Sunday, 18th December, 2016 was the last time he kicked a ball in The SociaLiga. He had had what was, without a doubt, the most outstanding individual performance over the 2016 season. These performances saw him finish with the Golden Boot award, the Striker of the Year award, Goal of the Season award, a spot in the Team of the Season and, perhaps most impressively, the League MVP award. Like that wasn’t enough, he picked up a gold and a silver medal in the 400m & 800m races at the SociaLympics. He was indeed SociaLiga’s Golden Child and the stage was perfectly set for him to crown his and Royals FC’s amazing season with the League title. With the Royals FC & Saints FC tied at 1-1 after extra time, the game proceeded to penalties and he was picked to take the 5th penalty for the Royals; what they hoped would be the winning penalty. Both sides were locked at 3-3 after 4 penalties apiece and then came the moment. SociaLiga’s Golden Child who couldn’t stop scoring all year placed the ball on the spot, took some steps back, took a deep breath, ran up to the ball and… blasted the ball well over the right of the bar. Memories of Roberto Baggio in USA ’94. Daniel Aguma’s deceptive and calmly struck kick right after that won Saints FC the game as they went on to become the first team in SociaLiga history to be crowned League Champions. That’s the beautiful game for you; it’s not always beautiful.
What followed was a whole lot of mess for Emmanuel ‘Nuel’ Eze; quitting the league out of frustration, reversing his decision to quit and then one huge contract tussle which ended up in him sitting out the first half of the 2017 season. The 12th Player caught up with him to discuss his bitter-sweet 2016 season, the off-season filled with controversy and his impending comeback.
In an interview at the start of the 2016 season, when asked which team(s) he was itching to get a win against he replied “overall, I’ll say the Saints” with a somewhat sinister smile appearing on his face, a smile which immediately left his face as he turned into a man seeking revenge and added “but in the immediate future, The Reds. I’m actually looking forward to crushing them (The Reds)”. Over the course of the season, Nuel bagged 5 goals in just 2 starts against the Reds FC leaving them rooted to the bottom of the table for the entire 2016 season. When reminded of how he kept to his words of crushing them, he laughed: “As a striker when you play a match and you score goals, it is always a wonderful feeling. So, I’ll say it was a really good feeling and I still feel good about those goals.” After a brace in his opening game against Reds FC, Nuel and the Royals faced Saints FC on a rainy Sunday on the 12th of June. Nuel bagged yet another brace against Saints in a 2-0 win; the second, an astounding one time lob over Saints’ Odemuyiwa which earned him the Goal of the Season award: “After the first two games of last season, I was already on 4 goals, so it gave me confidence as a striker. This happens to strikers all over and the team got incredible amount of confidence as well. So, in all, the goals gave me confidence and that helped me through the season. There was no grudge (against Reds or Saints), we only just bragged about which side was going to beat the other at the pre-season interview.”
The League MVP award is one of the few SociaLiga awards whose voting is exclusive to players and managers only. Nuel’s 10 league goals played a huge part in Royals FC finishing as Mainland Conference Champions with 3 games to spare and he deservedly picked up the League MVP award. “I was proud of the achievement…” he replied when asked how he felt being picked by the people he competed against to win the award. “…but it was a great honour to have been nominated alongside those wonderful players.” he concluded.
The finals loss on the 18th of December did get to him, he admits and, in a way, he blamed himself for the loss; a second final loss to Saints FC. Perhaps if he had converted his penalty they would have gone on to win the league. “Yes, it did!!! I was going to cap the individual awards with the league trophy, but alas! I blame myself and at the same time I don’t. After all, we all are humans. The loss to them in yet another final was overly frustrating.”
In the latter stages of the 2016 season, after a 3-1 victory over Reds FC in which Nuel bagged a hat-trick, he was asked if leaving Royals FC at the end of the season was an option for him to which he gave the now infamous reply quoting Nigerian rapper, MI Abaga’s “Numbers” track saying; “Like Tony Pulis, they hope I vacate the Palace”. The power of the tongue and its sense of humour. Of course, Tony Pulis has since vacated Crystal Palace, and Nuel is a month away from becoming a free agent and opting to sign for a new club after being involved in a huge contract dispute between Royals FC and newcomers Bravos Knights FC: “I knew that line was going to haunt me at some point. Nothing changed. There was huge belief that I was going to win the league with Royals last season, so leaving them before the season was over wasn’t in my plans because I was getting different offers from top clubs at that point. After we lost in the finals, everyone was pretty much devastated that the team Whatsapp group was damn quiet. No one said anything for days. At that point, I was done with SociaLiga. (football). So, I sent a message to the board and told them about my decision to leave. The team blessed me and told me I was free to leave. The contract stated that I could leave, but I had to give the club a month notice. I thought I had fulfilled my side my notifying them. Then offers here and there came in and I felt I could just catch football cruise at the SociaLiga for one more season before I probably leave Lagos or something. I agreed to play for Bravos Knights FC. Royals then said the way they (Bravos Knights FC) went about it wasn’t proper ‘cos I’m still contracted to them. Apparently, the blessing they had given earlier was because I said I wasn’t going to play in the SociaLiga again.”
The transfer saga went on for two months and all parties involved agreed Nuel was going to see out the remaining 4 months on his contract at Royals, against the player’s wishes. He decided to sit out those four months and switch clubs during the mid-season transfer window in August when his current contract would officially be over. We asked him if the relationship with his old team had gotten so bad he decided to starve himself of football for 4 months rather than play for them. He also hinted about the possibility of joining other clubs: “Our relationship is still very much as it was, I think, and me sitting out the first half of the season is solely due to the fact that the signing and the unveiling didn’t go through the proper channel. The whole back and forth, the two sides not reaching an agreement and all. I still hang out with them on matchdays, quite painful, though, but then, we move! Plus, it’s not written in stones that I’m a Bravos Knights’ player yet. I’m still very much opened to offers, I’ll settle for the best.” He added: “I was (also) close to joining Saints FC, I was a signature away from joining them. But then, it would have been Saints in the middle of the transfer saga, not Bravos Knights. I’m pretty much happy for Bravos Knights. Let’s see how everything pans out.”
His “supposed” new team Bravos Knights are enjoying a fine start to their debut season and sit five points clear on top of the Mainland Conference. Saints FC, the other team he came close to joining, are on a 13-game unbeaten run stretching back to last year and sit two points clear on top of the Island Conference. Both teams are favourites to meet in this year’s finals. It would be the 3rd finals in which Nuel would face the Saints and he’ll be wishing 3rd time’s a charm: “Oh yes, maybe!! And I’ll just pray to God for luck and hope I break the jinx.”
The MVP’s return in September would be about redemption for him. His eyes would be set on the big prize that has somehow remained elusive. We did, however, inform him about a cheeky bet The 12th Player had placed on him to be the highest goal scorer despite others getting a 4-month head start: “errmmm, I wouldn’t place my money on that if I were you.” he warned, “I haven’t scored more than five goals in training and friendlies since the beginning of the year. But a lot can still happen, I can still give them a run for their money.”
This interview was first published on The 12th Player