A former Super Eagles attacking midfielder, Dondo Avaa has said his exclusion from the squad to the 1998 FIFA World Cup in France destroyed his career as he revealed that he literally struggled to recover from the major setback.
In this interview with Trust Sports, the former BCC Lions and Jasper United star explained how he was dropped from the squad at the last minute simply because he was a home-based player.
Looking back, how did your professional career start?
I started my football career in junior BCC Lions Football Club of Gboko and promoted to the senior team in the 1993/94 football season. After a year in BCC Lions, I moved to Eagle Cement football club. From Eagle Cement, I joined Jasper United FC Onitsha. After a year in Jasper, I moved to Sharks of Port-Harcourt but after a season, I returned to Jasper United. It was when I returned to Jasper that I was invited to the Super Eagles in 1998 by Coach Bora Milutinovic.
As a teenager, you played for the once dreaded BCC Lions of Gboko. What was it like and how were you able to cope?
It was a dream come true for me. Being a Gboko boy, it was my dream to play for BCC Lions. At that time, BCC Lions was one of the most popular and formidable clubs in the Nigerian League. Almost all the talented players in Nigeria played for the club. If you didn’t play for BCC Lions, it appeared you were not good enough. So when I was elevated to the senior team, I felt highly motivated and I am happy I justified my promotion.
How did you get into the star-studded Super Eagles of the 90s even as you were still a home-based player?
I was spotted by coach Bora when he came to watch the league match between Jasper United and Sharks. I performed exceptionally well in that match and the coach noticed me. He again watched me play against Enyimba in Aba and he was satisfied. After the Enyimba game, he invited me to the Super Eagles camp.
How excited when you learnt of your invitation to the Super Eagles?
Honestly, I couldn’t sleep that night. It was another dream come true for me. You know that every talented player’s dream is to represent his country. And in Nigeria, it is usually difficult for players based at home to get a chance in the Super Eagles. So it was a special moment for me.
Weren’t you intimidated by the array of stars in the camp of the Super Eagles?
No, I wasn’t. Immediately after my first training in the Super Eagles, the late Rashidi Yekini asked me which country I was coming from. When I told him I was a home-based player, he couldn’t believe it. He and Ben Iroha said with my talent, I shouldn’t be playing in the Nigerian league. Yekini himself called his manager and spoke to him about me. And when we got to Holland, Iroha who was playing in that country called his agent to come and watch me. I would have joined a club in Holland but Coach Amodu Shaibu refused. So, I was not intimidated. I had a good time in the Super Eagles. I will forever remember playing along with legends like Late Rashidi Yekini, Samson Siasia, Sunday Oliseh, Tijani Babangida, Austin Eguavoen, Mutiu Adepoju, Uche Okafor, Ben Iroha, Patrick Pascal, Jay-Jay Okocha and a host of others.
What did wearing the famous number 10 jersey in super Eagles mean to you?
The number 10 jersey is considered so special that it comes with so much pressure and high expectations. Anyone who wears it is supposed to be an exceptional player. Anytime Okocha wasn’t coming to play, I was handed the jersey. So I am happy that I didn’t disappoint anyone. Again, it was another dream come true for me because it was what I dreamt of as a child.
With your talent, you didn’t last long in the Super Eagles. Why?
Playing for the Super Eagles takes more than just talent. Even if you are talented, you need a godfather or a powerful agent to fight for you. Your talent can take you there but if you don’t have anyone to fight for you, it will be hard for you to last long. In my case, I didn’t have anyone to defend me. I was a local player so there was no money to make things happen. Most times, top football federation officials and agents decide players’ fate in the team.
How disappointed were you when you missed out of the France 1998 World Cup squad?
Almost everybody knew I was making the final list but at the last minute, NFA officials said they didn’t want to gamble with any home-based player. They said I lacked the experience to play in the World Cup. Bora insisted on taking me but the pressure on him was huge. Since I didn’t have anyone to support me, I was dropped from the team. It is indeed the biggest disappointment in my career. They killed my spirit with that decision. I didn’t recover fully from that disappointment. Although, I moved on to play professional football in Poland and South Africa, missing the 1998 World Cup hurt my career.
It is said you didn’t last long in the Super Eagles and football in general because you lacked discipline…
People are entitled to their opinions about me but the truth is that I was disciplined and passionate about football. However, I suffered so many injuries which eventually forced me out of the game. I had a nagging knee injury and after some time, I had a fracture. So it was not indiscipline that ended my career.
What is your assessment of the present Super Eagles?
Honestly, boys are now playing for the Super Eagles. In my time, real men represented the country. They were giants on the field of play. Talk of the gangling Rashidi Yekini, gentle giant, Uche Okechukwu, Uche Okafor, Stephen Keshi, Mutiu Adepoju, Samson Siasia, Finidi George and a host of others. Eagles were so talented that even players like Victor Ikpeba, Jonathan Akpborie, Victor Agali struggled to find playing time in the team. The present Super Eagles are boys who are not as talented as the players in the 90s.
Having retired from football, what do you do for a living now?
I am still passionate about the game. I am like a football agent. I scout for several foreign clubs. When I identify talented players in Nigeria, I recommend them to some of the European clubs. So I am mentoring young players and helping them realise their dreams of playing professional football in Europe.