Retired Super Eagles striker, Osaze Odemwingie, in an interview with Super Eagles media, monitored by CHARLES OGUNDIYA said people continued to look at him as Oyinbo player in the Super Eagles, but he actually played in the country from Ajegunle in Lagos, to Benin City, where he featured for Insurance of Benin before moving to Europe. Excerpts…
Could you describe how you started from Nigeria before going abroad?
It was not easy I will say, changing of environment, country, culture, language, food, a lot of things you have to adapt to as a person. Maybe I was blessed with the type of energy to connect with the people and the most important language people want to hear as a player is your performance on the pitch of play, the rest outside the pitch doesn’t work so long because we have little time together, but the performance on the pitch really helped me as a player. There were so many challenges, at a time I broke my jaw and that made me believe that you can be down but still come out with something good. There are lot of competitions in sports, when the Super Eagles squad of 1994 were honoured, Sunday Oliseh mentioned the attitude they put up in training because of the fear of losing their shirts in the team because of so many talents, that remains in my memory because there are so many players out there who can come in and take your shirt. Seriously for me, it was an honour playing for the Super Eagles.
Who was your roommate back in the days?
Mostly it was Austin Ejide, at times I shared room with some other players, but most of the times, it was Austin.
Could you recall some of the memories?
Foremost is lifting the Belgian Cup despite breaking my jaw earlier in the season and also when I was invited to the Super Eagles team ahead of Tunisia 2004 Africa Cup of Nations. That was my first invitation to the team, I was like the fourth or fifth striker in the team, Julius Aghahowa, Victor Agali and some big players were ahead of me, I was not expected to play but something happened and I was called upon and I was like this is a big opportunity for me. I was introduced in the 88th minute and I scored two goals in two minutes, against South Africa and I kept telling myself that I must always get myself ready for the big occasion.
Will your children play for Nigeria?
I will encourage them. Even though they have different roots: British, Russia, Nigeria, I am encouraging them and preparing their minds towards representing Nigeria. I am already raising future strikers. We often play Nigerian music, either in the car or at home, sometimes. The true passion of Nigerian fans; it’s not something you learn, you are born with it. It’s raw talents in Nigeria and if you look at performance of players like Taribo West, Sunday Oliseh or Taye Taiwo, their performance is not something you learn, we don’t really have such academies like we have in Europe, but the players still come out with their raw talents, that’s why I enjoyed my time in the Super Eagles so much because of the talents in the team.
What was the motivation like to play for the Super Eagles?
The motivation actually came from the 1996 Olympic Games team, the likes of Papilo (Nwankwo Kanu), my dad used to bring the tape of the U-17 team that won the first Kodak Cup, the likes of Oruma (Wilson) and the rest, I always replayed the old tape in my head, and I kept on watching it. Since then I programmed myself to be in that green white shirt in the future. Getting to Locomotiv was also another dream come true for me. For any kids growing up in Russia, playing for any Moscow teams, should be one of the ambitions, it’s like an English boy playing for a club like Manchester United in the EPL, so I had to give myself that moment although it didn’t end as I expected because EPL was my biggest ambition while growing up and when the chance came, I had to leave at the last year of my contract with them.
Are you disappointed that you never won the AFCON?
That was the biggest disappointment because that was one thing I thought I would have laid my hands on as a player. We kept on getting bronze and when we least expected, the players just came from nowhere and won the championship. That was the period I was having my friction with the late Coach Stephen Keshi; I think I should have called the coach and not be stubborn, maybe I would have a gold medal too. I dreamt about the team winning the trophy before the tournament kicked off. But you know when you are young and you believe you are right you just want to stick to your decision. Well, it’s past now but it is what I would have handled differently.
You shone like a million stars while playing for Lille in the Ligue 1, now we have another player, Victor Osimhen, who is a striker like you making headlines in France, what would you say about him?
I believe in him, I was surprised they went for him because I wasn’t convinced. I have not been privileged to see a lot of his game, few minutes cannot be enough to judge a player. I need to watch him for 90 minutes. I already heard about the flashes at the U-17 but after then he went a little bit quiet, so when he joined Lille, I started taking an interest because the club has a rich history with African players. For the club to recruit him, I concluded that he must have more than I believe he had and suddenly he started scoring important goals, but as a young boy, he has a lot to do so as to improve. When I joined the club, I was not a complete striker, but the club turned me to who I became in football. Osimhen is still raw but I know he can become the best striker for Nigeria playing in Lille. They compare him a lot to me in France and people like us laid a good foundation for him to enjoy at the club.
So what would be your advice to the young players presently being courted by English Premier League clubs?
Recently I came across Tim Cahill, former Yakubu Aiyegbeni teammate at Everton, he spoke about the conversation he had with David Moyes. EPL is a league where if you come in and make mistakes, you might not get a second chance. So when they get a club, they need to have a good understanding with him and the coach. An example is Romelu Lukaku who was signed as a replacement for Didier Drogba at Chelsea, he however failed to deliver and he was loaned out. It was there he became the big striker, so when they are making that step further, they will need to be ready for the challenges. Not every player performs well in their first season, they should have a good understanding especially going to a big club. Even if they are not getting game time, they should make sure they are developing, but they should also be conscious of where they are going to and make sure they are developing. They need to calculate and not just move for moving sake. If they want to ask questions, they know how to get some of us who already played in the EPL. When I wanted to join West Brom, I asked Ifeanyi Udeze, I asked Papilo and they said a lot of positive things about the club, which helped my decision.
Your memorable goal for the Super Eagles…
The hottest goal in terms of atmosphere was the goal against Tunisia in Abuja, because we were playing under a lot of tension, we were very much under pressure, and immediately the goal entered the net, the stadium ‘scattered.’ However the World Cup goal that I dedicated to my son was a special one. As a striker, you must set a target for yourself and my personal target then was to score in every major tournament for Nigeria. I read a lot and I have read about some great players not scoring at the AFCON, World Cup, Olympics and the likes, so I always wanted to achieve that. Before the goal at the World Cup, the only championship missing was the World Cup. Four years before that 2014 World Cup, I was actually thinking my head touched the ball in the goals scored by Uche against Greece, but was disappointed as I cannot claim that goal, so I was like, I will have to wait for another four years for a goal at the Mundial. When I got the goal against Bosnia, it was a great moment for me. So I will give it to that goal because it completed the circle, I scored at the Olympics, AFCON and the World Cup. It was also special because I already promised my son who was just two weeks old at that moment.
What happened between you and Samson Siasia?
It actually started after the qualifier against Ethiopia which we won 4-0; I was actually on the bench for the game because I was nursing a small groin injury at that time. So after playing the game there was another friendly game in Abuja against Kenya, so I told the coach that I had to return to England so as to be ready for West Brom next game because the club was still fighting relegation. After explaining to the coach, he asked me to stay and I was expecting him to understand the situation, so when he didn’t show any understanding, I had to travel back to England, and at the end, the match was played in an empty stadium, the fans didn’t come to watch. Although after then he invited me for the Olympics because he believed in my ability as a player. During the Olympic Games in Beijing, there were some rumours among the players because I did not play the qualifiers; that some dodgy things were going on, part of which he is being accused of at the moment. I did not know the validity of it but there were talks of match-fixing. For us the players we played out our hearts and deservedly got to the final which everyone saw. After then I was asked by a Nigerian journalist if Siasia was the right man for the Super Eagles job. I paused in my response and decided to pass the question because if you look at the Olympic team, it was a mess, because there were issues throughout the tournament, the FA was not with us, we had problems with kits and that camp was a mess. How we got to the final I don’t really know despite the challenges, but we fought hard for the colour and we got to the final. We kept on hearing rumours of agents meeting players about match fixing and the likes, so in the midst of that, I couldn’t come out to say he should be given the Super Eagles job. I think he put that in his mind.
There were rumours that some of you sabotaged the coach leading to our failure to qualify for the 2012 AFCON hosted by Equatorial Guinea and Gabon, your name actually came up; could you clear the air on this?
Impossible! Even though he didn’t invite me for many months after that Kenya issue, he invited me on the last day for a very decisive match which will help us to qualify. However, if you ask anyone, any Nigerian, they will tell you that not a country like Guinea will stop us from qualifying, even if we played with the second team nobody will believe that. I was actually coming home to celebrate the qualification, how can we sabotage ourselves? It’s nothing you can comprehend, why will I do that or any other players do that? Fine we had a discussion with the coach, but the performance on the pitch had nothing to do with that, it’s like sabotaging your career as a player. So that rumour is unfounded. It was a saga made out of nowhere.
What do you think about the current Super Eagles?
A lot of potential especially with the performance at the last AFCON in Egypt, they have a lot of passion, I will say we are going down in terms of size, not of the Super Eagles we are used to with physical presence but definitely with a lot of potential. Although Odion Ighalo and Kelechi Iheanacho with a little bit of physique, but looking at some others like Moses Simon, Henry Onyekuru, Samuel Chukwueze, and others, when you see their stature, you will be like Nigerian football is now turning to skills and speed, compared to the likes of Rashidi Yekini, Sunday Oliseh who played for the Eagles in the past. But I think we need to get the balance right. Football is not just about young legs running around, you need a lot of experience, you need exposure; we need to get the balance right. Looking back at the game against Algeria, a lot of talent, desire but maybe not enough experience and the Algerian team was a little bit older than our team on that day.