At the age of 16, while his contemporaries were barely able to hit a football on target, Daniel Amokachi was already a fully-fledged international for Nigeria, and was competing against the best on the continent.
He began, like all African boys of his generation, by kicking an improvised ball in the streets of Kaduna in north-west Nigeria. Strong for his age, he stood out like a sore thumb. Before long, he was elevated to the youth sides of the city’s many territorial leagues.
He also featured for his secondary school team which won the state trophy and went on to play in the national championship, where, against overwhelming odds, they became champions.
In 1989, he was called up for a trial with his local Kaduna team, Ranchers Bees, who played in the top national league. The transition from playing in front of a few hundred students to suddenly finding himself displaying his skills in front of tens of thousands of Kaduna loyalists was a huge gulf but the confident 15-year-old was determined.
When Ranchers Bees faced Ivorian giants, ASEC Mimosas, in a regional tournament, he had no idea that the national team’s recently recruited Dutch coach, Clemens Westerhof, was present. Ranchers Bees won 3-1 with the effervescent Amokachi scoring twice. After the match, Westerhof sought him out.
“Do you know who I am?” the Dutchman asked.
“No,” replied Amokachi.
“I’m Clemens Westerhof, the national team coach, and I want you to play for the national team.”
Amokachi found himself at the 1990 Africa Cup of Nations in Algeria a few months later. Nigeria went all the way to the final where they fell to a solitary goal against the hosts. They had gone to the tournament with little expectation and it was the first step of a journey that would see their star rise over the next decade.
Amokachi’s outstanding performances led to a move to the top Belgian side, Club Brugge, where he initially struggled to adjust to the the unfamiliar environment. He lived with a Belgian couple, Magda and Willie, who became his ‘foster parents’ and made his transition less stressful.
There were some memorable moments.
“I saw the great Jan Ceulemans, Belgium’s World Cup star, carrying a bag of balls to the training session from the dressing room and in true African culture, since he was much older than me, I went to carry the bag for him. He said no and told me that this week it was his turn and that my turn would come, and offered to show me the timetable for players’ duties. It was a learning process for me because it showed that as a team we were all equal irrespective of age, experience or form,” says Amokachi.
He spent four successful seasons in Belgium and was prominent in the Nigerian team that won the Africa Cup of Nations for only the second time in 1994, and that went on to the World Cup in the United States (US) the same year. It was here that Nigeria showed their class by topping their group, beating Bulgaria 3-0, Greece 2-0 and narrowly losing to Argentina 2-1.
In the second round, Nigeria led Italy by a single goal and were two minutes away from reaching the quarterfinal when a defensive error allowed Roberto Baggio to equalize. Baggio went on to score again in extra time and Nigeria were out of the tournament but left an indelible mark. Amokachi believes they could have gone much further.
“It’s the mentality of an African team. We always think it’s over when it’s not over. We were celebrating like we had already won. We forgot that football is 90 minutes.”
Amokachi scored one of the goals of the tournament against Greece, a scorching volley from outside the box, and earned accolades for his strength and skill. Shortly after, Everton Football Club came calling and he became the club’s most expensive player when they paid £3 million for his services.
Moving from the Belgian league to English football was a culture shock and initially Amokachi struggled.
“It’s a totally different ball game. The toughness, the speed is a reality. My nickname was ‘The Bull’ and I had strength and speed but after the first game I knew I had to really work hard. We played Blackburn Rovers in the first game and I had three opportunities that under normal circumstances I would score but each time a defender took the ball away from me. It took me six months to adjust. It was only towards the end of the season that I found my rhythm.”
He won the hearts of the Everton fans when he came off the bench to score twice in the FA Cup semifinal against Tottenham Hotspur to take the team to Wembley for the final. His two goals in 10 minutes etched his name into the club’s history books. Everton went on to beat Manchester United 1-0 in the final, with Amokachi making a substitute appearance.
He made his second World Cup appearance at the 1998 tournament in France, and was hoping Nigeria would go further after their second round exit in 1994, but it turned out to be a torrid time for both him and the team. An errant tackle in training saw him limp off the field.
He missed the first game against Spain, lasted 70 minutes against Bulgaria, but in the third match against Paraguay he felt his knee give way as he warmed up.
“I just walked off, didn’t tell anyone and went to the dressing room and locked myself in the toilet, in tears.”
He had surgery and played for another year but could feel that something was not right and underwent a second operation. A long period of rehabilitation followed. After unsuccessful spells with the Colorado Rapids in the US and Besiktas in Turkey, he made one final attempt with Créteil in France but when his injury recurred during the trial, he informed the club that he wouldn’t be able to continue.
After a discussion with his wife, he decided to give up the game at the young age of 28. It was a heart-rending decision that opened his eyes to life’s realities.
“One day you are up there and then you are down here. All the people you thought were your friends disappear. But that helps you because you now see who your real friends are. It makes you become a man and know what the world is really about. Even in your family, you find out who is really your true family.”
When the dollars were flowing, Amokachi was known for living the highlife and he made choices that he regrets.
“When you are living in that world and you wake up every morning, every week your bank account is credited, whether there is training or not, whether you play or not, that account is credited and you have endorsements left, right and center. You’re making money. You have style, you have class and you want to show it. But, when you sit down and think about it, the reality hits you. It’s not just about making money. You go back to Nigeria at that age of 28, and you see how people suffer and are really struggling, and it makes you realize that the life you were living is a totally different ball game. You think about the money you waste,” he says.
“Someone will come and tell you they need some working capital and they ask for less than $100. You ask them what they can expect to generate from less than $100 and they just want to have enough to make small cakes and sell on the street to survive. Meanwhile you take out $120,000 to buy a car, and park five cars that you don’t really need and maybe drive them once a month. What are those things for?… You then realize that you need to use money to impact people’s lives and that’s how I’ve been living my life since, helping where I can.”
After his playing days came to an end, Amokachi took up coaching and has served the Nigeria national team as assistant and caretaker coach. In almost a replication of his playing career, he was assistant coach when Nigeria won the Africa Cup of Nations in 2013 and reached the second round of the World Cup in 2014.
At the age of 42, the African game will definitely be hearing the roar from The Bull in the future.