"You've just got to accept it and rise above it. I've no regrets and I'm not frustrated." Despite these positive words, Emmanuel Amunike would have every reason to be frustrated after injuries blighted his career.
He was the hero of the 1994 CAF Africa Cup of Nations that also saw him voted African footballer of the year, and yet a five-year injury nightmare meant that he was never able to showcase his undoubted talent on the European stage. Not that the midfielder is one to dwell on missed opportunities.
After hanging up his boots, the former Nigerian international moved to Spain, where he is still hoping to put his coaching qualifications to use at a club and consolidate this new phase of his career. FIFA.com caught up with the former Super Eagle in Santander.
"The most difficult part of being a footballer is when you can't fight back. Not being able to play because your body won't respond to what you're telling it is the worst thing. You have to be strong mentally and what I went through certainly helped me as a person." Now in his 30s, Amunike can now look back on his career with a calmness brought by added maturity and certainly without regret, despite the multiple injuries.
The most difficult part of being a footballer is when you can't fight
back. Not being able to play because your body won't respond to what
you're telling it is the worst thing.
Between 1997 and 2002, he failed to play more than about 15 matches, meaning that any highlights on the field were kept to a minimum. Still, Amunike prefers to look on the bright side. "Signing for Barcelona meant that I got international recognition, even if I didn't end up playing much. It was an accomplishment and also a great opportunity for me to get to know a club of that stature, so it's something I'm grateful for."
Before moving to Spain and beginning the long downward spiral into injury, the Olympic gold medal winner enjoyed perhaps the best period of his career - a time he looks back on with a great deal of emotion, particularly the raft of trophies he picked up with El Zamalek in Egypt. "I won everything there is to win in Africa in the space of three seasons there," he says.
He then headed for Portugal, where he signed with Sporting. "I met Figo, Carlos Queiroz, Balakov... a whole host of big names and for me, coming from Africa, it really made an impression on me. We were runners-up in the league in my first season and in my last season there we won the cup." Before he retired, Amunike also played in Jordan, which he chalks up as a positive experience. "It was a pleasure to get to know this country, to discover its culture. On a personal level, I got a lot out of it."
Much as he enjoyed his club successes, Amunike's eyes light up even more when he gets round to recounting his adventures as a Super Eagle. "The Africa Cup of Nations in Tunisia will always be a special memory for me. That's where I became a regular in the national team, where I earned my place and also some plaudits as well. I didn't play much in the other matches and then I went and scored two goals in the final. On the day before the match, I'd said that we would win 2-1, so it was pretty funny. It was a real celebration when we got home as it was only the second time that Nigeria had won the trophy."
Amunike was playing his club football in Egypt at the time and was voted African Player of the Year that same year. "That was such a thrill for me. It was my own little chapter in the history of African football. I was chosen ahead of players like Weah, Yakini and Ikpeba even though I wasn't even playing in Europe." The crowning glory was to come two years later in the USA, at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta...
Making people happy, making them smile - it doesn't get any better than that for a footballer.
"We were the pride of the whole continent, since this was the first time that an African team had ever won a tournament this important. We inspired the people, and also Cameroon, who went on to win the tournament four years later. Making people happy, making them smile - it doesn't get any better than that for a footballer. It also instilled confidence in people, proving that if you worked hard, you could achieve something."
The injuries kept coming, however, one after the other, and eventually it was "time to be realistic and try something else". Emmanuel brought an end to his career in 2004 and returned to Europe where he got his level-three coaching licence. He settled in Spain and worked as a media consultant at some of the bigger tournaments before going to Ghana at the beginning of this year as a scout for Manchester United at the Africa Cup of Nations. He then went on to become assistant coach at Al Hazem in Saudi Arabia, with the hope of some day fulfilling his dream of becoming a head coach.
He has yet to receive any offers, and is thinking of returning to Nigeria to devote all his attentions to the 'Amunike Soccer Academy' he set up. "I want to give back to football what the sport gave to me, and pass on what I can to the youngsters," he explains. The academy opened this year and is situated outside Lagos, away from the bright lights of the big city. "That way they can train away from the hustle and bustle and concentrate 100% on football." Amunike was always a team-player on the pitch, and he is proving to be just as devoted to others in this second stage of his career.