… From frenzied streets of Onitsha, she evolved into global sports icon
History-making former Super Falcon’s player and coach, Maureen Mmadu, who was the first Nigerian to make more than 100 international caps for the country’s national team, including appearing at four FIFA Women World Cups and competing in the 2000 and 2004 Summer Olympics, is currently promoting her novel catch-them-young football holiday camp in Onitsha, Anambra State, entitled, ‘Anambra Football Kiddies Camp with Maureen Mmadu.’ In this interview with ROSE ORANYE, CHIGOZIE ANUEYIAGU and CHIMEZIE NEBOLISA, she goes down memory lane on her foray into football when she started as a street player with boys in Onitsha and her rise to global reckoning in the sports. Excerpts:
HOW long did you play in the field before you were scouted?
First of all, I was born and brought up in Onitsha. I started my football career in Onitsha, with Ado Babes. From there, I had to travel to Lagos, from Lagos to Calabar. From Calabar, I left for abroad but I was picked for the national squad when I was playing for Princess Bola Jegede’s team. That was the first time I played against Police Machine of Lagos.
So your career as a footballer actually started in Anambra State?
Yes, in Onitsha to be precise.
Can you recall the year?
It started in 1993. I was in primary school getting to secondary school.
I went to Patrick Okolo Memorial Primary School, Onitsha, and I went to Prince Memorial High School, Onitsha, in Savoy.
Are you saying that as at that time, your school was already encouraging women to play football?
We had school sports but not that they were encouraging women 100 per cent to play football because then, had it been they were encouraging women 100 per cent, I wouldn’t have found it difficult getting my parents to allow me play football. It’s not like now. They were not allowing women to play football.
Since they were not allowing women to play football, how then did you get into playing football?
I started on the street, at No 31 Nnewi street, Odoakpu, Onitsha, with boys. I think I really knew that football was my talent. That was why I went towards that goal.
How old were you then?
I was in primary 6 then.
Were you in primary school when you were picked to represent the national team?
No, that was when I was playing with boys in the street. I was picked in 1995 at the age of 15.
Which particular event did they spot you to pick you?
I was spotted in the street when I was playing with boys. Then, we went for school sports. Football was not that pronounced in school sports then. I was playing table tennis, so there was one competition. It was called AAA. I was qualified to play table tennis finals and I heard that the school was looking for a female football team to play.
During that time, we were also qualified to play. So, they were spotting us one by one. So, I had to choose between football and table tennis. So, the schedule for table tennis finals and playing football was at the same and I was asked to choose as I could not engage in both sports. So I left table tennis and chose football because I knew that football was the one in my heart.
So did you venture into football because you were close to the boys or you have always had passion for it? What exactly motivated you into playing football?
Well, I started by watching men’s football; the likes of Diego Maradona (May his soul rest in peace) and Pele. When I watched them, I wanted to emulate their skills; even that of our players – Jay Jay Okocha, Kanu Nwakwo. Anytime I watched them play, I would go back home and would try to do one or two tricks that I have watched them do. When I tried it and got it, I knew right then that it was my talent.
How many important games did you actually play before you became an assistant coach or before you reached the coaching level in your career?
When I was in Onitsha, with Ado Babes Football Club, we went for one competition in Port-Hacourt, the Gina yesibo Competition. I was the highest goal scorer in that competition. That was one of the best highlights of my career.
That was when I was scouted by Princess Bola Jegede. She then picked me from that place. So, when she picked me from that place, Onitsha people did not want me to go. It was like a fight until they were able to convince my mother. Princess Jegede promised my mother that I would be going to school while playing football, because my mother wanted me to go school.
She believes that girls don’t play football and that it would hinder me from furthering my education. So, Princess Jegede promised my mum that she would take care of me. So, she was the one that paid my school fees when I was in UNILAG. So, I lived with her; she trained me in school and I joined her team.
That was when I was picked to play for the national team. Then, I was playing in Women National League. My first club was Ado Babes. The second was Princess Bola Jegede. I played in Calabar but was already picked in the national team.
Your story just countered the notion that footballers normally drop out of school. In your case, you even went to university. So which course did you study and how did you cope with schooling and playing football?
I studied Physical and Health Education in UNILAG. I would have studied law but I thought it was going to be easy for me to do Physical and Health Education because it was my field and I didn’t want a situation whereby I will wake up and crack my brain to answer one or two questions; so I chose the sports side. It was not easy for me because while I was going to school, I was also in the National Team.
Our camp then was Girls Village in Lagos. In the mornings, I went to school from Girls Village. I normally trained from 6:00am to 8:00am; but because of us, the training time was reduced. Then, I had a colleague, Florence Omawunmi, who studied in UNILAG and was also in the National Team.
Our coach then was Coach Hamilton (May his soul rest in peace). He really encouraged me to play football and keep going to school. He was the one that spotted and included me in the National Team. If it were some coaches, they would have told me to choose one. So, it was difficult because when we came back from school by 3:30pm, we would go back for evening training which starts by 4: pm.
I used to eat only biscuits or drink water or biscuit and minerals because you are not supposed to play immediately after you eat. So, after the evening training, that’s when I used to eat something tangible.
Now that you are popular, how do your mother and people who felt football was not for women then see you?
It’s a bit emotional for me because my mother did not allow me play football. 1998 was my first African Nations Cup. My mother was not happy because she was a bit afraid that I was going to be wayward. I promised to make her proud.
But in 1995, her views started changing because I gave her money and glory. She enjoyed a bit of my sweat – about 10 per cent of it because when she was supposed to enjoy it very well, she passed on. She died in 1998. When she was buried, I was playing in the field, so I missed her burial.
She was buried without my presence. People who came for the burial did not actually cry for her death, rather, they were crying for me because they knew how close I was to my mum. The painful aspect was that I did not get to see her before her death.
It’s a pity; but at least, she got to know that football was actually a good thing for women?
Yes, because my mother never travelled to Lagos, so after I travelled back from Lagos to see her in Onitsha, after telling her everything, she followed me to Lagos to say a big ‘thank you’ to the coach. She bought a gallon of red oil, a fowl and Oha leaves to say thank you to Coach Paul Hamilton.
What do you consider the highpoints of your career?
I have represented Nigeria in two Olympics Games. I have played in four Nations Cups, four World Cups.
So, what brought you to ANPC?
First, I will like to thank Governor Willie Obiano and his wife, Osodieme Ebelechukwu Obiano. Also, I will like to thank the Anambra FA Care Taker Committee, Emeka Okeke, because they were the people that made me Ambassador in Anambra.
They appreciated my experience. So, I came back to Anambra to reciprocate the gesture and augment the opportunity given to me. I promised ndi Anambra three things in women football. I did some scouting of girls in Nanka, from which some will represent us in Edo 2020. For the fact that the governor said Anambra State was going to have a male and female team, I decided to work on the female part.
For that fact, I decided to adopt what I did in Norway because I lived in Norway for 17 years. I coached there and I was also a coach developer. So, with this opportunity bestowed unto me, I thought it right to give back to the society.
So I decided to start a Football Holiday Camp which is titled ‘Anambra Football Kiddies Camp with Maureen Mmadu’. Anambra and Nigeria gave me a platform, so it motivated me to come back here and do it for ndi Anambra.
Apart from Norway, which other country(ies) did you play in?
I started in Norway, and then I stayed in Sweden for two years before returning to Norway again.
Which clubs did you play for abroad?
I played in Sandviken (2002-2003), I played in Amazon Fk (2003-2005), I played in Sweden QBIK Karlstad, from 2005-2006. Then in that same Sweden, I played in Linköpoings FC from 2006-2007. Then, I returned to Norway and played for my former club, Amazon Fk from 2008-2010. Then, I played in Kolbotn IL from 2010 to 2011. From 2011-2014, I played in Avaldsnes IL;
I played and captained them. Alvaldness was where I got my coaching license after they paid the sum of N500,000 to that effect. So I was an assistant coach before I became a main coach. From there, I was called by Nigeria in 2018, to become the assistant coach before I came down to Nigeria for this project.
When did Anambra give you the ambassadorial post?
Early, this year.
And you are not wasting time in achieving your dreams?
That has been my dream – to give back to the society. So, it has been in my mind and this ambassadorial role was an opportunity.
Have you stopped playing?
When was that?
I stopped playing in the National Team in 2008, and at the club level, I quit playing in 2015, as a player/coach in Alvaldnes.
What have you learnt from football?
I learnt a lot. As footballer, you have a lot to sacrifice; you have to be professional both in and out of the pitch because you have a lot of people who look up to you as a role model. So, you have to behave well; you have to have passion and be prayerful, because passion will take you places. You cannot give what you don’t have. To whom much is given, much is expected. You have to comport yourself.
Are you satisfied with the height you have attained in football?
Yes, I m happy.
So what brought you to National Light?
My team told me a lot about this organisation and it is state owned. Firstly, I came to pay homage/courtesy visit because when you visit a place, you have to identify with people that make things happen. I also came to create awareness concerning my first football holiday camp which is titled ‘Anambra Football Kiddies Camp with Maureen Mmadu. We are going to train girls between the ages of 10-15.
I want to promote football culture amongst our girls. You know in Igbo land, they don’t allow girls play ball, so I want to encourage parents to release their children. In the training, about 20 coaches will be training the kids. The kids will be trained for five days. The camping will take place for five days from 19th- 23rd of December, 2020, in Anglican Girls Secondary School, Onitsha, and at the end of the training, the children will go home with sport kits, branded backpacks, football and experience.
Have you picked the kids already?
We are still picking them. For now, we need 300 girls, then the success of this one will determine how many we will accommodate next time.
What are the criteria for picking these girls?
They just have to be between ages 10-15. I am not happy because Anambra does not have a female team while most of our indigenes make up the squads in other states.
What are your challenges?
I have been spending a lot of money and so it’s becoming heavy on me. I am calling on well meaning Nigerians, especially in ndi Anambra to help in the area of sponsorship. I didn’t know it will be as tedious as this. I budgeted about N15million but the devaluation of naira and inflation have made things difficult. We’ll need adequate security.
I will pay the coaches, doctors, therapists and all nurses we are going to bring. The kits are coming from abroad and dollars have increased. I am calling on the state government and well willing Nigerians to help me.