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banner Wednesday, 2 May, 2001, 17:29 GMT 18:29 UK
Akpoborie: 'Unlucky slave ship' owner
Jonathan Akpoborie
Akpoborie has been suspended by his German club
By Eniwoke Ibagere in Lagos, Nigeria

The Nigerian media refer to their national team striker Jonathan Akpoborie, owner of the ship suspected of carrying child slaves in April, as "Mr Unlucky".

While many players own bars and restaurants, Akpoborie, with tremendous success in club football, appears to have developed a strong love for the marine industry.


I guess I'm unlucky but that's my fate
  Jonathan Akpoborie
The 32-year-old striker, together with his family, are running a shipping agency, Titanic Investment Limited, with two Nigerian-registered passenger and cargo ships - "MV Etireno" and "Xmas Day" - bought from Denmark in 1998.

Each ship is worth more than $500,000.

The MV Etireno ran into troubled waters in last month when Unicef - the United Nations' children's agency - claimed that it was carrying up to 250 child slaves from Benin to Gabon - sparking a frantic international search off the West African coast.

Suspension

The Etireno
Akpoborie's family own the Etireno and another ship
However, when the ship docked in Benin on 17 April the claim appeared to be exaggerated but an investigation revealed that at least a dozen of the 43 children and young adults removed from the vessel were destined to be slaves.

Beninoise police are still carrying out investigations into the affair.

Meanwhile, Akpoborie has been suspended indefinitely by his German club VfL Wolfsburg over the issue.

Wolfsburg, sponsored by carmaker Volkswagen AG, said it took the action on its top scorer "because of the high degree of credibility" of the international organisation making the allegations of slavery.

The player has maintained his innocence and denied any wrongdoing.

Humble beginnings

Jonathon Akpoborie
The 32-year-old striker has had successful spells with a number of German clubs
Akpoborie, who has spent more than a decade playing for various German clubs - Carl Zeiss Jena FC, Stuttgart Kickers, Hansa Rostock, VfB Stuttgart - in the Bundesliga, joined Wolfsburg two seasons ago.

Like most Nigerian footballers, his football odyssey began in the densely populated, garbage-strewn streets of Ajegunle, a slum area in the commercial capital Lagos.

Energetic, bright as a button, and with the ability to shoot well with both feet, Akpoborie scored the first goal in Nigeria's 2-0 defeat of Germany in the final of the 1985 under-17 World Cup tournament in China to win the trophy.

It was Nigeria's first football achievement at a global level.

Lagos-based top club Julius Berger FC then gave Akpoborie a contract and for two years, he played a key role in a team that became famous for its "tip-tap" Brazilian brand of football.

America to Germany

Akpoborie, fondly called "Jonny", then took up a scholarship offered to the 1985 Under-17 team by the Nigerian government, to study in the United States.

And with the football blood still pumping vigorously in his veins, he started combining education with U.S collegiate football.

Soon, it was time for a professional career and Germany was the destination - beginning with Carl Zeiss Jena, a club in the lower division.

"I knew the beginning was going to be difficult for me but I was determined to make a career out of football," said Akpoborie.

From Kickers he went on to division one side Hansa Rostock FC where he became the club's leading scorer for two seasons.

Next came a move to VfB Stuttgart where his goals helped the club to reach the 1998 European Cup Winners' Cup final which they lost to English club Chelsea.

This is where misfortune started to plague him.

'Mr Unlucky'

He failed to win selection into the national team, the Super Eagles, because of injuries and some poor performances.

His first senior cap was in the bronze-medal match against Cameroon at the 1992 African Nations Cup soccer tournament, which Nigeria won 2-1.

He missed the 1994 edition in Tunisia and was overlooked for Nigeria's World Cup finals debut in the United States in 1994.

But he returned to the side for the 1995 Gold Cup tournament.

He was surprisingly not included in the Under-23 squad that won gold at the 1996 Olympic Games.

Zero to hero

Ironically, in a friendly against Togo before the team's departure from Lagos, 'Jonny' arrived at the stadium as a mere spectator only to be dragged down from the terraces to play in the game.

Amazingly, he proved to be a second-half super-substitute, scoring 'Nigeria's only goal in their 3-1 defeat.

The crowds chanted "Jonny, Jonny!" afterwards.

During the qualifying matches for the 1998 World Cup, Akpoborie's handful of goals helped Nigeria to reach France'98.

He also released a CD and video of a song titled: "We will win!"

But again, rather bizarrely, he was not included in the final 22-man squad announced by Serb-born coach Bora Milutinovic for France '98 and many fans were outraged at Akpoborie's exclusion.

Fate

The Super Eagles also did not live up to the tile of Akpoborie's song: they crashed out of France '98 after the 4-1 defeat by Denmark in the second round.

"I guess I'm unlucky but that's my fate," said Akpoborie at the time.

After the dust had settled, he began to play for the national team again and his last match was in January this year against Sudan in a 2002 World Cup qualifier.

He re-married last year after a messy divorce lawsuit with his first wife, from whom he has a son, Tevin.

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See also:

30 Apr 01 |  Africa
Ship children 'were slaves'
06 Aug 99 |  Africa
West Africa's child slave trade
16 Apr 01 |  Africa
West Africa's 'little maids'
28 Sep 00 |  Africa
The bitter taste of slavery
29 Sep 00 |  Africa
Mali's children in slavery
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