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Nigerian legends Amunike and Mutiu: “It’s a privilege to have played in La Liga”

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Two of the finest Nigerian players to ever play the game spoke to Goal.com this week to remember their careers and, above all, their time in Spanish football. Emmanuel Amunike and Mutiu Adepoju – who were born just three days apart in December 1970 – saw their careers run in parallel, joining La Liga heavyweights Barcelona and Real Madrid respectively.

Arriving in La Liga

Ibadan-born Mutiu’s Spanish adventure started at Real Madrid’s academy before going on to establish a career in LaLiga throughout the 1990s with Racing Santander and Real Sociedad, as well as spending some time in Spain’s lower divisions before retiring. Given that he went directly from Nigeria to Real Madrid’s B team, Mutiu remembers how the transition was a shock at first: “When I got to Madrid, arriving in a new city and the Real Madrid facilities, everything was very, very different from what I was used to in Nigeria. From trying to learn the language to everything. But I learned a lot at Real Madrid. Actually, everything I know about football was learned there.”

Amunike’s arrival in Spain wasn’t quite a culture shock, as he’d already earned valuable experience of foreign leagues and European football before signing with Barcelona midway through the 1996/97 season. The winger had already played for Zamalek in Egypt and Sporting CP in Portugal before his arrival at the Camp Nou.  

Even so, it was still a big step up, he recalls: “the African level and the European level were totally different then. I had to work hard to establish myself in the team at Sporting CP and I became one of their important players. They said a big team in Spain was interested in me and eventually I ended up playing for Barcelona.”

Mutiu Adepoju of Nigeria

Mutiu Adepoju of Nigeria

Playing with and against some all-time La Liga greats

Both look back fondly on their time in the top tier of Spanish football, remembering the superstars they played alongside and lined up against. Amunike remembers the star-studded locker room he walked into at the Camp Nou, filled with stars such Laurent Blanc, Pep Guardiola, Luis Figo, Ronaldo Nazario, Hristo Stoichkov and coach Bobby Robson. “I had to adapt to the new scenario, the bigger challenges, the bigger atmosphere,” he says. “There were a lot of demands and responsibilities.”

Injuries ultimately limited Amunike’s playing time with the Blaugrana, but he experienced some special moments before that setback and vividly remembers taking on Real Madrid in El Clasico. The two rivals met many times in succession following his arrival after they were drawn together in the 1996/97 Copa del Rey. “Real Madrid had a very good team and when both teams met it was like ‘wow!’ Less football, more arguments! A lot of red cards and a lot of yellow cards! But, of course, they were very good memories for me.”

Mutiu saw first-hand just how good his Real Madrid teammates were, spending time with the reserve side and then facing off against them with Racing Santander and Real Sociedad. As he recalled this week: “I had to come back to play against some of those big Real Madrid players. Players like Manolo Sanchis, Chendo, Emilio Butragueno, Hugo Sanchez… huge names.”

Mutiu says he also relished the challenge of facing superstars on other teams too. “There are so many other players I played against,” he says. “Ronaldo Nazario, Finidi George, Raul, Pep Guardiola, Davor Suker.” When you’re on the same field as them, you’re motivated and want to do something great. There are so many big players in LaLiga that we played against and, as Amunike said, it’s a privilege to have played in LaLiga. It’s a privilege that I will always cherish. I would do it all over again if I could.”

The Super Eagles

Emmanuel Amuneke of Nigeria

Emmanuel Amuneke of Nigeria

Despite their careers running in parallel, Amunike and Mutiu never directly crossed paths during their time in LaLiga. Their two journeys did, however, come together during their time playing for the Nigerian national team. Both starred in the Super Eagles’ run to the last 16 of the 1994 World Cup, playing in every one of their nation’s matches including the fateful knockout 2-1 extra-time defeat to Italy in Boston.

“When we went into the game against Italy, we probably went into the game with youthful exuberance and with confidence that we were going to win the game,” remembers Amunike.  But we also failed to realise that Italy had been a World Cup champion not so long ago and knew how to manage the situation. They knew how to win a game even when they were losing, and they never gave up hope of achieving their objective. In the end we lost, but I will never forget that team and we’re all still close.”

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