Godfrey George feels the pulse of a former U-17, Mbetobong Ibanga, striker who now works as a butcher at an abattoir in Calabar, Cross River State, after a rough episode with osteoarthritis 12 years ago
Mbetobong Ibanga’s dream ended before it even began. One moment, he was billed to play for the Under-17 National Team in the 2011 African U-17 Championship organised by the Confederation of African Football in Rwanda. The next, a doctor told him that he had only five years to play football because of a strange knee injury.
In 2006, a year after losing his father, Ibanga left his Calabar home with high hopes of playing for top clubs after being invited for screening in Port Harcourt, Rivers State.
He had earlier purchased a form to join one of the country’s football academies. He was 15 years old and hungry to make a better life for himself and his ailing mother.
Handpicked after the Port Harcourt screening and flown to Lagos for a final test, Ibanga saw the skies open up to him with endless opportunities.
Little did he know that just beyond the blue skies were grey clouds, waiting to swallow up his dreams.
In Lagos, as he played among hundred other boys, who had come to make a life for themselves, Ibanga said he remembered his mother’s last words before he left home.
“Do not bring shame to this family. Play like your life depends on it and make us proud,” she had told him.
“We have been through so much and I was my family’s only hope to stop the mockery and poverty that we have come to know as friends,” Ibanga said with a tight smile that struggled to break out of his pallid skin.
After days of rigorous screening and tests, Ibanga’s skills singled him out and he was chosen by a Dutch football manager and former Super Eagles coach, Clemens Westerhof.
Along with other lucky boys, Ibanga was flown to the Kwara State Football Academy, where he was to study on a scholarship.
“When I called my mother and told her the good news, she was so happy that she cried. Her reaction was understandable. I would be the first in the family to be blessed with such a chance of getting a national scholarship to play football.
“It was like the world had finally opened up its arms to give me all my fortunes. My family had been through a lot. We needed a breath of fresh air,” he said, taking in more breaths than usual, while speaking with Saturday PUNCH.
The scholarship by the then Kwara State Government under former Governor, Bukola Saraki, and extended to former Governor, Abdulfatah Ahmed, was to last for six years.
According to Ibanga, it was to cover feeding, accommodation, medicals and education, among others.
Ibanga was part of the pioneer students of the KFA, which was opened by the then President of the Confederation of African Football, Isaa Hayatou, in 2005.
According to the academy’s website, it is open to all youngsters irrespective of place of origin.
KFA is also said to offer talented youths the opportunity to acquire formal education for free while training as professional footballers.
The academy offers a full on-campus boarding experience to ensure student concentration and full engagement while in school.
The curriculum is modelled after the Nigerian educational system and some aspects of the British curriculum, allowing students to sit exams such as the West African School Certificate Examinations, National Examination Certificate, International General Certificate of Secondary Education, Test of English as a Foreign Language and the International Baccalaureate.
“As part of the academic training, students are exposed to languages, including English and other Modern European Languages, General and Applied Mathematics, Humanities and Social Sciences, Creative, Technical and Vocational studies and Natural Sciences as areas of study.
“The students are grouped into three categories: the junior cadre, comprising students between ages 13 and 14; the intermediate cadre, comprising students between ages 15 and 16; and the elite cadre, comprising students between ages 17 and 19,” the online resource added.
While the junior and intermediate groups combine academics with football, the elite group combines football with management courses.
Ibanga was in the intermediate cadre.
After a few years in the academy, Ibanga, who also played for the British Council, one of the biggest grass root teams in Lagos at the time, was one of the three players from KFA invited to play for the country’s U-17 team.
He said Westerhof also told him that he had spoken to the English football club, Chelsea, who would let him play for the U-16 trials in 2009.
The stage was set. Ibanga was ready. He was to go to England for the trials, but the plan changed abruptly.
According to him, the arrival of a former Inter Milan coach caused some ‘internal squabbles’ within the academy leadership, which led to the termination of his trip to England.
“I cried like a baby that day. It was like someone cut an artery and I was bleeding. I felt my life was gone. I called my mother and she could not stop crying, even as she tried to console me. But, I told myself that I must not give up,” he said.
Corroborating his claims, a newsletter of the KFA, dated March 10, 2011, obtained by Saturday PUNCH, revealed that two players were invited for trials with Chelsea FC in England and two for trials with Portsmouth FC, also in England. Their identities were however not revealed.
However, a former colleague of Ibanga, who now plays for one of the English clubs, told our correspondent that Ibanga was one of the two young players invited by Chelsea for the trials in 2009.
“I remember vividly that Mbet (Mbetobong) told me that he was invited for a trial in Chelsea. One of our foreign directors facilitated it. But, I am not sure he went for it again,” the colleague, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said.
Speaking further, the source described Ibanga as a potential ‘pro striker’.
“It is just unfortunate that he left the academy and could not graduate and go pro like the rest of us,” he added.
The beginning of the end
On one of the days during training with the U-17 team, Ibanga heard a popping sound from his right knee while he was jogging.
That was the beginning of the end of his football career. He fell to the ground, writhing in pain. This was in 2010.
As he squirmed on the floor, crying for help, he was attended to by the medical team, which tried to see what was wrong but could not.
When the pain was too much for him to bear, Ibanga said he took a two-day break to visit a clinic outside the camp, where he was given pain relief medications and asked to rest more.
Getting back to the Kwara academy, Ibanga said he informed the then academy technical director, Mr Kumbi Titiloye, who took him alongside another player, Barnabas Imenger, the current captain of Lobi Stars, Makurdi, Benue State, who had back pain, to another hospital in Ilorin for a diagnosis.
He claimed he was given some medication but the pain persisted.
Ibanga’s mother, Hannah, 58, told our correspondent that that period was one of her worst since she lost her husband
“I am poor. Who do I have except God? When he told me he had a knee injury and it may cost him his place on the U-17 team, I ran to God and prayed. I cried and called on God to intervene. But, as fate would have it, nothing really changed. My son’s knee injury degenerated,” she said.
Ibanga said he knew his career was over but he would not let it go without a fight.
Continuing his training at the U-17 training camp and pretending that everything was alright, Ibanga’s performance dwindled. His career advisers at the U-17 national team began to ask questions.
“I made them believe I was alright. But I had already opened up to Mr Titiloye, back at the KFA, who promised he would do something about it. I was advised to take some rest, but I needed to keep on playing. Maybe, a miracle would happen and my knee would be back to normal.
“Whenever I felt pain, I would take some pain relief drugs, which gave me interim respite. At one point, I was playing with the aid of a knee guard,” he added.
In addition to the knee injury, Ibanga claimed that in a match against the Ondo State Rising Stars, he was pushed by a defender and he fell on his left shoulder, causing his scapular to shift position.
The team, according to him, only gave him pain relief medications and massaged the area with ice.
To date, he claimed to still have swelling on his right shoulder.
Billed for surgery
After one year, filled with pain and fear, in November 2011, Ibanga was finally billed to see a surgeon at the University College Hospital, Ibadan.
This, according to him, was facilitated by Saraki and Titiloye, who footed the bills for the procedure.
During the initial diagnosis, Ibanga said a renowned professor of orthopaedic and trauma, Temitope Alonge, who was the Chief Medical Director of UCH then, said he had a knee degenerative disease, also known as osteoarthritis, and it had already spread throughout the knee, causing it to wear out.
Ibanga said Alonge told him that he had only five more years to play football, advising him to amass as much wealth and affluence as he could and make sure he quit football on or before the five-year timeline, or risk losing his entire leg.
Sadly, he did not disclose this information to Titiloye nor did he reveal it to the U-17 technical advisors.
All they knew, according to him, was that he had a knee injury which surgery would correct.
Sent home with $100
Meanwhile, on August 29, 2010, several months before the corrective surgery, Ibanga said he joined the U-17 team to play against the Republic of Congo in Pointe Noire with his bad knee for the CAF qualifiers billed for January 2011.
Nigeria lost to DRC 2 – 0 and the players had to return to Nigeria.
On touching down in Abuja, Ibanga said one of the directors of the U-17 team told him that his performance was below par and that he would no longer be needed in the team.
According to Ibanga, the director handed him a $100 bill and he was scheduled to return to the Kwara Football Academy, where they picked him up.
Asked if the director of the U-17 team knew of his injury, Ibanga said, “I did not tell him, but I can tell you that he knew. I played with a knee guard and my colleagues knew I had visited Kwara for a series of medical diagnoses.”
Speaking further, Ibanga said, “I understand my performance was bad in the game but it was because of the injuries and worries that I would lose my knee and my future. This injury was one I sustained while playing for Nigeria’s U-17 team.
“They just used and dumped me after we lost to DRC. All they gave me was $100. They left me and my career for dead.
“I was in severe pain as I left Abuja. This injury cost me my dreams and placed me where I am in life today.”
When he returned to the KFA after the U-17 failure, he said he was already experiencing instability in his knee and he could no longer walk without aid.
“I couldn’t even climb the staircase without holding the rail. Everyone in camp was aware of this, including Emmanuel Dennis, who now plays for Nottingham Forest as a striker in the English Premier League and the Nigeria national team. They all witnessed this. At one point, I was using a pair of crutches. After a few months, I started using a wheelchair.
“The NFF and the U-17 leadership never called or checked on me to know how I was faring. They were done with me and they had moved on with another talented player to replace me.
“While I was waiting for the surgery, I watched my other teammates getting signed to play for Kwara United and Abubakar Bukola Saraki FC in the Nigerian Premier League. Some of them were getting signed to clubs in Europe, but I was left for dead as my knee degenerated,” he stated, giving deep sobs at intervals.
During the episode, Ibanga said the KFA leadership took him for a scan in Ilorin, but he still could not run.
When they saw the situation was getting severe, the then technical advisor, Mr Paul Ashworth, told Mr Titiloye to take Ibanga for an MRI, where the sum of N90,000 was paid for the procedure.
By then, Ibanga said he had stopped football for three months.
The report from the MRI, Ibanga noted, was that he would not be able to play football again unless he underwent a knee operation, which, at that time, would cost around N500,000.
Finally, in November 2011, Titiloye and the Kwara Football Academy, in conjunction with the Saraki administration, raised money for the surgery.
Ibanga had the knee surgery at the UCH, Ibadan.
Hope at last?
With the knowledge that he had just a few more years to play football haunting him and being out of training for more than a year, Ibanga had a gloomy journey ahead.
Watching his colleagues get signed to various clubs in Europe and around the country as he recuperated after the surgery, Ibanga said he blamed the NFF for doing nothing about his condition for one year until the KFA intervened.
According to him, if it had intervened earlier, his knee would have been salvaged and he would have continued playing football and fulfilling his dreams.
“They were the ones who called me to play for the U-17 team but abandoned me when I needed them the most because I could no longer play well because of an injury I developed while playing for them.
“I couldn’t graduate with my set at the Kwara Football Academy because the MRI scan already showed that I had a lateral tear in my meniscus (inside the knee).
“I was to sit the 2010 WASSCE. The Kwara State Government had already paid for it. But, I abandoned it and followed the U-17 team, not knowing they would dump me with nothing,” he stated.
After playing with the KFA for two years after the surgery, in June 2013, Ibanga decided it was time to leave.
He said he experienced sharp knee pain while playing a match and fell.
Afraid that the doctor’s prediction was coming true and scared that he might soon be forced out of the KFA like he was sent out of the U-17 team, Ibanga said he decided to leave the academy on his own.
“I was afraid. I didn’t know what I was doing. I called my mum and told her I was coming back home to Calabar. I was already two years into my five-year ultimatum, and I knew my career had come to an end.
“That pain I experienced during the match even after the surgery was the prompt I needed. Thompson Oliha, the former Super Eagles midfielder, was my coach then.
“I wrote to the academy director then, Mr Paul Ashworth.
“Ashworth was very mad at me, because he, too, was aware of all the academy had done for me.
“He begged me to tell him the reason why I was leaving but I refused to tell him what the surgeon told me in the theatre. I knew I had just three more years to play football and my knee was no longer able to carry me like it used to,” he added.
He claimed that before he left the academy, a national director and advisor with the NFF came to the KFA to ask after him when he did not find him on the training ground, and he was told about Ibanga’s condition.
According to Ibanga, the director did nothing to help him.
“He simply went back to Abuja. To date, I have not got any phone call from him or the NFF, asking about my welfare. Let us not forget that I sustained this injury playing for them,” he stated.
Living in squalor
When he landed in Calabar, where he lived with his mother and younger sister, Ibanga said he felt like he had failed his family.
On arrival, he was limping because he had sat for long hours on the bus that took him home.
Confused about what to do after losing everything, he said he decided to start work at a local restaurant, where he was paid N5,000 monthly.
After a few months, he started working as a butcher at the Watt Market, Calabar, where he sold goat bone for as low as N200 to people who bred dogs or just wanted to eat the bony part of a goat.
“The injury cost me everything. The shoulder injury I sustained is still there to date. I cannot lift heavy objects lest I fall. I work in the abattoir from 2am till 3pm. Then, I move to the plastic section of the market, where I carry plastic wares for people as a market aid, and I am paid N50 per trip. I have done that for more than 10 years now, struggling to survive.
“I have lost everything. When I stand, I put my weight on my left leg, so I don’t trip and fall. This injury is one I sustained since when I was around 16 or 17. It has been more than 10 years now. I still have not made any headway in life,” he added.
A fellow butcher colleague of Ibanga, who gave his name as Sunday Akpan, while speaking in Ibibio, told our correspondent during a visit to the market that the former footballer was hardworking.
“We wake up as early as 2am to come to the abattoir to kill animals. Mbet is always there before then. He and his mother are hardworking people,” he said.
After many years of struggling, in 2018, Ibanga registered for the Unified Tertiary Matriculation Examination and was offered admission to study History at the University of Calabar, Calabar, Cross River State.
“I have sponsored myself since then. I am in my final year now, but I have not been able to pay for my year three school fees. Can you imagine that?
“I combine work as a butcher and market aid with schooling. It is extremely difficult for me. My mother is 58. What can she do? We have no father. We have nobody. I cannot even do any hard work because of my knee and shoulder all because I wanted to play for my country and make my family proud,” he noted.
Several attempts to get Titiloye at first proved abortive as his phone lines did not connect.
After weeks of trying, Titiloye’s line went through on Monday and he corroborated Ibanga’s story.
He said although he left the Academy in 2011, he knew of Ibanga’s case as he personally contributed N350,000 for the young footballer’s knee surgery.
“I cannot tell why he (Ibanga) left because we had fixed his knee for him, paying huge sums of money for the corrective surgery.
“He was not driven away by the KFA, to the best of my knowledge. He left on his own. I left the academy in 2011.
“We don’t understand how he was abandoned, but it was unfortunate that he had that injury though we treated him properly. I don’t know what he wants the NFF to do for him because it wasn’t the NFF that gave him the injury; he got it in the line of duty,” he noted.
However, Ibanga said he was speaking out after 12 years because he wanted the NFF to help him.
“This knee injury ended my dreams of being a professional footballer. It ended my career. I need help. Look at the situation of my family. There is nothing to write home about. For how long will I continue to work as a butcher to be able to take care of my mother and sister?
“I would have moved on but the knee is back to square one. I cannot work for long without sitting. I cannot bend for long either. I still hold the rails when I climb the stairs. This rainy season, it has got worse.
“My life is not just normal again. As I grow older, the pain is increasing. My movement is restricted. I want the NFF to right their wrongs. I am living in pain,” he added.
When Saturday PUNCH contacted the Director of Communication for the NFF, Ademola Olajire, on the phone, on Monday, he did not respond. He also did not respond to text messages sent to his phone line.
On Tuesday, this reporter sent another set of text messages both via SMS and WhatsApp, seeking answers from Olajire. Though the messages on WhatsApp were delivered, our correspondent did not receive any response.
The phone line also rang out several times.
Saturday PUNCH further reached out to Mr Ibitoye Toyin, who is the Special Adviser to the Minister of Sports, Mr Sunday Dare.
Toyin asked our correspondent to verify Ibanga’s claims with the NFF first.
“2011 was 12 years ago and these claims will need some clarifications from the NFF before any comments can be made,” he wrote, in a WhatsApp message sent to this reporter.
Told that Olajire had yet to respond to Saturday PUNCH’s inquiry, Toyin said, “Only the NFF can give you the information you need. If I had it, I would have given it to you.”
This reporter, again, reached out to Olajire on the phone but the line rang out.