Chief Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu is one of the three private investors who turned around the fortune of Nigerian football in the late 80s. The two others were late Chief MKO Abiola and John Masteroudes of the famous Leventis United.
However, while the latter duo decided to opt out of investing in club football, Chief Iwuayanwu continued until late in the 90s when he handed over the team back to Imo State government. But it was not until he had spent a fortune and got tortured emotionally.
Recently, Daily SunSports ran into the financier of the widely known Iwuanyanwu Nationale FC at the Concord Hotel, Owerri, where he was the chairman of the Imo State Sports Summit, and the discussion centred on the team and what he benefitted financing a football club at a time other private individuals were scared to venture into the terrain.
25 years after Iwuanyanwu Nationale were involved in a plane crash in Tunisia, what runs in your memory?
In 1994, my team was representing Nigeria in the African Cup of Champions. And they played in Tunisia; and after playing that match, their plane crashed. I gave them my private jet to use, unfortunately, I lost four of my key players and two pilots. I spent a lot of money for compensation to the families of the dead players and to those who got injured. And, of course, my plane was condemned.
Financially, how much did the plane crash cost you?
I lost almost $5 million, both the cost of the plane and compensation fee. I paid them in dollars not in naira. So, it was between $5 and $7 million, I can’t remember the actual amount. But, it’s not less than $5million.
How did you feel when you heard about the plane crash?
Of course, I was very sad. I was actually in New York when I saw it on the television. I think it was on CNN that particular day. I was watching it with my family in New York. It pained me so much; it was a very terrible experience. It wasn’t the plane crash that pained me, but the loss of my footballers. Because they are assets I cherished so much.
I sent them all to Brazil for training, then Brazil was the home of football. The training really helped. When they came back, they won all the trophies in Nigeria. The team never stopped winning trophies every year. We won the Challenge Cup and the League trophy which automatically gave us the Champion of Champions trophy. Any year we didn’t win the league, we would win the Challenge Cup. We made a lot of history. Even when the league changed to Nigeria Professional league, Iwuanyanwu Nationale won the first league cup title.
At this time, there were Leventis United and Abiola Babes; three of the best teams in the country then. What was the competition like?
Oh, very healthy. Three of us happened to be the biggest rivals then. But the truth was that after Abiola and Leventis disbanded, I was the only person who stood for a very long time. Abiola Babes disbanded out of annoyance, I think he disbanded before Leventis United.
What we heard was all of you had a meeting and decided to quit because of government interference in the league?
No. It wasn’t like that. There was no such meeting. It’s true government wasn’t helping us in any way. In fact, I spent millions sustaining my club. I was at that time spending over N150 million every year. At a point I got worried and I felt like not going to international competitions, because if I did, there was no way I won’t spend N300 million because I would pay for their return tickets. That was part of it because there was no encouragement from government.
That was why Abiola disbanded and Leventis followed suit. But I was the last person to quit. Flash Flamingoes later joined us. But I’m happy all of us were able to promote some players to stardom. Take for instance, Kanu Nwankwo was from Imo State, who excelled through my club.
He started as a ball boy. I also established Iwuanyanwu Comets, which was a feeders team. I did that because there were so many people in Imo state who loved football, especially the secondary school boys. So, I was feeding the team from Iwuanyanwu Comets. Nwankwo played in Iwuanyanwu Comets.
He played few matches before making it to the national team level and a foreign club snatched him. And we were not even gaining any thing in those days from the transfers. So, it was quite a difficult situation. I was happy for him captaining the Olympic team in 1996. But by then, he had left my club. I think he only spent two seasons with me. He was a talented footballer even when he was a small boy.
What joy did you derive seeing those young boys you groomed?
I lost money, but I had a lot of joy. All my boys are now big men today. Like when I went for the Olympics in 1996, I had over seven of my boys in the national team. That alone was a source of joy for me. One of the matches we played at the tournament was in Boston. During that particular match, I sat with the father of former president of U.S.A, George Bush in the VIP stand. When I told him I had a football club, he was excited. Immediately I told him, he took my autograph. That was a rare privilege.
The joy cost you how much in total?
I can’t cost it, it’s too much. It was a lot of money. There was no year I didn’t spend over N150 million, especially the year we played in the continent. For many years, we represented Nigeria in the continent, but the one that pained me most was the one we lost in the final in 1988. That was when I saw the fraud in football. Instead of playing the match in Algiers, they took it to a place that was very cold, far away from their place. Our people didn’t know. They had only one jersey.
Before half time, we were shivering and there was no jersey to change with in the second half. We managed to hold them in the first half. But in the second half, the referee was very unfair to us and we lost. We were second that year, but, definitely, everyone knew we were better than our opponents.