•Speaks about his days in Eagles, Bendel Insurance and the league
ln the late 1990s, a young energetic and pacey attacker emerged from Bendel Insurance. He shot his way to the National team and by 2000, he became an instant hit for Nigeria. Julius Aghahowa soon became Nigeria’s ‘redeemer’ in some intriguing way. He spoke with Jacob Ajom as he recalled some of those unforgettable moments of his international career. Excerpts:
What are you doing at the moment?
When we were playing, we used to stay away a lot from the family. Now we give them a lot more attention. It is family time now. We also want to spare some moments and see how we can pay back to the society by getting involved in a lot of projects. I have been around, since I retired in 2013.
I stopped playing in 2013. I have been outside(the country), but I come in once in a while. We are now involved in community service kind of thing. We support the kids through developmental projects. That is what basically takes most of my time now.
This is a World Cup year and the Super Eagles are going to Russia. As a former national team player who has been to the World Cup, how does it feel flying your country’s flag at the World Cup?
You can’t really define the feeling. As a footballer, the World Cup is the biggest tournament you aspire to play. It is the ultimate. It is a very big deal when you qualify to go and represent your country at the world stage and a very big experience to you personally because when you are out there you feel the weight of expectations from over 180 million people back home who are also solidly behind you. The feeling is tremendous.
What do you see in this Super Eagles squad as per their World Cup campaign?
I think they have assembled the best set of players ever for the national team going by their qualification even before their last match. I think they can go far. From what I have seen, we have a solid team. If you want to add one or two players to the team, no problem. On the whole, I think they can go far in Russia.
With Argentina, Croatia and Iceland, you believe the Eagles can qualify from that group?
I am very optimistic we can go past that group and even beyond. My optimism is based on the fact that these players are active for their various clubs; they play week in, week out and they are in top form. The ones that are strikers are scoring goals, the midfielders are consistent, while the defenders have been playing well. With their present form, they will come out of that group and even go beyond.
As an ex-Super Eagles player, which was your most memorable match for Nigeria?
If I look back, I played a lot of games and I have a lot of fond memories. I think few will stand out if you judge the degree of impact I had on the fans. In that respect, the game against Senegal will stand out and my goal in the World Cup will stand out also.
But I think the match against Senegal will stand out most because I scored the equaliser and the winner at the national stadium Lagos. It was during the Ghana/Nigeria 2000 AFCON match. Senegal were leading and I was brought in as a substitute. I scored the equaliser and the whole stands shook as spectators poured onto the pitch. Play was held up for some minutes before fans were asked to return to their seats for the game to continue. When we resumed play, I scored the winner about 5 minutes from the final whistle. It was a very important victory and a very memorable game to the team and me as a player.
How do you feel that you lost that tournament in the final?
It was very unfortunate because, to me we didn’t lose the final. We did our best. I cannot say we lost the final, it was the referee’s error that cost us that final. But to me as a young player, just coming up, getting into the national team and getting to the final of the Africa Cup of Nations, having played a major role getting to that stage and if not for the referee’s mistake, we would have lifted that trophy, it was an amazing experience.
Your international career was short. Would you say it was fulfilling?
Yes, it was fulfilling. I played for the national team for 7 years, I cannot say that was short compared to a lot of people playing now; some will play for two years, some three years. For me, those seven years were memorable. I cannot count how many times they called on me to rescue Nigeria and I did that very well. Sometimes they called me from the bench, sometimes I started the game and I always delivered. It was pleasing playing for the country and I felt happy delivering Nigeria in times of difficulty. I did that for seven years and I can’t say that was short.
Compare the current Eagles and your squad, which would you rate higher?
Every generation has its own challenges, peculiar to its time. You cannot compare two generations under the same parameter. We have some areas that were better and they have theirs that are better than our time. Now you have a set of young players coming together, while in the past you had a mix of both young and old players, what you term as youth and experience. Right now you still have a couple of some young players who still have the experience, mixed with some youthful players, which is good for the team. During our time, it was good for our generation and what we are having now is good for this generation. But they have a better chance of doing better than us.
What would you say of Nigeria football, generally, particularly, the domestic league?
The domestic league is still what it used to be but what we are lacking is the presence of the fans. There is no more dedication from the fans as we used to have then. I remember in 1997 when we just signed for Bendel Insurance; about nine other new players signed together with me then. We were young players from nowhere, from playing in the amateur league, eleven of us were paraded in the opening game of the season and we did very well and even got to the final of the FA Cup that year. The fans were rooting for us and the expectations were high among them as they wanted to see what these young players could offer. As for us the players we were out to do our best because we wanted to impress. These days you attend a match and you find empty stands. The support is lacking for the players. I think that is what is lacking in the domestic league.
The administrators too, most of them know more about foreign clubs like Chelsea, Man United, Arsenal and so forth, they don’t know much about our league. And the sponsors seem to be shying away. The agents are not helping matters. Once a good player emerges, the next moment he is taken abroad. People no longer want to play at home. So I will encourage the players to put in at least two or three years before they start thinking of going abroad. We all started from here and most players who featured for the national team in our days, started from home.
And, what is your feelings for Bendel Insurance FC of Benin?
I am saddened. I am saddened because when you want to mention football clubs in Nigeria in the past, you can’t mention three teams before Insurance of Benin. This is a team that won WAFU Cup many times, a club that have a robust history.
Now they are down below. It is sad, indeed. I think we need to inject more ex-players to come and run the club. They need to be involved at every stage to help bring back the club to what it used to be. If we leave it for people who don’t know anything about football, our football will continue the downward slide. It is important that ex-footballers get seriously involved in the administration of the game. For instance, players that have travelled far and wide, who have garnered a lot of experience, who can bring their experiences to bear on the local game. Like myself now, I have been to England, Turkey, Ukraine and many more. All these places I have passed through, you think I have not learnt anything that can make our football better?
“Return” of Insurance FC?
- Wake Up Call On Shooting Stars, Stationary Stores, Others
By Desmond Ekweme
Agwo Nnaji, David Adiele, Kadiri Ikhana, Francis Monidafe, Leotis Boateng, Peter Egharevba, Felix Agbonifo, Henry Ogboe and Prince Afejukwu are among players of the golden generation of Insurance FC of Benin.
For those who watched or read the story of the all conquering squad of this great team in 1978 when they dusted “Almighty” Enugu Rangers International FC in the then revered FA Cup, it is a taboo for the club to be missing in the elite League for over a decade….I hope I’m correct.
When you marry this to the fact that the best of coaches the sport has offered Nigeria hail from Edo State leaves one wondering what has happened to this great team. From Alabi Aissien to Sebastine Brodericks-Imasuen down to the era of Willy Bazuaye, Shaibu Amodu, Lawrence Akpokona, Solomon Ogbeide, Fanny Amun and later to Rowland Ewere, Austin Eguavoen, Paul Aigbogun who are all sons of the soil….you can only ask, why will anyone want Insurance FC to remain in the backyard of Nigerian football?
From the glory of Insurance FC clubs like New Nigeria Bank FC, Rubber Board FC, Flash Flamingoes FC, Okomu Oil FC and Igbino Babes FC emerged and made great impact on the nation’s football scene.
Stars flooded Nigeria’s soccer from Edo State and some are products of Insurance FC while many others are not….Yet we had great ambassadors of the state, talking about indigenes who made the state proud through football. Julius Aghahowa, Yakubu Aiyegbeni, Osaze Odemwingie, Osaro Obobaifo, Austin Igbinabaro, Humphrey Edobor, Sunday Eboigbe, Bright Omokaro, Monday and Austin Eguavoen and Monday Agbotaen, Willy Agbonavbare, Andrew Aikhmuogbe, Bright Igbinadolor, Pius Ikedia, Thompson Usiyen, Charles Okonebor, Kingsley Aikhionvbare, Joe Enakhire and Festus Okougha to mention a few.
We hear that Governor Godwin Obaseki has set in motion plans and strategies to return the great Insurance FC to where it rightfully belong in Nigerian football through Tuesday’s rebranding event at the Government House.
I join millions of football fans in saying “WELLDONE YOUR EXCELLENCY”…..I also wish to use this privilege to say a big CONGRATULATIONS to the teeming fans of this team.
Perhaps, this will serve as a huge step to revive the old order of beautiful football through healthy rivalry among the traditional teams in our domestic sport. Enugu Rangers Int’l, Shooting Stars FC and Stationary Stores FC among others. Sadly, the likes of Sharks FC have matamorphosed and their history almost buried.
My advice to Gov. Obaseki is simple, Your Excellency don’t allow politics and power tussle within your state hinder this great move of yours. That was exactly the factor that almost destroyed Insurance FC. Those who felt High Chief Igbinomawhia Ekisouehi had overbearing influence and control over the club used their closeness to the corridors of power to ‘divide and rule’….in the end the club commenced a free fall.
Government after government had little or no interests in sports in the state and the few that had played party politics with the club. That brought the club to where it is today. Now that you have taken the bull by the horn, Your Excellency …the club should be run like a business venture, free from politics….and the private sector should be attracted to invest in the club.
Up Insurance FC! Up Gov. Obaseki!! Up Edo State!!! Up Nigeria!!!