Former Super Eagles Assistant Coach, Joe Erico, in this wide-ranging interview with JOHN EGBOKHAN,tells Stephen Keshi not to use President Goodluck Jonathan as the reason behind his bid to hang on to the plum job.
I saw you riding a bicycle and I was thrilled. . What informed the choice of cycling?
It takes a strong heart to ride a bicycle at this age, especially on a regular basis. It takes a strong heart to be disciplined. Looking at where I am now, I have done everything I wanted to do as a young man and now that I am getting older, I need to remain fit. I have touched a lot of lives coaching football and I have to keep my own life going now.
I also swim. I have been biking for a very long time and it has been very beneficial. It is good for the heart. If I stay without riding a bicycle for a week. I will almost die. So I must do it, at least, thrice in a week. I also go to the gym.
So most Nigerians are at risk of helath problems because of lack of exercise”
Yes but I am happy with what I see today because most Nigerians are aware of the dangers of not exercising the body. Some people even do it religiously . If you come to the National Stadium on Saturday, you will see Nigerians in their numbers exercising.
Talking about the health of our football, how healthy is our national game?
Football is still a healthy game but it’s just a question of telling people that things are happening where you are. It is about our perception. Our league is a great brand just as the EPL but the work to be done to make it very attractive must involve all stakeholders.
But our league is not attracting fans at the stadium?
Of course, it is not because I recall that in our time, we used to have a sell-out crowd even with three hours left to kick-off live, when Julius Berger played against Enyimba or Spartans, here in Lagos.
But there is no football in Lagos again, in terms of a Premier League team playing their home matches here?
Yes, that is the case but I feel that things will soon change. Butt from what I see of the Governor, his idea is that he doesn’t want to get into ownership of team because football is not government’s business.
So what is government’s business?
Like the EPL, which Nigerians are always watching, how many government teams are in it? Think of it, the only thing that government does its to provide the enabling ground for the game to grow.
But the clubs in Nigeria are mostly owned by State governments?
It should not be so. Times have changed. It is very political now. Then, it was a recreational thing but now it is about politics. That recreational aspect was what made it thick then because everybody was aware of recreation, every department had a recreational department in government then, so money was devoted for that recreation and that money was what we utilised then to make teams like Railways, Police, ECN, Ports Authority thick.
It was on that recreational level but now football is business and unfortunately we have not been able to transform. Now we go cap in hand to government to collect money. And once you go for this money, the people in government will create an avenue to get their share of the cake. So, things are not proper.
Is it directly related to what happened to Dolphins in Tunisia?
Of Course, people don’t know what went down that made those boys to refuse to travel on time. It was down to money but people are already blaming the boys, which is wrong, because I knew what transpired. I don’t blame those players because they had to sacrifice that moment to protect the future of those coming behind. There are times that you have to embarrass yourself if you don’t want to be embarrassed continuously. Players need to take their destinies in their hands. The problem is that we don’t have real players union body here to fight for players’ welfare.
But we have a players union body here, the one of Austin Popo?
Ah, ah, and how effective is that body? It is very effective indeed.
Are you not a member of the union?
I am not because the house is not solid. I know what is happening. I am trying to negotiate and bring the two bodies together.
Turning your attention to the progress of the Golden Eaglets to the next World Cup in Chile, do you feel convinced that Emmanuel Amuneke can defend the trophy?
I feel that Nigerian coaches are the best around the world, if well supported. But the unfortunate thing is that when we lose, they condemn the coaches. They even abuse their families. That is the kind of country that we are living in. But people should be happy with the progression that we are currently experiencing from the Golden Eaglets to the Flying Eagles to the Olympic Team and Super Eagles.
But the progression is not showing in the Eagles
Yes, it might not be there now, but I believe that it will soon trickle to the top sooner than later
Do you think a change is inevitable in the Super Eagles coaching crew?
Change is the normal thing. It was change that brought Keshi in the first place, but let me state that our local coaches have done very well. How many expatriate coaches have done more than Keshi has done for the Super Eagles?
Even Clemence Westerhof, who was here for five years, was only able to win Nations Cup trophy and lead the Eagles to the second round of the World Cup, the same stage that Keshi took the team to in Brazil last year. So what is the big deal with foreign coaches? Is our country prepared to go further down that? If we don’t prepare to win. We don’t have plans to succeed, rather, we are just chasing shadows.
And the present NFF board, are they on course to take our football out of the woods?
I hope Pinnick and co will do a good job in progressing our football and carrying the coaches and ex-footballers along. In my country, people don’t like when you tell the truth and at my age, I can only say the truth. You can’t give what you don’t have. If I can’t do something, I will tell you to take it to somebody else. I won’t hold on to something that I know I can’t deliver.
I am a truthful person and I believe that only the truth is what I will continue preaching till I meet my Creator.
What is the truth that will set Nigerian football free?
I believe that if we all think of the progression of the game and not what will enter into our pockets our football will be great again. That is the simple truth that will save our football. It is very simple but yet very difficult for many Nigerians to practice. You and I, club administrators should think of how to move their clubs forward, not what they will get from the players’ money.
Like Tony Blair, when he was making a speech sometime ago, he said he made his money outside politics. He said he made his money before becoming the Prime Minister of Britain. We should stop thinking about making money from the team. When I was coaching, I invited players based on merit. I never soiled my hands in any dirty deal.
Are you a fulfilled man at 68 years old?
I’m fulfilled. I can say so with all sense of humility and modesty. I’m happy and free. People are not running after me and I am not running after people, begging for one favour or the other. When you call me and offer me something that you feel I merit, I will weigh the options and accept if I am okay with the conditions. But at my age, I won’t beg, like other guys. That is the style of those people. I started well, worked hard to get where I am now.
What do you want to be remembered for when you are 70?
I want to be seen as a straight-forward person, who didn’t compromise on standards but touched the lives of people who came across him. I want people to remember Erico as a straight-forward person. I attended a programme recently, it was scheduled to start at 2:30pm but by 3:30pm, they were yet to start. The person who invited me came to tell me that I should relax that President Jonathan was on air but I told him that I was on my way to attend to other businesses because I was equally as important as Jonathan because I also have an important job to perform for this country.
I told him that like Jonathan, I was also doing a job. That was what I told Stephen Keshi recently, when the furore over his Eagles future was raging. Keshi told me that he wants to coach Eagles because Jonathan intervened and asked him to coach the team. But I told him that Jonathan will leave there soon. Even if he stays there for another 10 years, Jonathan will still leave Aso Rock for Otuoke someday.
So I told him that when Jonathan leaves, will he die there? Jonathan can’t even stay in Abuja forever to guarantee Keshi’s job. I told Keshi to tell Jonathan that “Oga thank you, I am not comfortable with this job again and should let me go. That is the truth that we need. So why should I lie or rely on somebody to remain somewhere. I won’t see a white object and call it black. You can’t build a good society by telling lies. We have children and we want them to be good citizens of this country.
Have you been paid your 2002 World Cup qualifying money?
No, as I am talking now. I don’t know if Keshi and Amodu have been paid, but I hope and pray that someday, someone will remember me and say come and take your entitlements for serving your fatherland. I spoke with Amanze Uchegbulam when we met in Qatar and he said I should bring our contractual agreements and I told him that when I was playing for Nigeria, there was nothing like contractual agreement.
Why should I come and coach my country with a contact? We are supposed to have passed that level today but that is what they are using against us. They should stipulate that a coach is coming and this is what he is going to get.
But since they are using it against coaches, is it not high time that contracts were signed?
We don’t need to, it is a simple thing that can be worked out by progressive administrators… When I was at Julius Berger, there was no contractual agreement but coaches were paid as and when due.
Why did Julius Berger go down?
It was when it’s administration got into the hands of a Nigerian man that Julius Berger went down.