BY PAUL EREWUBA and TONY OGAGA
John Olatunji Shittu is a Nigerian FIFA licensed player Agent, who became so popular because of the prominent role he played in the transfer saga of Super Eagles Captain, John Mikel Obi, between Manchester United and Chelsea.
Shittu is known for his exceptional work ethics. He doesn’t just represent his client in contract negotiation with a club, he also manages the entire affairs of his players.
He has been in charge of Mikel since the player was 12 years old. He took Mikel through youth football in Manchester United, then got him a deal with LYN FC in Norway before Chelsea.
Shittu also manages other top Nigerian players like Chinedu Obasi, Isaac Promise, Onyekachi Apam, Ambrose Efe among others.
In this interview in Lagos, Shittu opens up on Nigeria’s inability to see football as a money spinning industry, and his personal life as an agent, including Mikel’s decision to play in the Chinese League.
Your boy, Mikel Obi captained the Nigerian Dream Team to the Olympics and the boys made Nigerians proud, what is your take?
It was great but for me it is not a surprise because I have always believed that he still has a lot to achieve at age 29, he has been very consistent.
Mikel left Chelsea for Chinese League, what do you think this portends for his career?
Mikel took the decision as an adult. He is happy. And I am happy. I believe he made the right decision. It is his career and he knows the best.
When you stepped into this field, what were your challenges?
The funny thing is that I started at the top with the top players. I was too fortunate to have started with people I started with. George Weah was one of them and at the time, I probably would have looked at him and said ‘wow this guy is top brand!’ But the guy looked at me and said I want you to manage me.
With all the white boys around at the time it was a big experience, so, of course there were challenges but the challenges were more with the Nigerian players in terms of loyalty and trying to understand what they really want. In football, loyalty is key; it is key to everything. It is very difficult working with Nigerian players in terms of loyalty. You have few of them who listen.
George Weah was huge and you were just a green horn, what did you tell him that made him listen to you?
You have to believe in yourself. I pride myself in that I believe in myself and it is not being arrogant. If I believe in something I go all the way and I believe that everything is possible with the special grace of God and hard work. So we met and we just jelled and we became friends. He is still one of my best friends and we speak regularly. Even when he went into politics we discussed it. That is how strong the bond we share is. That does not mean that we did not have our challenges. We had our differences but we also respected each other and knew when to draw the line.
Having come this far, are you fulfilled?
Honesty, I am in terms of what I have achieved. The only thing I am not satisfied with at the moment is that unfortunately, my country has not developed the game; it has not taken it to the next level. I am very disappointed that they have not developed the success that we had. And consequently, the money that should have been coming into the game to develop the infrastructure is not coming and nothing is happening and for me, the public sector is supposed to drive the private sector but it is not doing anything. If you look at the Olympics, our performance was very disappointing. There is nothing bad in you making money but try to put something in place. Football is a multimillion dollar business. Look at the EPL.
Often big Nigerian footballers are accused of being unpatriotic when they are called for national assignments what is your take on this?
You have to give it to those guys. I think the government at the top level really needs to move in now. If a Japanese billionaire can look at that team and reward their efforts, that speaks volumes. And the so called Nigerian billionaires or whatever they call them, what have they done for these boys? What have they done to support sports? They do everything to criticise footballers that they are not patriotic enough.
Talking about structures, what can the government do?
I don’t know how many stadiums we have, but stadium are not expensive to build these days. To build a stadium is like $30-50m. And you don’t have to build a 75000 thousand capacity stadium. The only expense in building stadium is the land and the government owns the land. If we are real with ourselves and plan for the future of our kids, Nigeria can afford to build 10 stadia at a time. We can build a stadium for 50 million Dollars. We have the land and the resources and everything is so natural. Secondly we must have the right ministry of youth and sport but there must be a strong committee that would develop a blueprint at least for the first four or five years and then see how we progress from there.
How do you relax?
Now that I am 53 years-old I have learned how to relax more and I just got married recently and I am enjoying married life. My late wife complained that I wasn’t around enough. Life is an experience, you learn and as you grow and there are certain things you don’t want to do again. I have made my mistakes and with my new wife I just want to make sure that everything is right. I want to correct all those areas that I failed. It is not about anybody telling me what is right or wrong, I know where I went wrong and every day I pray more and I thank God I met somebody who loves me and every time I look at her I thank God she is my treasure and she makes me happy.
How did you meet your wife?
We met in England and she has never been married before. Well, you see, life is sometimes strange. I was having a bad relationship after my wife passed on in 2010. I don’t wish that kind of relationship for my worst enemy. I thank God I survived it. In fact, I had already forgotten about ever getting married again when I met my new wife.
When is your boy Mikel walking down the aisle?
I don’t know yet, he is still young at 29 years and he is successful. First, he has someone he has been dating for years and they are in love. Honestly, he is happy in his relationship, he has twins, and he loves his children and they are in love. If they want to move it to another level, I will be the happiest man on earth but for now, they are enjoying it and I wish them the best.
Could we say that you are responsible for Mikel Obi’s success today?
There is one thing you have to know, he is talented, Mikel was not made by my might or power but by the special grace of God. He has become a success. But the fact is that we have differences but at the end of the day when I breakdown things for him, he asks question and he has the right to ask and it is for me to answer it correctly so that he can understand. Professionally he asks questions and I also learn from him. Now, where are the players of the Under 17 team that came home with him years ago. The truth is that we don’t hear about them again because they got to a point where they stopped listening.
What is the secret to your success?
It is understanding the kind of job I do. When I decided to be a sports agent, it was because I wanted to excel. Why would I want to get involved in a job that I can’t do better than those that were there before me. Today I know what I have achieved and how the face of being a sports agent has changed. European clubs now know that gone are the days when you paid Africans footballers $50,000 or $100,000. This is something that took over a decade to achieve. I am so happy because it gives me joy.