Yes, before the days of Jay-Jay Okocha, there was a playmaker in the Nigerian team who was a great dribbler and was even nicknamed “The African Maradona”. His name, Etim Esin.
Who is Etim, how special was he, what did he do, and how did he lose it all?
I was at my family house last weekend and in the course of discussing football and AFCON with my dad, he recalled a particularly interesting story of Etim Esin that caught my attention. I had to go dig for more, and here is everything I found.
It was 1987 and the Nigerian U-20 team were in camp around Surulere, preparing to leave the country in a few days for the World Cup in Chile.
Etim Esin was the star boy of the team, a supremely gifted player who had something extra each time he was on the ball.
Former Super Eagles striker Charles Okonkwo once said Etim Esin was one of the few players who would effortlessly make the Nigerian team of any generation. Even the late Stephen Keshi, also had this to say about him:
“We had Etim Esin and relied so much on him. The team was built around him because he had so much skill and had so much to offer. So we said this is our “Diego Maradona” in Nigeria because he can do anything with the ball. It was like he was born with the ball.”
The U-20 team were under strict instructions not to leave camp, but Etim Esin couldn’t resist the lure of Lagos nightlife. He broke out of camp with 2 other players to visit a nightclub.
On their way out, armed robbers attacked them and shot Etim Esin in the leg. He was thought to have died, but luckily he was found and given early medical attention.
It was said that the robbers sent Etim an apology letter while he was in the hospital claiming that they didn’t recognise him the night before.
The medical team had to rush through his medical process just to get him to the World Cup. Etim was able to make it to Chile half-fit, and Nigeria was thoroughly embarrassed as they crashed out of the tournament with the worst result since the team debuted in 1983.
Etim Esin went on to play in Belgium for a number of teams most notably Lokeren and Lierse, but his hot-headedness and poor attitude made him get into a lot of trouble, which affected even his international career.
Apart from minor spats with his coaches, he got into major trouble in the 1990s when he was accused of raping and impregnating a white girl in Belgium. The case that followed that grave accusation shoved his career into a freefall and even his enormous talent could not halt the slide.
He escaped home from Belgium and insisted on his innocence. Although he was eventually vindicated when the white girl gave birth to a baby with no traces of black blood, the stigma never went away.
His once promising career crumbled and the accusation of a crime as heinous as rape proved too heavy for Esin to recover from.
There seemed to be no way back for the stylish midfielder once fondly called ‘the African Maradona’ as he was not able to play at the highest level again until he retired.
Painful that we never got to see how good he would have become for himself and for the country. Some of those who watched him play argue that he was better than Jay-Jay Okocha. We will never know that now, will we?
Etim Esin is still alive and should be 52 this year, but the major lesson in his story is there for us to see and learn from.
A good attitude is very important to success. Without it, even the best of talents can waste away. Village people are not always behind your troubles, your greatest enemy might just be your poor attitude.