Nigeria’s youngest World Cup player ever, Femi Opabunmi, recounts his life-changing encounter with RCCG G.O Pastor Enoch Adeboye and how he now lives at peace with man and God, writes TAIWO ALIMI.
Often times, when an individual has been through tough times like ex-international, Femi Opabunmi, it is difficult to appreciate people and life.
At 17 years, three months, he became the youngest Nigerian ever to play at the FIFA World Cup after turning out in the dead rubber game against England in the 2002 FIFA World Cup.
He is also the overall third youngest player at the World Cup, only beaten by Norman Whiteside (Northern Ireland) and Samuel Eto’o Fils (Cameroon).
At 16, Opabunmi had already become a household name at home and abroad after emerging with five goals at the 2001 U-17 Cadet World Cup in Trinidad and Tobago. FIFA adjudged him the third best player and second highest goal scorer of the tournament and FIFA instructor, Adegboye Onigbinde, called him one ‘of Nigeria’s brightest future players.’
That Opabunmi had beaten to the U-17 podium football icons like Pepe, Fernando Torres, and Andreas Iniesta, all from Spain, and Carlos Tevez, Javaier Masherano, Pablo Zabaleta (Argentina), plus Junior and Marcelo (Brazil), not forgetting Aboubacar Fofana (Burkina Faso and Modibo Cisse (Mali), would make one appreciate the situation better.
While these players have been consistent at the big stage, and made money and fame, at 33, Opabunmi is broke and broken. He has completely gone blind in one eye, and may never return to competitive football. He has lost his life savings in search for cure and resorted to menial jobs to make ends meet and cater for his family members. Though money and fame found him at teen, they developed wings before he could make good use of them.
Yet, Opabunmi appreciates the people (dead and alive) in his beleaguered life. He said he has found peace in his struggle. “I was in pain for years while searching for answers and cure to my eye ailment, but after I met Pastor Enoch Adeboye in 2010, I stopped searching for what is not there. I am a different person now.”
Coming from the ancient city of Iwo – Osun State – to make global history, Opabunmi longs for a new lease of life.
For about one hour that the encounter with the former Nigerian international lasted, he spent half of the time recollecting and appreciating the people that inspired his career and met him at the point of his need. He recounts the encounter that rejuvenated his acidic soul to a thankful one.
“For eight years I was looking for treatment from spiritual homes and native doctors. In 2010, I was opportune to have a private audience with the General Overseer of the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG), Enoch Adeboye, and he listened to me carefully as I relayed my problem. When I finished, I expected he would pray for me and give me anointing oil and my challenge would evaporate. But, Baba Adeboye just said I should go back home and thank God. He said: ‘Just go and be thanking God and be prayerful. Just be thanking God. That God, I thank you for the gift of life, that I’m alive.’ That is what I’ve been doing. When I told my mother, she equally told me to do likewise and I’ve been doing just that. In due course, I began to see result. At the moment I see with one eye and I can move around without aid. And I thank God for seeing me through.”
Opabunmi’s grateful disposition has equally revitalised him. “There is no regret. I do not regret choosing football for a career, but that I quit the game when I was still active. And it is not my own fault. I’ve come to realise that anything that befalls a man, God knows about it.
“It is possible that if I have been playing maybe fame and money would have driven me to early death. I think God is preserving me for greater things. It may not be in playing, maybe in coaching. I know I would still do well, I’m simply bidding for the appointed time of God. That is my belief.”
Recollecting the good times, the 33-year-old said he saw the hands of God in his phenomenal rise to soccer stardom.
“My career started in Jos, Plateau State. I played for various boys clubs. My father being a policeman got transferred to Ibadan, the Oyo State capital. As soon we got to Ibadan I joined Atlas FC at Orita Challenge and from there moved to Young Star FC. I played with Adepoju Babes, Cristo FC and Cocoa Research FC. My father, Matthew Opabunmi, liked the game and he encouraged me, but my mother did not and sometimes discouraged me. But because of my father’s passion, he would make provision for my needs. He bought my boots, gave me pocket money and ensured I fed well. When I was in Shooting stars, he would come to see my matches.”
When he eventually mustered courage to attend screening of one of Nigeria’s big league sides, Shooting Stars, help was waiting for him in the form of club’s head coach, Kafaru Alabi.
“The year I went for Shooting Stars screening I was selected for the feeder team and during an in-house match against the main team, Coach Kafaru Alabi (May his soul rest in peace) spotted me and requested for me to join the first team. He taught me a lot about the game too.”
He was quickly spotted by national U-17 scouts but without a ‘godfather,’ he was apprehensive about his chances. Again, he found another father figure waiting for him.
“I really appreciate Coach Musa Abdulahi (His coach at Nigeria U-17 team to Trinidad & Tobago FIFA U-17 World Cup) in my life too. He’s one of the coaches I will never forget, may his soul rest in peace too. I will always appreciate his kindness and motivation in my life. He told me how to approach every game and believed in me. He used to overrule his assistant coach, who preferred another Hausa player, to a point that he stood up to him to leave me alone. He stood by me and I am happy that I did not let him down. Coach Musa would call me into his room and encourage me to make him proud and he would stand by me till the end. After the World Cup, he hugged me and said ‘Femi, I’m happy. I have made my point. I am proud of you. I really appreciate you.’ I appreciated him too.”
Typically, his drive and achievement was motivated by the zeal to give back and make others happy.
“I will never forget the Trinidad & Tobago experience. What motivated me was the drive to make my family and country proud. Before I scored the hat-trick against Australia, one match that I will not forget in a long time, I did not score in two matches. So I prayed to God that He should help me. I used to pray a lot because I was a choir boy at Christ Apostolic Church under the late popular televangelist, Timothy Obadare.
“In the next game, I scored against Japan and I thanked God, but against U.S.A I did not score and I went back on my knees that I must score more goals to glorify His name. The next match was against Australia and I found the net three times. Throughout that night I appreciated God because he had planned something better for me.
“In the semi final against Burkina Faso, I scored again only to be beaten 3-0 in the final match against France. I was named second best scorer and third best player of the tournament.”
Meanwhile, barely had Opabunmi left Trinidad & Tobago that he was snapped up by Grasshopper of Switzerland and catapulted to the Nigerian senior team, the Super Eagles.
“Coach Adegboyega Onigbinde took over the Super Eagles and out of the blue he invited me to camp. A lot has been said about what happened here but I would like to say that I did not know Onigbinde and he had not met me at anytime one-on-one before that time.
”We were camped in Ota – Ogun State, and our first training, I played with all my heart. I did not know what came upon me because I played as if I was on fire. I remember one journalist telling me I played a game of my life and that even the established players were nowhere near me. I also attracted coach Onigbinde. He told the other coaches that he liked my moves and speed.”
“I was recalled during a friendly match against Kenya and Coach Onigbinde handed me a starting shirt. In that match at the Lagos National Stadium, I scored from an impossible angle. It was my first cap and my first goal for the Super Eagles of Nigeria. It is a feat I will never forget. It is the hands of God at work in my life, and Onigbinde is one of the people that God used to mark me out.
“I was also in Dublin in the friendly game against Northern Ireland. Celestine Babayaro, Ifeanyi Udeze were also there, all natural left footers like me. Then Baba (Onigbinde) said he would be playing me in the left full back. At first, I was not happy about it because I have been playing as an attacker. (Austin) Okocha played in my front and Kanu (Nwankwo) played behind Bartilomew Ogbeche and Julius Aghahowa. I played with passion and was not substituted. Dominic Oneya and Chief Taiwo Ogunjobi (The the NFA President and Secretary General respectively) congratulated me after game. Joseph Yobo also told me I played well. Nwankwo gave me money after the game. We played other games and returned to London where the final list for the World Cup was done.”
Quite contented with the experience, Opabunmi was ready for home when he received the news that made him cry.
“It was a 23-man list and the names were called one after the other. After 22 names, I was not there. The final name was mine and I broke down in tears – tears of joy. I cried because it was the Lord’s doing and I have to appreciate him for it. The likes of Wilson Oruma, Karibe Ojigwe and Yakubu Aiyegbeni were all dropped. That was how I made the World Cup. It was indeed a miracle.”
Within two years, he crashed like a castle of cards.
Reluctantly, Opabunmi narrates the predicament that nearly plundered his soul.
“After the World Cup, I moved to France, and it was going well with me till the eye ailment started. It is a bitter experience. In life there is good and bad. The two go together and that is what makes life special. At first, it’s like a joke. I woke one day and during training I could not see. I just lost my sight. I started with eye specialist in France, who recommended that I go to for check up with top specialists in Romania, London-U.K and the U.S. When I returned to him with the results, he told me my case was complicated. He said I had to be operated upon within 10 days otherwise I would go completely blind. He asked me to sign and I did. The operation was carried out and for 17 days I could not see a thing. Later I started seeing a little and came back to Nigeria.
“I started going from one spiritualist to another for divine cure. I was spending millions of naira with little result. Instead my sight was getting worse.”
This was the state Opabunmi was in when he eventually met Pastor Adeboye in 2010.
Back to the present, the 33-year-old and holder of tikitaka basic coaching certificate is focused on the future. “All that is in my past, I have a coaching certificate and I am also part of the Oduduwa Western Nigeria Forum founded by Barrister Seyi Akinwunmi, the NFF first vice-president. I also work in Kayromley Gym and Fitness Centre -Obafemi Awolowo Stadium Ibadan. The owner of the place has been good to me. I work there as an instructor and also use the opportunity to keep fit. When you are playing you earn a lot but when challenges come you have to cut your suit according to your size. I have four children and a wife to live for. The first child is 14, he’s with his mother in France. He has enrolled with Olympique Marseille Academy and has the talent to be a great footballer. The others are with me in Nigeria. Even though I once said I would not allow them to play for Nigeria, I said that because I was in pain. I know better now because God has taken over. They can decide to play for whatever country they want to. It is not for me to decide for them. They have their own life to live.”
Comforted by his newborn philosophy, Opabunmi launched into another round of gratitude; “I want to appreciate all the people that stood by me. Foremost, Osaze Odemwingie, he stood by me. Muyiwa Lawal, brother to Dimeji Lawal, Seyi Olofinjana, Seyi Olajengbesi, Taiwo Awoniyi, Lateef Akeem and others that I do not remember. Kayromley has done a lot for me too, and not forgetting Barr. Akinwunmi and president of Nigeria Football Federation (NFF), Amaju Pinnick. They have been kind to me and I know they have greater plans for me. God will make it come to pass.”
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