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God Made Buhari President To Fulfil 30-year Pledge — Atere

Fatai Atere is a member of the 1985 Golden Eaglets, who were promised scholarships and houses by the then Head of State, Muhammadu Buhari, for winning the maiden FIFA U-17 World Cup. The promises were not fulfilled after Buhari was ousted in a coup. However, Buhari announced recently that he would redeem his pledge 30 years after. Atere tells ’Tana Aiyejina how he felt on hearing the news and more in this interview.

Fatai Atere
Fatai Atere

How do you feel after the Presidency announced that they were going to reward you and your teammates 30 years after winning the U-17 World Cup in China?

I have been disappointed for the past 30 years after me and my teammates made the country proud by winning the first U-17 World Cup and promises made by government were not fulfilled. But life goes on; that’s Nigeria for you. God is good and I knew things would get better. I told somebody that God wants to fulfil His promise and that’s why this team (Eaglets) won the U-17 World Cup in Chile, with President Buhari in power.

Can you still remember the occasion when Buhari, the then Head of State, promised the players and officials the houses and scholarships?

It was during the dinner we had with Buhari, the Chief of Staff Supreme Headquarters, Tunde Idiagbon, state governors and members of his cabinet inside Dodan Barracks, Obalende, Lagos. We felt on top of the world. We were about to become landlords and I was excited. Honestly, I couldn’t believe what I heard because I was living with my parents in a crowded house popularly called face-me-I-face-you, in Apesin Street, Mushin, Lagos. We were tenants.

What was it like having a dinner with the Head of State?

It was amazing sitting beside the Head of State and late Brigadier-General Tunde Idiagbon. It was intimidating because I didn’t believe I could be sitting so close to Nigeria’s number one man. It gave us the belief that the sky is the limit for all of us in our careers. We were treated like kings after we conquered the world.

What was the situation of your family before the China 85 U-17 World Cup triumph?

Life was very difficult for us even though my father had a job with the Ministry of Health, while my mother sold eko (pap).

When the scholarships promised the team didn’t come, how were you able to go to school?

I went to school paying my fees myself playing football for International Bank of West Africa then. It wasn’t an easy experience though. But I’m happy I scaled through eventually.

Did the players approach previous governments to redeem the pledge?

Yes, we did several times in the newspapers. During individual interviews, we brought up the issue but nobody listened to us. We couldn’t get to the government because nobody was ready to listen to us. It was frustrating. The Nigeria Football Federation officials were not concerned. They didn’t care.

Thirty years after, what words do you have for President Buhari for deeming it fit to redeem his pledge to the entire squad?

Truly, God works in mysterious ways. God put him (Buhari) back there to fulfil his promise to us and to all Nigerians. I thank him for remembering us. May God help him in shaping Nigeria to become a better country. And to the boys (Eaglets), who God used to remember us, may they all become great in their future endeavours.

If you get the scholarship now, will you still go back to school?

I will use it to send my son to school (laughs). If the scholarship covers me in the United States, I will use it.

What were you planning to study if the scholarships were awarded? Would you have quit football?

I would have studied Psychology. I wouldn’t have stopped playing football because I was ready to combine schooling and football.

A street was named after you in Matori. Did it make any difference to you and your family?

Yes. It was good and that will last a lifetime.

Did the Eaglets get the best preparations before travelling to China for the U-17 World Cup?

Yes we did but the belief in Nigeria was that we were just going to China to complete the numbers. Yes, they never believed we would win any game.

Atere Golden Eaglets FIFA u-17 1985 Winners
Atere u-17
So how was the team able to make it in China?

It was by God’s grace. We beat Italy, one of the favourites at the tournament, drew with Saudi Arabia and beat Costa Rica in the group stage. We then defeated Hungary and Guinea in the quarter-finals and semi-finals respectively. We didn’t know what would happen in the final but we were ready to give it all we’ve got. We told ourselves, ‘If we don’t die today, we would die no more.’

During the final game between the Eaglets and Germany, it looked like the Germans were going to equalise until a late Victor Igbinoba’s goal sealed a hard-fought 2-0 win after Tonworinmi Duere was sent off.

It’s a moment I will never forget in life. We were ready to die there at the Beijing Workers’ Stadium, knowing that we were leading and we had a few more minutes to go. The Germans kept piling pressure but we held on. And when that spectacular Igbinoba goal went in, we were on another planet. I can’t describe the feeling.

One of your teammates, Kingsley Aikhionbare is late, meaning he won’t benefit from the houses and scholarships. How do you feel about it?

It’s a shame. But I believe his parents or family will benefit from this. It’s unfortunate he is not around when things are looking better. We want him but God wants him more. May his soul rest in peace.

Are you still in contact with your China ’85 teammates?

Yes, I have been talking with the likes of Imama Amakapabo, Nduka Ugbade, Babatunde Joseph, Salisu Nakande, Bella Momoh and Lucky Agbonsevbafe. We’ve been talking for a while now for a reunion of the players but we started calling each other since Monday after our prayers were answered.

What do you think government should do for the Chile 2015 Eaglets?

Times have changed from when we played at the U-17 World Cup. The present government should reward them accordingly so that they do not regret serving their country. I believe President Buhari will make the entire team, officials and family members very happy.

You had offers at English side Tottenham Hotspurs, which would have helped you and your family move to the next level, but the Nigeria Football Association reportedly didn’t allow the move. What happened?

They (Tottenham) asked for clearance from them (NFA) but were denied. I would have bought the whole of Mushin if the deal had seen the light of the day (laughs). God knows why it happened that way.

Do you regret not playing professional football outside Nigeria?

Of course yes. As a young kid growing up in Mushin, life was tough, so I promised to take care of my parents before they died. I did in my little way but I wasn’t satisfied. If I had played football in Europe or other parts of the world, I would have been able to take care of them better.

Just like you, most stars discovered by Nigeria at U-17 level don’t get to make it at senior level. What is the problem and how can we solve it?

I think there are two major reasons for this. Firstly, players discovered at the U-17 level tend to travel out of the country early to play professionally abroad. Secondly, we have very good players that have already made names at senior level, so breaking into the squad is difficult for the young players. Before these young ones make it to the top, they will get old and become frustrated. We have to give the young players a chance and make them know that we believe in them. We don’t have to keep looking for new players all the time. We can put some of these young players in the senior team so that they can learn the tricks of the game from the old guys. After all, Pele played for Brazil at the World Cup at the age of 17. We have talents too who can make a name for themselves if they are given the opportunities.

If you could turn back the hands of time, what would you have done now, which you didn’t do 30 years ago?

If I had the opportunity, I would play football professionally and also play for the Super Eagles.

Aside from the promises that would now be fulfilled, would you say Nigeria has been fair to the ’85 Eaglets?

No. But then times are different. Then people thought we were too young and that government should not give us anything. Now reality has set in and they realize the magnitude of what we did in 1985.

After a 30-year wait before any hope of being rewarded, would you advice your kids to play for Nigeria if they were footballers?

Why not? It’s a big honour to represent your country regardless of whatever they will give you. Only God can reward anybody abundantly.


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