I still cherish playing against Rivaldo, Deco – Ex-Eagles star Ekwueme – TrendyNewsReporters
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I still cherish playing against Rivaldo, Deco – Ex-Eagles star Ekwueme

Ex-international Ifeanyi Ekwueme was part of the bronze-winning AFCON 2004 Super Eagles squad. In this interview with ’TANA AIYEJINA, he talks about life in retirement, playing in Europe and the  national team, and why he resisted Poland’s attempt to make him play for them

How has life been since retiring from football?

I have been part of the game because I was one-time Sporting Director of Heartland FC and chairman of NNL club, Apex of Agbor. I have also done a lot of preseason tournaments in Nigeria for three years now. Last year was the third edition and all the NPFL clubs benefitted from the tournament. I’m also sole marketing manager of sports outfits from Denmark and Poland. I am their sole representative in Africa.

While at Heartland you had a lot of unpaid salaries and wages…

(Cuts in) What is happening at Heartland is not a management problem but a political issue, from one government. So, it’s going to take some time for them to settle the issue. Not paying the players is what I don’t support because they are doing their work and it’s unfair not to get paid. That’s why I resigned from Heartland. I feel the players pain and at a time I was paying the players with my own money. I never got the money back. I don’t want to work in an environment where the players are working and grumbling.

You played in the domestic league for Jasper United before moving to Europe. How would you describe the league then and now?

I think there is a lot of difference because the structure was there in the domestic league in my time. The operators of the private clubs were paying regularly even though the money was small but they were coming as at when due. Whatever you are doing as a profession, your income also matters because you have a family. During our time, the structure was different from what it is now because most of the clubs don’t pay now despite the little salaries they pay.

 During your time home-based players easily made it into the national team, unlike now. What do you think is the reason behind this?

That’s what I was talking about; it is still as a result of the structure. Then players graduated from the second team to the first team and there were a lot of tournaments they played before the league started. You can scout for players and get good ones, but now players in the NPFL are thinking about their welfare and not concentrating on the football. It will be hard for you to get a good player except for those who are ready to fight. I am also one of the few that called for the introduction of domestic players, but I think ex-Eagles coach Gernot Rohr followed the structure he met and it was difficult for him to invite the home-based players to represent the country. If the players are not being invited to the national team, what are they playing for? It’s difficult now for the European teams to get players in Africa, especially Nigeria. But I think with time things will get better.

 Playing for the Eagles back then was a difficult task. How did you break into the team and how did you feel on your debut?

I remember my debut for the Eagles because I was playing in the Nigerian league when I was invited and I was the youngest player that was invited to the Eagles home-based team for the King Fahd tournament in Morocco. I kept on pushing and I became a known name in the Nigerian league before I moved to Europe. Even though I was in Poland, I was still fighting to play in the UEFA Cup and when the chance came, I was invited to play for their (Poland) national team but I decided to come to Nigeria. I featured in the game against Jamaica in an international friendly and also against Rwanda in Abuja and I delivered. That was how I broke into the team.

 Looking at Nigerian football, what are the things that need to be changed?

We have to improve on the structure; I think that’s the only thing that needs to be changed. We need to have a structure and follow it. During our own time, there was no CHAN (for home-based footballers) tournament for Eagles to feature in, but now they have the opportunity to feature at the CHAN tournament. I believe if they perform at that level, the players will be invited to the main team. So, I can say the players need to work harder and remain concentrated so that they can compete with the professionals.

 You played at the 2004 AFCON where Nigeria won a bronze medal. How do you feel when you recall that feat?

I feel very excited because it was a chance I got and we delivered, although we were close to winning the tournament but Tunisia were out for us in the semi-final, which we lost on penalty kicks. But coming back with a bronze medal was not a bad thing and I was happy with that.

 How true were reports that hosts Tunisia’s fans applied different tactics to intimidate the Eagles during the explosive semi-final encounter?

There was intimidation from their fans because even our national anthem was not sung before the game and there were 75,000 spectators, with Nigeria having just about 2,000. The fans were making a lot of noise. We gave our best because we are professionals and it was towards the end of the match that they equalised and they won through penalties. It was true that the home crowd and referee were against Nigeria.

 Despite your talent, you didn’t get to play at the World Cup. Is this something you regret?

Of course, I regret not playing at the World Cup because the time I was supposed to play at the World Cup Poland was on me and they wanted me to play for them along with Emmanuel Olisadebe, but I didn’t want to because I wanted to play for my country. Olisadebe made a good decision for himself because he was a striker and when he got the chance he did well and I was happy for him. Playing for Nigeria and playing at the AFCON too makes me happy. I don’t have any regrets about that.

 Who would you say was one of the toughest footballers you’ve ever faced?

I think it was in the national team and I think that is Ifeanyi Udeze because he was a very technical, rugged player. He is a complete player and playing against him in training I had to calculate very well.

What was it like fighting for jersey in the Super Eagles camp with the likes of Austin Okocha in the team?

I must confess it was very difficult but now it is very easy. Then, for you to even get a national team call-up wasn’t easy. You can imagine having 45 players invited for the Nations Cup in Egypt and we had to fight to make the 22-man list. You must work extra hard, but now things are not like that.

 What was it like playing in Europe?

Playing in the European competition was a very different level compared to playing at the CAF Champions League here in Africa. You get to meet top players like Rivaldo, Deco and I had to compete against them even though it wasn’t easy but I gave my best and I represented Nigeria that time on the field. I won best foreign player award four times in Poland.

 What would you say were the best and worst moments of your career?

My best moment was when I came to the Polish league for the first time and won the league and the worst moment of my career was when we failed to win the FA Cup.

What’s your advice for up-and-coming youngsters?

My advice for young footballers is that they should continue working hard and they will see the light at the end of the day.

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