* Speaks on the disbandment of Abiola Babes, Leventis United and how Iwuanyanwu pulled out from the plan against NFA
How does it feel to be 70?
I think I have been a very fortunate person in the sense that I have had 70 good years. Therefore, it is a blessing for me that I have reached this age. And secondly for the experience I have had over these years, I can only thank the Lord for allowing me to stay for this long.
Congratulations once again. But yours is an interesting story of a Greek national born in Nigeria. Can you tell us how come you were born in Nigeria?
My father came to Nigeria in 1931. He started as a young boy here working his way up. Eventually, when Leventis started in 1945, he was one of the first employees to join the group. And since then, he was a Leventis man and he died a Leventis man. I was born here in Nigeria because my father was working in Nigeria as at that time and I’m proud to say that I was born in Nigeria.
Where exactly were you born?
I was born at Awolowo Road, Onikan in Lagos. It was then the Creek Hospital but today it is called Military Hospital.
Where did you go to school?
At the age of three or four when the Western government was at Ibadan, my father had to go to Ibadan as a Leventis agent. So, I grew up in Ibadan. I had my elementary education at the University of Ibadan Staff School before I travelled overseas to further my studies there.
So, we can call you a son of the soil here?
As a matter of fact, the only thing that is missing are my tribal marks (laughter..). I do feel very much at home and I’m proud like I said to be born in Nigeria. I have upheld the Nigeria flag many times not only in Nigeria but also around the world. And I just would like to believe that I am supposed to be an ambassador of this country.
Where were you in 1960 during Nigeria’s independence celebration? Can you recall some of your experiences during the celebration?
I was a young boy then. But I can remember when the Queen of England came to Nigeria. She came to Ibadan and passed through the UCH (University Teaching Hospital; she passed through the area where I lived with my parents. I also remember the whole transfer of power from the British to Nigeria.
Fantastic! Several years after independence, the Nigerian Civil War broke out. Where were you then?
Even though I was not in Nigeria at the time, I used to be very often in Nigeria because my parents were here. So I used to come for holidays. I did experience quite a lot of the war and the turmoil that happened then. Those were sad years for Nigeria and I lived through it. I saw all the distractions and the human sacrifice that happened during that period.
I was really very sad. I remember when I came to work in Nigeria in 1979; my father told me if an Igbo man owes you money, you can sleep because he would pay you due to his family context. They could not do anything wrong because they would have been scolded. The war spoilt that notion. And unfortunately since then, the Igbos had to work very hard to come back again.
Could you please tell us some of the people you grew up with?
Yes. Olupede, unfortunately he is dead , Tunde Akerele and so many others that I can’t even remember because it’s a long time now. And there was a period in my life that I left Nigeria for over 20 years for further studies.
After spending 20 years abroad, you could have decided to live in Greece, America or United Kingdom. Why did you come back to Nigeria?
I was at a time living in Europe. We have a business of interior textile and we were trading with Nigeria. And if you remember in 1978/79, the government banned most imported items.
And Mr. Levetis, my dad and the then Ooni of Ife (Oba Okunade Sijuwade) wanted me to come and put a factory here in Nigeria to produce the goods that I was importing which I did. So, I came here as a shareholder and the CEO of Carpet Royal in Ibadan. I chose to come back to Nigeria because it was my birthplace, my parents were still here and I liked the adventure. Actually, at the beginning I was reluctant to come, but ever since I must say I have not regretted the decision to come.
Can you tell us about your siblings?
I had a sister who unfortunately is late now. There were just two of us (by my parents). On my part, I married a Dutch lady and I have got three kids; two daughters and a son who all live outside Nigeria and they are all gainfully employed.
Now, Mr Mastoroudes, what brought you into limelight were your activities with Leventis United Football Club of Ibadan. How did you get involved?
When we started Carpet Royal, from the first year, it was up and doing and making profits. So it was so easy and I was getting bored. I have a great passion for football, so I decided to organize people who were working in the factory to start playing football.
It started as a joke, I followed Nigerian football and slowly, I thought I could really create a team here. At that time, Leventis Group had two other teams; IddoTigers in Lagos and Sanyo FC in Ibadan. So I spoke to Mr. Leventis that why don’t I create a team out of all these three teams and call it Leventis United.
And he gave me the go ahead. So, it was in my mind that I was going to create a good team. We joined Ibadan local league which we won and got promoted to the first division of Ibadan local league. At that time, we had to play qualifications to enter the third division, national. By that time, I thought this was becoming serious and I started thinking of how to do a good job.
Then, there was IICC Shooting Stars of Ibadan which I was one of their supporters and I was scared to antagonize them. I don’t think there was any team that had more faithful supporters than IICC then. Stationery Stores had also but they were more rowdy; Ibadan support was a different kind of support, it was like a religion. So, I decided to take people from IICC and bring them into my team, so it looked like IICC was giving birth to another child.
I was also very fortunate that (IICC benefactor) Chief Lekan Salami’s father and my father were close friends, so my father called Lekan Salami and told him, “look, protect my son,” because I was a young man then. As a matter of fact, the relationship I had with Chief Salami was amazing. He really made it possible for Leventis United to grow in Ibadan because he saw that we were genuine, that we were not trying to diminish IICC. In fact, many times, we withdrew from the Challenge Cup for IICC to go forward.
Many times I got into problems with IICC but Chief Salami managed to resolve the issues. I got very friendly with the chief supporters of IICC in person of Chief Olotu and Baba Eleran. These two guys also did not like Leventis United but they could not say it to my face and they did not make it difficult for Leventis United.
After qualifying to represent Oyo State in the National League, you went on to win the third division, second division and the first division in successive years. How did you do it?
As a matter of fact, when we qualified to play in the third division national, I realized that the game became serious. So, it was my intention to create a good team. And I knew if you wanted to have a good team, you must have a good spine and the spine is the goalkeeper, your centre half, the midfielder and your striker. These four people were very important and I looked desperately to find them.
The first person that came to my team at that time was Abdullah Alausa, he was my centre half. I asked Alausa if he knew any good goalkeeper and he mentioned Edward Ansah who was playing for Railway in Lagos. Edward joined us, followed by (Team manager) George Hassan, Bunmi Adigun, Wole Odegbami, I got all of them in Ibadan, but that was not my spine yet.
I called George Hassan who played a very important role in the formation of Leventis United and told him I wanted a good centre half; a midfielder and a striker and he went straight away to Bendel Insurance in Benin. He got me Leotis Boateng and Matthew Onyeama. So, these guys were the ones that put everything in place for Leventis United at that time.
So, in the third division, my first team were Edward Ansah in goal; in defense, John Benson, Abdullah Alausa, Leotis Boateng and Andrew Uwe; in the midfield, Matthew Onyeama and Bunmi Adigun; forwards, Wole Odegbami, Sunday Daniel, Bala Ali and James Etokebe.
Five years later, this was essentially the same team that finished with Leventis United. Just two more new players managed to penetrate the first team; Friday Ekpo and Uwem Ekariin. My technical knowledge of football – I always maintain that any great team must have two great full backs because they are such an important asset in a team; they help you defend, they support the midfield and also join in the attack.
So, I transformed two players, Benson and Alausa for those roles. When we were in third division in 1984, we won the division undefeated, we won the Challenge (FA) Cup as well as the Champion of Champions Cup by beating Rangers that year. That was a feat that really shook the foundation of Nigerian football.
So everywhere we went, people came to watch because they wanted good football. In the second division in 1985, we won it comfortably likewise the first division in 1986. We also won the FA Cup for the second time. After the first year that we won in the first division, problem started happening in the club.
Some of the directors at Leventis said this Leventis team, why is John taking all the glory? So, they started bringing in more people to run it, and by that I was getting a little bit upset because I did not like it. It started as a joke and later became an expensive joke. At that time, the cost of the team was more than what was budgeted for but one thing they failed to realize was the kind of publicity it gave to the group. Leventis regularly enjoyed front page coverage of newspapers then. But by that time, I had given my all, we were champions every year for four years during which we rarely tasted defeat. But people didn’t realize the kind of things one had to put in place to win.
James Etokebe was one of your star players. How did you attract him and players like him to Leventis United at that time?
I was watching a Challenge Cup game in Ibadan involving Calabar Rovers and another club I can’t recall now. I was sitting with George Hassaan and Niyi Soleye, my club Secretary. In the second half, Calabar Rovers made a change and brought in Etokebe. I watched him for 10 minutes and I told George that I wanted this guy in my team. Please, go to Calabar tomorrow, find his parents and make him come to Ibadan.
Geroge went to Calabar convinced his parents and he came. When Etokebe arrived, I made him realize that this was the best thing that could happen to him and I wanted him to play for us. And soon he showed the stuff he was made of and he went on to play for the national team. He was a difficult boy, but very talented. I tamed him.
Now, let’s talk about Leventis United’s foray into Africa. Tell us about your experiences.
In the first instance when we played in the final (of the African Cup Winners Cup in 1985) against El Ahly of Egypt, we lost the first leg 2-0 in Egypt under very terrible conditions. In the return leg in Lagos, we won 1-0 but unfortunately that was not enough.
Then of course in the African Champions Cup in 1987, I felt we could win it. In the quarter-final, we went to Sudan to play El Hilal and we lost 1-0, and I thought we could recover this because they were not a good side.
But as Jose Mourinho says, they packed buses in front of goal in the second leg. Our boys tried but they could not get a goal. It became so difficult, so stressful and I was so disappointed at the end because my biggest dream was to win the African Champions Cup but unfortunately, it was not meant to be. I actually passed out and had to be resuscitated.
Let’s take you back to the football in Ibadan. What kind of juju was Leventis using back then?
Well, in Ibadan, they call it ‘balubalu.’ There is no babalawo in that area that did not come to meet us. Of course, I did not believe in all that but my players did. So, George Hassan, (coach) Jossy Lad and the rest would entertain them when they saw them. All I had to do was to give them some money to go back home. I don’t believe in juju, so you cannot ask me the effect it had on my team. But I know that our team was so disciplined on the field, they were so focused and our system of payment was such that they could not even resist.
The basic salary was not much but they made a lot of money from bonuses. At that time, it was two points for winning and a point for a draw.
I took a batch of four games, and if they won eight points, they got a lot of bonus, if they won seven points; they got lesser, up to five points. But if they won four points there was no bonus for that. If you won your two games at home, you had to win at least a point away.
So, in my own sense at that time, you only needed 2×8 points to win the league and it worked so well. That made the players focused. But we also played good football, very entertaining football, we had possession, in fact it was a very solid side. Every top player wanted to play for Leventis United.
Talking about the best players that wanted to play for Leventis at that time, Friday Ekpo was the captain of Abiola Babes and they had the money to keep their players. How did you get him away from there?
My first meeting with Chief Abiola was at a meeting of club owners and when we met, he said “I don’t like you but I respect you.” By that time, we had beaten his team many times. I told him, “Chief, if you get to know me, you will also like me.” Our friendship grew so much that I can tell you I have not met anybody in my life (be it white, black, yellow or any colour you can think of) that is as charismatic as Chief MKO Abiola; he was the most charismatic person I have ever met in my life. It was a fun to be around him. I loved him dearly.
Actually, Chief Abiola gave my team money for beating Abiola Babes and I said at that time that he had taught me how to behave in defeat. He showed me how to be graceful, and I really appreciated him so much. But he had a coach called Yakubu who wanted to take my players to Abiola Babes. We had an agreement not to touch each other’s players, but Yakubu took my four players and gave them money to play for Abiola Baba.
When I was told, I said boys, we won together, we are in the second division now, I wish you all the best with Abiola Babes and we shall meet on the field of play. But 20 minutes later, their leader (Bunmi Adigun) came back and said that they didn’t want to go again.
So, I told him that if they wanted to remain in my team, they had to return the money that they collected from Yakubu. And truly Hassan went with them to Abeokuta and they returned all the money. Then, I said since Abiola Babes tried to take my players, I wanted Friday Ekpo, their captain. Hassan went to Ekpo and brought him. I asked Friday if he was ready to play for me and he said yes. Friday was a great player; he really completed the midfield for me, he was an outstanding footballer. That was how I got Friday.
Very interesting story. There also was a rumour that Etim Esin was going to play for Leventis United at one stage.
Etim Esin, in my opinion, was the biggest talent Nigeria has ever produced. He was so amazing but unfortunately he let himself down. He was such a great footballer but very cocky. One day he came to my office and said “Oga, I want to join Leventis United” and I said that’s interesting.
He gave me a figure which was too high that only Manchester United could pay. I said to him, I cannot give that kind of money to someone that will play a back-up to Wole (Odegbami). He was shocked and he left. That was my contact with Etim, but his talent is unequalled in Nigeria.
What about the coaches that worked with you at Leventis United.
At the beginning was Philips Boamah who I loved dearly. I liked him very much and as a matter of fact, he was the one that lasted long with me. And then came Jossy Lad and Emmanuel Okoh. And when we went into African football, I felt we needed an extra touch.
Theophanis was somebody I knew. He played for Panathinako, my team in Greece, he was a very serious and hard-working coach. He did make a lot of difference because after Leventis, he went to Iwuanyanwu Nationale and did very well there as well.
Talking about the administrators or club owners at that time, you already mentioned Chief MKO Abiola. There also was Chief Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu and all you had some issues with the Nigeria Football Association (NFA) which eventually led to the disbandment of your team. What actually happened between the club owners and NFA at that time?
NFA were not doing what they were supposed to do. I remember in one Challenge Cup game we played, the stadium had minimum of 80,000 spectators here in Lagos but when we came out, they told us there were 9,000 tickets. These type of things were happening all along. We were representing Nigeria in Africa and we were not given any money, we had to pay all the cost of traveling on our own.
Chief Abiola, Chief Iwuanyanwu and I met and we agreed that we were going to disband our teams so as to shake up NFA a bit. Besides, our sponsors were not eager to pay that kind of money any more. Abiola and Leventis kept our words but Chief Iwuayanwu came back and said the team was not owned by him, that it belonged to his state, so he couldn’t disband them. He even requested from me that I passed some of my players to him which I did.
What are your most memorable moments with Leventis United?
For me, every moment I lived in that period was memorable and outstanding. Like I said, we were victorious most of the time. And above all, I was doing something that I was passionate about. The dedication I had for the club was just unbelievable and the amount of work I put in was so much detrimental to my work as managing director of Carpet Royal. Hard work is the only thing that can give you success and that is something I put in the minds of our players.
I think I was the coaches’ biggest enemy because I interfered all the time in their work and some coaches didn’t like that. I remember there was a time Theophanis came to tell me that Wole Odegbami and Bunmi Adigun did not train well that week and he was going to drop them. And I said to him that you could punish them in another way but don’t diminish my team. I called the boys and told them what I heard from the coach that I had to beg him on their behalf.
And I told them to promise me that they would win the game for us and they did just that. Talking about coaches, late Shuaib Amodu was one person I respected so much because of his football brain, He really talked good football and he was also dedicated to his work, he was a hard-working coach compared to some other Nigerian coaches that I know.
How was the decision to disband Leventis United communicated to the players?
I didn’t have to do that because by that time I was playing second fiddle. Other people communicated to them, so all the players came to me and I made them to know that it was not the end.
I said to them, I have brought you this far, people with talent don’t get lost, so go out and face the world, you never know you might have a better future. As a matter of fact, I even lost a lot of money on the team because some of the money we spent was not authorized; I had to bear the loss myself. The end was not very good but I was still very proud of my achievement in Leventis United.
What would be your advice for private club owners in Nigeria?
It is a very difficult question simply because I don’t think the product (the club sides) will sell. Before the product will sell, you have to do so much of infrastructure building and I don’t think this is the right time for people to invest in football in Nigeria. I don’t see it happening and that is the reason it has remained mostly in the hands of governors and state governments. If you have a good governor, you have a good team, and if you don’t the reverse is the case. I must commend (former Abia State governor) Orji Uzor Kalu for what he achieved with Enyimba football club. He has really done what I dreamt that I could do (winning the African Champions League). That was an amazing achievement.
You were a member of presidential task force set up to qualify Nigeria for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. How was the experience?
It was a great experience for me because I got involved. I wanted Nigeria to qualify for the World Cup; therefore I was very keen to give whatever I could to make it happen. I was met reluctantly by the team because they were not sure of our role compared to the NFF technical committee.
But I made it known to them straight away that I was there to help them, that I was not there for any glory, they cannot give me glory, I already have glory. But it was very unfortunate what happened in South Africa because we had the team that could go to the next round. Games against Greece and Korea were games we should have won especially with Ayegbeni’s miss against Korea.
Twice now, Nigeria have been grouped together with Greece at the FIFA World Cup- in 1994 and 2010. How did you handle the nationality conflict?
I supported Nigeria on both occasions. I always made it very clear that even though Greece was my country of origin, I haven’t worked in Greek football but I have worked in Nigerian football. I have contributed to Nigerian football so it did not even come to my mind that I was going to support any country other than Nigeria.
I remember when Amokachi scored the second goal against Greece at USA ’94. I jubilated because that was a great goal. I was there among Greeks wearing my Nigerian colours. So, there is no doubt about where my loyalty lies.
One of never ending debates in Nigerian football is the dominance of foreign based players over local players in the national team. What is your position?
Every Nigerian is eligible to play for the national team. I believe the best legs should play whether home based or foreign based. I don’t make that distinction. Every Nigerian should play for the national team.
What about coaches?
You see, I believe that a Nigeria coach would be better suited to the national team because there is nobody who can love this country more than Nigerians. The foreign coaches can bring their technical know-how but cannot bring their heart to the job. That is where I feel a Nigerian could do better.
But unfortunately, Nigerian coaches are easily influenced, secondly, they are pompous, thirdly, the players that come to play for them appear to be ahead of them them in many aspects. What we should be doing is sending our coaches abroad for refresher courses. But many of them are lazy. They just sit down at the touch line and start shouting “one-two ball” and all that. What is the meaning of that?
What is your suggestion to the current handlers of the Nigeria Football Federation on how to take Nigerian football to the next level.
Anything that is good starts from the management. And that is something a lot of people don’t go into; football management as a scientific process. There is a lot of money in football; therefore there should be a lot of prospect for young people who want to go into football management.
There are many schools in Europe that teach football as a course. As a matter of fact, Real Madrid has a very good school; Manchester United has one, too. What I would love to recommend for them is more scientific, more academic involvement in the management of people who are trained to do that because there are so many aspects of football that need to be looked at.
Finally, aside from football, how do you relax?
I am very happy with myself. I have a family, I work, I come home. I have friends and we have fun together.
As an Ibadan man, how well do you speak the Yoruba language?
You see, this is one question I hoped you wouldn’t bring up. My pidgin English is very good but my major regret is that I cannot speak local Nigerian languages better than I do. I speak a bit of Yoruba and I don’t think anybody can buy me or sell me off in my presence because I will understand what they are talking about. But I regret not learning it better. The biggest pleasure I derived from my days in football was that I was involved with grassroots people and that is exactly where the beauty of Nigeria lies, among the people at the grassroots. I gave my all to them. Because I was dealing with grassroots people, I should have learned more Yourba but I guess I was too busy winning trophies for Leventis United.
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