, despite all the challenges here and there and I can tell you that 35 years ago, our football changed in the country because after that Nations Cup triumph, our football changed, our players started going to Europe, we started having professionalism, players stated getting good contracts and the game started to grow.
And I am happy that our players are getting good deals from football and hope to still be alive to see the time when the clubs will stand on their own and start running independently and stop running to government cap in hand for money because that is not the way it should be. We should start doing it the way it is done in Europe, where Nigerians can be owners of clubs by buying shares in their favourite teams or some big money people pulling resources together to make it a huge business.
We should have passed the level of government running clubs. I think we need to start having private individual or private sector ownership of teams in the league. Look at what is happening here with Ifeanyi Uba ownership of Gabros and you can see the new injection of life into the team and see the turnout of fans here against Rangers. That is the way it should be. But if government handles a team, at times, appointments are not made on merit.
You can see in Lagos they have lots of facilities and well run clubs like Ikoyi Club, Lagos Lawn Tennis Club and Lagos Country Clubs. Is government involved in those clubs? No. If those clubs were to won football clubs you would see how professional they will run them. In Egypt and some parts of North Africa such clubs own football, basketball and even volleyball clubs. We wish one day that we will get there.
Turning to something personal sir, Chairman Christian Chukwu…
Cuts in: Chairman Onochie pikin
How did the name chairman come about?
You should ask the late Ernest Okonkwo, may his soul rest in peace.
He’s not alive for one to ask him…
He named me Chairman Christian Chukwu, he also gave Emmanuel Okala a nickname, the same for Adokiye Amiesimaka, Odegbami and so on like Quicksilver Sylvanus Okpala. So it’s the creativity in the late Ernest Okonkwo that made him to give us those names. Ernest was special.
And the name has stuck like an identity card for you…
Yes, it’s part of of us now. Some people say my own is unique if abbreviated, it is CCC, but it is coincidental as it just happened like that, maybe it was because of the way he saw me play in the field, taking charge of the defence, psyching up colleagues and how I tried to make sure that things went well for the team.
How were you able to achieve that balance in the team?
I think it was because we were born with football from childhood. It was not something that I forced myself into. It’s a talent given to me by my God and thank God, I was able to make good use of it and everything went as God planned them to be. It’s not my own making but God’s doing because then, our parents did not allow us to play football. If you played football then, our parents would tag you a vagabond then. Just like the comedians now, there was a time people did not regard them well. But look at how successful they are today.
There was a time people felt that footballers would not be useful. Despite these negative perspective, we were able to outwit our parents because then if they heard you were playing football, you were in trouble. My dad could not believe that all I wanted to do was to play football and make a career out of it. It was unbelievable to him. He was not happy. However, at a certain stage when it was clear I had no other plans he calmed although he was still against it.
He tried to allow me have my way especially after playing in the Academicals and joining Enugu Rangers. When I joined Rangers, my mother who had supported my dad now changed. She gave up and tried to encourage me to do what I felt was good for me. It was still a little bit difficult because my dad was still not happy. But eventually, he said ok, go on. ‘I cannot stop what God has given to you.
Son, you have my blessing.’ Then, there wasn’t big money in football. There was popularity but not money. Before joining Rangers, you were appreciated after each great game with Lucozade and oranges. And when we started playing club football and really became popular money wasn’t still there. We did not know the value of the name we were making. We became household names but we did not have money that matched or even came close to the popularity we had, no money to match our labour on the pitch.
But the goodwill of people was awesome which was important. We were celebrated and honoured everywhere. And these things were more than money. Good name is great, you know. The goodwill could also yield money. There are people with money but no good name, not even goodwill. I thank God that my father saw a little bit of the goodwill before he passed on. I may not have money but I still have that name ‘Chairman’ and I thank God for it. I thank God for everything.
Can you take us to that day that you lifted the National Cup trophy in 1980?
It was a very long day because we had come so close to winning the trophy in the past. We won bronze in Addis Ababa, another bronze in Ghana and in 1980, when we won the Nations Cup, we were due for the trophy and when the tournament came to Nigeria in 1980, we said we would not let this opportunity pass us by, and with God on our side and the new government coming in to give us the support, we were able to achieve the ultimate result. It was a great feeling lifting the cup. Shehu Shagari, the President was there and we saw how happy we made him and the entire country. It was great and will remain unforgettable.
Do you think that with our potentials that we should have won more than three AFCON trophies?
I think so because we were always there but at the dying minutes, as football is, we would lose. That was what happened in Addis Ababa and Ghana but in Nigeria, we were fortunate to get the cup. In Senegal ’92 everybody agreed we were the best team. I was then the coach assisting Westerhof. We were arguably the best team but we ended up with another bronze. Maroc ’88 we had a good team too.