So sad losing to Ghana in the semifinal of 2014 CHAN –Ikenna Hillary

Ikenna Hillary was part of the first Nigerian team that qualified for the African Nations Championships (CHAN) in 2014 after missing out of the previous two editions. The Sunshine Stars of Akure midfielder told CHARLES OGUNDIYA that Nigeria players who are playing outside the country find it difficult to return home because of the atmosphere and the working conditions in the Nigeria league. Excerpts…

How did you come into football?

I started football like every other young kid on the streets of Lagos. There was a day, I think in 2007 or 2008, I was playing a friendly game, not knowing that the referee of the game was the assistant coach of Shooting Stars of Ibadan. After the first half of the game, he called me and asked if I would like to play in the Nigerian League and I answered in the affirmative. I went for the trials in Ibadan, succeeded and from there that was how I became a professional footballer.

You joined Shooting Stars during the 2007/2008 season as a youngster, what was the reaction of your parents when you made that decision?

My parents didn’t have any problem with that. My dad as a businessman was a part-time footballer, he played mostly for the business league in Lagos called Alaba League. He always encourages us the children to play football; so when I took that decision, he agreed with me and he has been supporting me since then.

How was it for you joining Shooting Stars at such a tender age?

It was a dream come true for me. When I told my dad that I would be joining Shooting Stars, he corrected me and said it is called IICC because that was the name they were known for in the past. He was really happy about it and for me I was happy about it. Playing with one of the traditional teams in the country is always all players’ dream. Shooting Stars was one of the best and also very impressive at the time, it was a great achievement for me. The platform gave me opportunity to move to Rangers of Enugu, though I was not registered for the season despite signing the contract.

So what happened after Rangers failed to sign you for the season?

I actually returned to Lagos and at a point I was on the verge of joining Balyesa United. On my way there I had to stop over in Enugu and train with old friends that I left behind, while training there an agent saw me and stopped me from going to Bayelsa, that was how I was picked by the agent and found myself going to Norway. On returning from Norway I went back to Rangers for the beginning of the season in 2012. I was registered this time around, I was playing regularly in the team and from there I went to Lobi Stars on loan. In the midseason of 2013/14 I joined Sunshine Stars. I was picked for the CHAN team while at Sunshine Stars. I later moved to a second division side in Portugal and later moved to a Premier League side in Malta. I later moved to Slovakia but had to return to Nigeria after having issues with my work permit leading to a one-year ban from entering Schenghen countries. For me to continue playing football, I had to return to Nigeria and joined IfeanyiUbah, later to Kano Pillars and now Sunshine Stars where I am currently.

Most Nigerians who have the opportunity to play in Europe find it difficult to return home and play in the league here in Nigeria, what do you think is the cause?

I think most of them, the kind of mentality they have been exposed to in Europe, they find it difficult to adjust back at home, it is very difficult to adapt to the Nigeria system. Travelling long distance by road on a weekly basis for a league match, welfare for the players not at the top level, salary not coming as and when due, most of them will rather stay at home and wait for a new deal abroad because it is difficult playing in Nigeria. For me I will say those are parts of the problem that make players not wanting to return home despite not having a club at a time.

After two attempts, Nigeria finally qualified to play at CHAN in 2014, how did it feel for you as a member of that team?

It was a dream come true representing your country because that’s always every good player’s dream. We didn’t just qualify after two failed attempts, we also performed well. We were not the best but the coach, the late Stephen Keshi, made us believe in ourselves and that was how we were able to achieve success in South Africa. We were three goals down against Morocco but we came out strong and we won. People were very impressed with our performance and it was not a surprise that former president of the country, Goodluck Jonathan, decided to host the team in the Aso Villa. It was a memorable competition for all of us that went to South Africa in 2014.

What’s so special about the late Stephen Keshi?

The special thing about him was the bond between himself and his players; he took players like his sons. The closest I have seen to him in terms of relationship with players is coach Kabiru Dogo, he has the same spirit like Keshi. He is not bossy, he treats everyone as the same and that helps the players and pushes them to always give their best for the team. Most times, apart from trying to bring glory to ourselves and the country, we also try to play for the coach who gave us the opportunity to express ourselves.

Was the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations success the motivating factor for you guys espe- cially playing the CHAN Champi- onships in South Africa?

The coach was actually not telling us to emulate the Super Eagles team that won AFCON, he was pushing us to make names for ourselves. According to him, the team that won AFCON already created history and we must create our own history by achieving something at the championship. When we were three goals down, the only thing he said when we got to the dressing room was, ‘it’s time for you guys to make names for yourselves’. He added that after then we should remember our families and the country. I will say that was what really pushed us to what we achieved in South Africa. That has been the policy of the coach especially with the home-based players.

The team won bronze, do you think the team would have done better and probably won gold?

I think that would have been the tournament the country would have won gold because at the tournament, Ghana was not playing well, but immediately it was Nigeria in the semi-final, the rivalry came, they came out with a different spirit. The game ended in penalties, which is anybody’s game and we lost. It was so painful, especially losing against Ghana, one of the country’s archrivals, we actually hit the crossbar like three or four times, but obviously luck was not on our side that day.

You have played in Europe and Nigeria, can you tell us the difference between the two?

The Nigerian league is very difficult and that’s why you see most players not ready to stay or return to the league. Everyone is interested in travelling abroad because of the system, welfare of the players and the way clubs treat the players. We find it so disrespectful that players are treated as nobodies. If you look at the league, it has been the same players moving from one club to another with most of the young players not ready to play in the country.

Was ending the league due to the COVID-19 pandemic the best decision for you?

I wasn’t disappointed about it because it’s all about saving lives and making sure every- one is in good shape and health. The pandemic re- ally affected our football, but it’s better to be alive and tell the story rather than p e o p l e telling your story af- ter your death. The decision of the federation to end the season is okay by me but I will appeal to t h e Nigeria Football Federa- tion and the League Man- agement Company t o help the players, especially those that have not got their salary because we all have families. There is need to help them at this crucial period.

What are your plans for the future?

I wish to have an oil company which I already established but I will need big capital to invest in it. I’ve already got the license, I just hope I can raise the money that will help me to invest in it. It’s something I really love to do and hopefully will go into it fully after my football career.




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