FG labelled us Government Property to stop us from playing abroad
-Fatai Atere, Ex-Golden Eaglets World Cup winner
As the world is presently overwhelmed by the coronavirus outbreak from China, Nigeria overwhelmed the world in China 35 years ago when her Golden Eaglets lifted the maiden Kodak U-17 world Cup at Beijing, China. Fatai Atere (Skippo); a prominent player in the victorious team, in this interview with Christian Benefits, reminisces on how Nigeria conquered the world in China in 1985 with that trophy.
It’s been 35 years ago that you lifted the maiden Kodak U-17 world cup for Nigeria with your fellow Nigeria’s cadet team at Beijing, China in 1985. Can you recall the euphoria after the team lifted the world cup trophy as winners?
Wow! It’s been a long time. Everyone was joyful when we emerged winners of the maiden U-17 world cup tournament in Beijing, China in 1985. Initially, we were speechless. We never believed we could win that competition because that was the first time Nigeria would participate in any football world cup competition. So, it was wow when we emerged winners. We didn’t know the gravity of what we have achieved until we saw the whole country trooped out to receive us back home.
What were some of the expectations of the team from the tournament when the team left Nigeria virtually unrecognized to participate in the competition? When we left Nigeria to participate in the world cup competition few people noticed us. We left Nigeria for the competition as underdogs. Although before the tournament, we had played against Brazil, Germany, Italy, Saudi Arabia, and Argentina, yet we felt we were going to that world cup to complete the numbers. We don’t know how we got the courage and conquered the world in China. We became world beaters. Nobody, including Nigerians expected us to win the world cup. Even the delegation that the Head of State, Gen. Buhari assigned to come to China and encourage us in the final came late to the stadium to watch us play in the final. We had even scored the first goal before they arrived in the stadium. Like I said earlier, we didn’t know the gravity of our victory until we returned to Nigeria.
Share some of the fond memories of the Eaglets’ reception by Nigerians and the government on the team’s arrival back home after the world cup triumph.
When we returned home we were first landed at Kano Airport. From Kano Airport we were airlifted to Lagos. We arrived at Muritala Mohammed Int’l Airport, Lagos around 8am into a mammoth of highly excited Nigerians who had kept vigil at the airport to receive us. From the airport the team was driven in a motorcade through some major streets in Lagos down to Igboosere to the State House, where the team was formally received by some Federal Government officials with some important dignitaries. Our ride on motorcade to the State House was a carnival. There was a massive crowd who followed the team’s parade in a motorcade to the State House. We were shell shocked by the reception. That was when we started realizing the magnitude of what we have achieved at the tournament as world champions.
Like other players in the victorious Eaglets, Nigeria’s Federal Government renamed one of the longest streets in Mushin; Matori, after you as Fatai Atere Way. Is it true that you initially requested the government to rename the popular Lagos Business District, Broad Street, on the Lagos Island, after you?
On the issue of my reported request for Broad Street to be renamed after, it was a mix up. After the government announced it would rename a street each after each player, a newspaper reporter accosted me on the Lagos Island and asked me which street I would like the government to rename after me. I said I don’t know. I told the reporter that I would accept whatever street the government renames after me. He then asked me, what if the government renames Broad Street after me. I just shrugged my shoulders. The next day it was splashed on the front page of his newspaper, “Fatai Atere wants Broad Street renamed After Him.” I was shocked! Everybody was like what! Well, it’s all good! I’m happy with the street that the government renamed after me. The government renamed a popular street in Mushin; Matori Street, which is one of the longest streets in Lagos, as Fatai Atere Way. Fatai Atere Way is a commercial district too like Broad Street. It’s a popular street all the way from Ladipo Street to Cappa down to the popular Oshodi. I’m very happy and thank God for the reward. Who am I? I just have to give glory and honour to God. I was opportune to be at the right place at the right time. A lot of people would love to be in my position today. So, I always give glory to God.
How did you utilize your own scholarship and the shares that the government promised all the team players as parts of the rewards for the team’s feat?
When the government announced the rewards of share certificates and scholarship to all the players in the team we were all excited. For the scholarship awards, some of us may probably have utilized their own scholarship. Some of us were already in high school. I don’t think most us used the scholarship awards apart from the team captain Uduka Ugbade, Segun Babatunde Joseph and Jonathan Akpoborie. I think they used their scholarship awards to further their education at Federal School of Arts & Science. I had already completed my Higher School Certificate (HSC) at Igbobi College before the government promised us the scholarship awards.
Gen. Muhammadu Buhari, who welcomed and rewarded the Golden Eaglets players and officials as Nigeria’s Head of State in 1985, is amazingly Nigeria’s current President 35 years after. How does that feel to you?
Yes, when we won the world cup in 1985, Gen. Muhammadu Buhari was Nigeria’s Head of State then. Now, 35 years after, he is again Nigeria’s current President. President Buhari is a very humble and nice person. In 2017 he again hosted us the 1985 victorious U-17 national team players to another reception now at Aso Rock. He paid our flight tickets and gave us N2m each. In addition, he decorated us with the national honour of Member of the Order of Niger (MON), which he promised us in 1985, but was unable to fulfill before his government was overthrown by Gen. Ibrahim Babangida. So, he has fulfilled his promise of national honour to us. Gen. Buhari promised us several rewards for our world cup victory. Unfortunately, shortly after the world cup, Gen. Babangida ceased power from him. So, he was unable to fulfill several promises he made to us. That was why when he returned to power he invited us to Aso Rock. He told us promise is a debt one must fulfill. He thereby fulfilled the award of MON national honour that he promised us in 1985. Like I said President Muhammadu Buhari is a very humble man. I know he wanted to do more, but for the circumstances. I love him. I thank him. All glory to God.
Share with us how your growing up in Mushin was like before your coming into international limelight after your U-17 World Cup triumph in ChinaAs a Mushine yourself (referring to the interviewer) you know how growing up in Mushin was like for us Mushin boys in those days. Everything was about hustling, hustling in Mushin! But I always see myself as a refined Omo Mushin because when most boys were roaming about I kept my cool headedness. I was already playing tournament soccer growing up in Mushin. I played for Greater Tomorrow team at the National Stadium, Surulere, Lagos. I played for my street team, the Apesin Bombers. I played football games after school hours. I ran away from home to play foot ball. My mother always warned me to return home on time before my father returned from work otherwise he would beat me if he didn’t meet me at home. My father always beat me with horsewhip if he didn’t meet me at home. But to play football I endured both the beating and schooling that my father wanted.
Tell us how you were selected into the Nigeria’s U-17 national team?
Before my selection into the U-17 I played for the Youth Football Federation of Nigeria (YFON) in the U.S in 1984 where we won the World Youth soccer championship in California. When we returned home the team was drafted to the Junior Eagles. My father was a kind of man you can’t bring a bad result home from school and would accept it. So, one morning I looked at the Junior Eagles team and looked at myself and concluded that the coaches may probably not select me. So, I told the head coach, Coach Tunde Disu, that I want to return to school because the coaches may not select me into the team and I don’t want to fail my examinations. I was then a student of Igbobi College. Coach Disu told me you can’t go. You are still part of the team. I told him you coaches may not select me, and I don’t want my father to get angry at me when I fail my examinations. It was after I left the Junior Eagles that the U-17 national team was raised. When the U-17 was raised their head coach said there was one skilful boy (referring to me) who left the Junior Eagles, that the boy should be invited to the U-17 since he is within the age bracket. That was how I was selected into the U-17 team that conquered the world in China.
From Nigeria’s U-17 cadre team, tell us your subsequent progress in your football career before you finally drawn the curtains on the beautiful game.
Before I joined the U-17 I played for International Bank for West Africa (IBWA). After we won the maiden U-17 world cup in China, shortly after the 1986 senior world cup in Mexico, I captained the U-17 to the next U-17 world cup in Canada. Unfortunately, this time we lost to Russian in the 1986 final of the U-17 world cup. When we returned home from the tourney, I was selected for the Junior Eagles the second time. This time I played for the Junior Eagles also known as the Flying Eagles for a couple of years. I played for the Flying Eagles at the ECOWAS Cup in Burkina Faso. When we returned from the ECOWAS Cup, I joined the Bank of the North (BON) Football Club. The club gave me a lot of bonuses. I played for the club in the Division 11 of the Nigeria National League (NNL). While I was paying for BON I received a call from Tottenham Hotspur FC in England that the club needed my service. I was skeptical going to Tottenham, but my mother encouraged me that it was an opportunity that I have to take; that such opportunity comes once in a lifetime. So, I travelled to London and trained with Tottenham Hotspur for a month. The club was supposed to sign me on for 1.5m pounds. In those days as a foreign player you have to get clearance from your country and also get work permit before you can play for any club in Europe. Tottenham called the Nigerian government for my clearance during the military regime of Gen. Ibrahim Babangida as Nigeria’s military ruler. Unfortunately, the Babangida government replied the club that the 1985 Golden Eaglets players are government property. The government said we were being groomed from the Eaglets to the senior national team. As result of this we couldn’t played outside the country. But I sneaked out to London to train with Tottenham. That was how I lost the deal because Tottenham said they can’t sign me since the Nigerian government refused to issue a clearance to me to sign me. So, left London and came to the U.S to further my education. So, while schooling in the U.S I continued playing football at the local level. I played in the local league for local teams in the U.S because soccer was not a big deal in America at that time. I played for few years. I later obtained a coaching certificate. I have diploma in coaching. From there I became the Commissioner for Nigeria Football Association (NFA) in the US. I have been the commissioner in the past 11years. I train and coach an academy called AG Academy in America. Gradually, age became a factor. I now face my job. I’m doing fine. To God be the glory. I thank God and everyone. That little boy that was raised in Mushin that people thought would not amount to anything, but here I’m today. First and foremost I thank God. If not God I won’t be where I am today. I thank my late parents too.
How long have you been resident in the U.S?
I have been resident in the U.S about 30years. In these years, I have coached lots of teams; boy and girl teams. I have my kids here. God has really been good to me.
Christian Benefits follows your regular evangelical posts on the social media. Were you raised in Christian home, or how did you become a Christian?
I was born a Muslim. My father was an Alhaji. I became a Christian when I had a little brief with the law here in the U.S. And a friend advised me to attend church for solution. Initially, I resisted that how could I a Muslim; Fatai, attend church? But after he put pressure on me I followed him to church just to see what they are doing there. In the course of the church service, someone went into a trance and prophesied that God has called me to work for him. That was in 2012. I couldn’t understand how I could work for God because I’m an outgoing person. I’m a social kind of person who enjoys lots of fun. But guess what? Who am I to refuse when God says he wants me to work for him. So, I accepted to work for God, and since then I have been working for God at a Cherubim & Seraphim Church as the church secretary. I work behind the scene. I’m enjoying it. I thank God for the opportunity of working for him and for everything he has done in my life through that ministry.
Tell us about your lifestyle now since you started working for God?
I have witnessed a change in my lifestyle since I started working for God. Though I’m not perfect yet I’m doing my best. I’m a Most Senior Apostle in Joyful Home Parish of Cherubim & Seraphim Church. I will continue to praise and worship God. For the old habits I let go after I became a Christian, I didn’t have to let go anything because I was not doing bad things before then. I’m a very picky person.
Who are those you look up to as your mentors in the Christian faith?
Jesus is the only cross I look up to. Before my mother died, she told me opo Jesu nikan ni ko dimu (hold onto Jesus cross alone). I trust in no god or man. Jesus is my only mentor. He is my Alpha and my Omega. I’m the secretary of Joyful Home C&S church. I run the church by the by power conferred on me by my pastor.
How often do you connect with your root, particularly “we” fellow Mushines?
One cannot forget his root. I still keep my Mushin friends. I visit my friends who are still in Mushin anytime I visit Nigeria. I came to Nigeria early this year and connected with some old Mushin friends. I’m still in touch with my old friends like Ilayan Johnson and Tayo Adewale on Martin Street, that we played football together. I’m still deeply connected to my root in Mushin. I’m Mushin for life. Up Mushin! Up Fatai! Up Lagos state! There was a time I visited Mushin Local Government council and requested from the chairman to allocate a piece of land for me on Fatai Atere Way to build an Event centre. I even told the chairman that I would pay for the piece of land. But you know our people. They were just turning me left and right and telling me all sorts of stories. Well I tried to contribute to the development of my root in that capacity unfortunately they didn’t allow me.