An unfussy, no-frills midfielder with a spring in his step and goals on the brain, Goal profile one of Nigeria’s true footballing greats
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While not the flashiest, or even necessarily the most prolific, one cannot begrudge Mutiu Adepoju a place as one of the legends of Nigerian and African football.
He would come to be called ‘The Headmaster’, for his prowess in the air, and was a pioneer for Nigerian players in Spain in the early 90s, a league which was not considered one of the traditionally attractive ports of call.
This week, ahead of Sunday’s Clasico, Goal celebrates the career of Adepoju, who is presently a worldwide La Liga Ambassador.
It was at the 1989 under-20 World Cup in Saudi Arabia that Adepoju glimpsed the limelight for the last time. That side, and that campaign, became famous for the “Dammam Miracle”: Nigeria’s remarkable comeback from four goals down with 30 minutes to play in the quarter final.
Adepoju scored three times in Saudi Arabia, including a brace in the semi-final defeat of the United States, en route to a 2-0 loss in the final to Portugal.
Notable for his calmness in possession and his eye for goal, it is thoroughly surprising that, for his renowned heading ability, he stands at just under six feet tall. He certainly possessed a remarkable spring, and is part of an elite group of players who have scored at both the Africa Cup of Nations as well as the World Cup.
A move to Real Madrid is considered a dream for very young player, but ultimately Adepoju never made a senior appearance for Los Merengues . In 1992, he traded Madrid for Cantabria, joining Racing Santander, then in the second division.
He was an instant hit, scoring 10 times for the Highlanders as they gained promotion to La Liga via a promotion play-off against Espanyol.
Adepoju’s time with the club, spanning four seasons, coincided with the club’s second longest ever run in Spain’s top flight. On the whole, he averaged a goal every five games (a remarkable return for a central midfielder), amassing over a 100 appearances for Racing. By the time the club plunged back into the lower division, Adepoju was long gone.
He also appeared in La Liga for Real Sociedad, and made 88 appearances over four seasons for the Basque outfit.
Adepoju’s international career came to be associated with an impressive longevity, as he made his senior debut barely a year after that run to the final of the 1989 World Youth Championship. He played for the Super Eagles right up to the 2002 World Cup.
He was a member of the Nigeria sides which won third place at the Africa Cup of Nations in 1992 (he headed in the opener in the 2-1 semi-final loss to archrivals Ghana) before claiming the big prize two years later in Tunisia. That Nigeria side is considered the greatest in its history, and Adepoju more than pulled his own weight, scoring in the 3-0 opening victory over Gabon.
Adepoju was a part of three World Cup squads for Nigeria, a distinction he shares with the like of Jay-Jay Okocha, Vincent Enyeama and Joseph Yobo.
In 1998, Adepoju became only the sixth Nigerian to score at a World Cup. The setting was Nantes, the opposition was Spain, a country he had come to call home.
Spain dominated the early exchanges, and by the time captain Fernando Hierro put them ahead via a deflected free kick in the 20th minute, La Furia Roja had already missed a hatful. The lead was however not to last.
Four minutes later, Garba Lawal swung in a corner kick, and Adepoju ran to the near post, powering a header past Andoni Zubizaretta to level the score. The Headmaster had struck again.
Nigeria would go on to record a shock 3-2 result, an outcome that would prove crucial in eliminating one of the pre-tournament favourites.
After a promising display at the World Youth Championship in 1989 earned him a move to Madrid, it seemed the world was at Adepoju’s feet. It never quite panned out though.
He impressed with the B-team, but was unable to graduate to the senior side, reportedly due to a club policy mandating that only three foreigners be registered in the squad.
For a club that has historically prided itself on recruiting the very best, it was perhaps too much to expect a 20-year-old from the youth team would get one of those slots. In the end, it robbed Adepoju of the chance to make a name for himself at the Santiago Bernabeu.
“The senior team really wanted me having seeing my performance at the junior level but the policy would not allow [it].” – Mutiu Adepoju
“I’m not tall but I play against defenders that were taller…But I have the skill, the ability and of course, the timing. I know when and how to jump, so it’s just a matter of timing.” – Mutiu Adepoju