/ 17 August 2020

Meet the first African coach to win a European league title

Soccer African Nations Cup Final Nigeria V Cameroon
Nigeria's Ndubuisi Egbo (l) and Nwankwo Kanu (r) walk off the pitch, shocked by their defeat on penalties (Photo by Matthew Ashton/EMPICS via Getty Images)

When Albania’s KF Tirana found themselves battling adversity again, they looked to hire a coach who could rescue them from eighth place in the league. They were staring in the face of a second potential relegation in just three years.

The club is no stranger to success – it is one of the country’s biggest clubs – but it has been a barren, difficult decade. 

Enter Ndubuisi Egbo, a former Nigeria goalkeeper and something of a KF Tirana club legend.

He played for Tirana from 2001-2004, and returned as a goalkeeper coach and assistant coach in 2014. When the 47-year-old was given the job, he was given just three games in which to make an impression. He ended up making history.

Egbo’s first game in charge was against the club’s bitter rivals, KF Partizani. It’s the biggest derby in Albania, but Tirana had not won for six years. Thanks to an injury time winner, Egbo ended this drought.

They won the next two games too, restoring confidence to a formerly deflated team. After that, making his deal permanent was a no-brainer.

In July, he’d complete a total transformation, leading Tirana to its 25th league title and qualifying for the Uefa Champions League; both firsts for an African man. All were achieved as the club celebrated its centenary anniversary.

Two months ago, on an Instagram Live chat, he spoke about what it was like to take charge of the club.

“It was the situation that chose me, I wasn’t the one. It was the perfect time for God. He prepared it and said ‘it is your time now to take it. I’m going to use you to do wonders,’” said Egbo, being very clear about his Christian beliefs.

Religion is a sensitive issue in Albania.The country is regarded as the world’s first atheist country. Its former communist government outlawed religion, and violently repressed both Christians and Muslims.

Despite this context, Egbo fuses his faith into talks at press briefings, and says even opposing fans have been converted as they feel his result is a testament to his unwavering Christian belief.

This doesn’t mean he hasn’t integrated himself into Albanian culture. He speaks the language and, after spending 18 years in the country, is regarded as the longest-residing Nigerian there. Other Nigerians in Albania see him as a father figure.

Much of his coaching influence comes from his playing background. Joe Erico, Peter Fregene and a host of other coaches that he worked with during his playing career are core to his approach because he believes their teachings transcend the game.

In Nigerian football, times have changed — the god of goalkeepers has, perhaps, looked away. Gernot Rohr, current Super Eagles manager, has fumed over the paucity of shot-stopping talents. But in the 1990s, the Super Eagles were spoiled with high-quality options, with Ike Shoronmu leading the pool, of which Egbo was a part. And although his chances with the national team were limited to 12 outings and a bronze medal at the 2002 African Cup of Nations, he earned his stripes at club level.

On the domestic scene, he was immense for top sides like Julius Berger and in 1998, he left to play for El Masry in Egypt, then a brief stint in South Africa with Moroka Swallows before a move to Europe, joining Tirana for three trophy-punctuated seasons. 

He returned to El Masry before joining a second Albanian club in Bylis in 2007. Since then, he’s stayed and explored the Balkan region. 

Upon hanging his gloves up at Bylis, he became the club’s goalkeeping coach, then assistant coach and eventually the head coach in the 2013-14 season. All through his ascension, he grabbed badges required to perform in his role, bagging the Uefa Goalkeeping Coach licence, Uefa B, Uefa A and Uefa Pro licence (the highest coaching license in Europe).

His first coaching attempt didn’t go well, culminating in Bylis’ ouster from the Albanian top-flight, and he made the move to Tirana, joining as a goalkeeping/assistant coach. Six years later, he has become a pioneering, championship-winning black coach.

Given his exploits, his world view on football comes as no surprise. He has an affinity for the defensive Italian catenaccio tactical system, which makes sense given his history in the low-scoring Albanian league. He highlighted the cons of the attractive South American football and struggles with African footballers, which he believes are structural, and advises African-based coaches to move with the times.

“Force your opponent to play the way you want them to play, force them to put the ball in the place you want them to and if you succeed with these two things, the game is already half-won,” he said.

When he, a black man, finally stands on the sidelines, with Tirana out on the pitch, as the Champions League anthem plays out very soon, regardless of who they face off with, expect this same strategy. After all, it has worked for the Italians at major tournaments. 

His success has been praised by fans and coaches, although he has experienced unjust criticism of his work, prejudices and racist behaviour from seemingly envious local coaches in Albania. The media have run negative analyses of his team, but results don’t lie — and he has the credentials to back it up.

“They attacked me many times, saying things like ‘he doesn’t have experience’, ‘he is just a goalkeeper coach’, even though I took the Uefa Pro Licence before some of them that are analysing me,” he told ESPN

The same fate is often suffered by successful black footballers and is one that only allows a minute representation of black coaches in top-level football and shuts the door on a lot more in decision rooms, limiting the opportunity for diversity. But like Michael Emenalo, a former Nigerian player who went on to be a technical director at Chelsea, Ndubuisi remains a beacon of hope and African excellence.

This story first appeared in The Continent, the new pan-African weekly newspaper designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Share real news.