February 17, 2020

BEN IROHA: Why no set of Eagles can match USA ’94 squad

Ben Iroha

…Day I marked Marc Overmars in Holland

…Says Algiers ’90 thrashing prepared us for USA ’94 showpiece

… Westerhof, best thing to have happened to Nigerian football

…What makes today’s Eagles strangers to themselves

…Speaks on corruption in Nigerian Football

…Compares Messi with Ronaldo

In continuation of our pursuit for the best, today we bring to you the first part of an interview with former Nigeria international, Benedict Iroha. He was a member of the famous 1994 Super Eagles squad. Iroha spoke with our Weekend Editor, Onochie Anibeze and Jacob Ajom, Deputy Sports Editor on a wide range of issues. Excerpts:

Could you do a recap of your experience with the Algiers ’90 Super Eagles squad, because that was when your international career started. What propelled you guys to play so well in that tournament?

Well, Onochie, it has been a long time. You are not a newcomer in this business. Many of us stepped aside from Nigerian football. I realised you too have withdrawn since our time. You are almost like our set. …laughter

It all started in Bauchi, during the WAFU tournament. Coach Clemens Westerhof worked really hard and began the process of recruiting players for the national team in 1989. He lived here in Nigeria, moving from one match venue to another, from state to state picking talents, all in a bid to have home-based players develop into the national team.

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He didn’t want to depend on the foreign based legion that included the late Keshi, Siasia among others. He only invited them for very important matches. That exercise brought the likes of Amokachi, Okechukwu and myself to the national team. It was marvelous as Westerhof let us know who he really was. That was when the dream started.

Algiers ’90 remains one of my biggest experiences. We lost the opening game 5-1 to hosts, Algeria. You know by then, north African football to us, was like European football. We didn’t know what was going on. We didn’t know set pieces, crosses, etc. We were just playing the typical Nigerian football; no system. So, the Algerians taught us that lesson. And that was it, as we picked up from there. We watched their videos, marked out individual players and other technical details. That is why between 1990 and ’94, our team became the best. With a little change, when the likes of Siasia and others came from abroad and joined with the home based, we became a force to be reckoned with.

Another good thing about that team was that there was no Pele. We didn’t have any big name or anybody given any special attention. It was either you worked hard or you were on the bench. You could make all the money on earth at your club but the moment you arrived the Super Eagles camp, we were all at the same level. No special treatment for anybody. We never had the likes of Abedi Pele or Eto. Although we later had our Jay Jay and before him the likes of Yekini, everybody was like one family. We so loved ourselves, even when you were not playing, you were just happy being on the bench. It was a marvellous time.

If it was a lesson the Algerians taught you, you were very fast learners too. How was it possible that you fought back and qualified for the final against the same team that massacred you in the opening game. And you gave them a run for their money as they managed to beat you 1-0

We were people who wanted to sell ourselves. We had the talent and because we were determined to tell the world that we had arrived and we played as if our lives depended on the outcome of our campaign in Algeria.

The talent we had then and what we have now are different. Because of the amount of talent we had, we were able to adjust quickly and we were very skillful and strong. All we needed were tactics and just tell us what to do. You know tactics are different from raw talent. Westerhof changed a few things. We played final with them and if the officiating was fair, perhaps the result could have been different.

What was the inspiration against the Elephants of Ivory Coast, particularly after Yusuf Fofana was introduced?

Westerhof was a motivator and he played with the team and we played for him. Westerhof didn’t come here for money as he was already rich before he came to Nigeria. He just wanted to make a name and prove to the world that he could do it. He was my neighbour at Arnhem and we talked football every time. I was responsible for the invitation of some players to the national team because the man(Westerhof) trusted me so much and he came with a lot of passion. We were playing for him. Sometimes, he spent his personal money to give us comfort. When a coach trusts you so much, you have no option than to go out there and do the job for him and give him your best. That is what we were doing.

Let’s talk about our league. Before you went abroad, you played for local clubs here like Iwuanyanwu Nationale and Flash Flamingoes. The league was so good then as it churned out quite a number of talents and made a lot of stars. What was it like playing in Nigeria because you were very happy then?

Then we were grown ups, physically and very experienced.. Now there is no development for our football as academies are set up as money making ventures. These days, players go straight to abroad from football academies. Some of them, their agents buy space in clubs for them with money. It was not so in our time.

We played here, matured here before leaving. And the league here was tough. When we were in Europe, everyone of us was in his club’s first team. Each time we travelled for Super Eagles duties they were all crying. Right now only a few of them, like Ndidi, play regularly. Truth is, in those days, we grew up. In the clubs one progressed to the reserves, before we graduated to the first team. Nigerian football was something else.

Now people don’t watch them anymore. They prefer to watch the English Premier League, the La Liga or any other European league than watch the Nigerian professional league. That is because there is no talent anymore, Who are you going to watch? Then, in Iwuanyanwu Nationale, look at the names for God’s sake. You had the likes of Thompson Oliha, Isaac Semitoje, Elahor, Iroha, Okechukwu Uche, Paul Uzokwe, Mike Obi etc. Look at the names alone, quite heavy.

Now everybody involved in football talks only about money. There is no passion any more. Look at South Africa, their league is developing faster than ours by far. Now who will help us? There are no sponsors. I don’t know how that glory will come back again.

When I was coaching Iwuanyanwu with late Coach Kelechi Emetoele and Emordi, Governor Ohakim treated us like we were in Europe. He gave us everything we needed. We had enough money to buy players and we had about eight professionals in Iwuanyanwu Nationale, including a Bulgarian player. What would a Bulgarian be doing in Nigerian league?

The players were playing with passion because they were highly motivated. We got up to the Cup final. Now players are no longer motivated in the Nigeria Professional Football League, players are owed several months’ salaries and you expect them to play on empty stomachs? How do they survive? Why would they want to play in Nigeria at all? That is why there is no more talent.

Before now, academies were supposed to be grooming grounds for the league, one played in the academy to get strong and moved on to the league but now players are going out from academy straight to Europe. When they play one or two seasons there they vanish, they go into oblivion and you never get to hear about them anymore.

Many don’t even get the chance to play because they are not mature enough. Many of the boys are lost because they did not prepare before going to Europe. I remember before I went to Europe, I was almost over age because it was so interesting here at home. Flash Flamingoes, Iwuanyanwu Nationale then Asec Mimosa, before going to Vitesse Arnhem.

I was almost 28-29, when I went to Vitesse. Now 17-18 they are in Europe. So that is the main problem we have, no development anymore. You must not be 29 to go to Europe, get me right. You may even be 17 or 18 but you must be developed so that you are not lost when you get there. The Europeans who are pretty young in the Premiership passed through tough training and development stages which we don’t have here.

Apart from the problems you mentioned, there is a bigger problem: corruption. I remember when you came from the US to handle FC Abuja, you called me from a match venue and asked if that was the way they had turned our league into. You complained about officiating and even the violence; if I recall correctly, somebody slapped you.

Yeah! They hit me because I did not allow them score goals. They hurt my eye. What happened then was that a team needed to score about 8 goals to survive relegation and I didn’t allow it because my team was the better team. I said to myself, how will it sound like that a team I am coaching would concede 8 goals in a match. I refused to allow that and they attacked me after the match.

Another challenge is this. Talking about the corruption you mentioned. Why must home teams always win? Why must home teams always get late penalties; something will happen outside and they would point at the penalty spot.

Why should that be? Why can’t we have away victories, like in Europe? For instance, we went to Kano, Heartland vs Kano Pillars, Champions League semifinal. First leg played in Owerri, we beat them 4-1, with them scoring first. We came from behind to beat them in that match. In Kano, they did everything, the crowd – you know how these people love their Pillars, they came out in their thousands and by 1 pm, the stadium was already overflowing with fans. There were all kinds of intimidation. And when the game started, come and see what my boys were doing, they were playing as if they were possessed- pam, pam , pam – ball possession. The Pillars crowd and their supporters all turned and started clapping for Nationale. Thay were marvelled. Before you knew it we scored. After the match, they escorted us from the stadium to the hotel. We changed everything. That is why I am asking, why can’t it happen again? That was Champions League. It couldn’t have happened in our league.

In all this Owerri is different. I love Owerri. If you win, Owerri fans will concede and go home quietly. There was no time a team came to Owerri and beat us and got embarrassment. Never. So why can’t we imbibe that spirit so it can help the league grow. It must not be hosting to win at all cost. When you go for away games, let the better team win. That is why when they qualify to go to the continent they are knocked out after one or two matches. They are not prepared and definitely, they are not the true champions.

Before Europe, you played in Asec Mimosa in Cote d’Ivoire before going to Europe. What was the difference between Asec and the two Nigerian clubs you played in before? In terms of how they treat players and the management of their league.

Asec was almost like being in Europe. They gave me a free house, paid me very well, gave me a car, an interpreter. They operate like France because that is where they get their experience from. Most of their players go to France. They operate like Europeans. The crowd is unbelievable, the passion. Asec is like a religion. Like Africa Sport too.

They have a huge followership. They pay their players very well. Before one moves to Europe, that means the pay is like triple to what they are getting at home. That is why I am saying Nigeria is a very big country, richer with more resources than Ivory Coast and we have better talents than them. Why should our case be like this? Nobody wants to be a slave outside.

When our league was sweet, we were the chiefs here. We had fun here but when you go outside there it is tougher because you are the stranger coming to their land. They will do everything to frustrate you, particularly being a Nigerian.

Life in Europe. Going to Arnhem Vitesse, did the weather affect you? Many people have told us different experiences like the winter, racism, which is another big factor in Europe. I recall one interview with late Keshi. He said as a black, you had to be three times better than what an average white player would do before you could be considered good enough for a first team shirt.

Keshi(God bless his soul) was right. When I went to Arnhem from USA, it was not my coach that signed me, rather, it was the President of the club. They were looking for an attacker and Westerhof mentioned that he had a defender that was better than an attacker. Ishaya Jatau was hot then. He was the striker I was to contend with. Another club was looking for me but Westerhof wanted me to be in Arnhem for us to be close.

So we went for trials at Arnhem and there was a game they were playing. They were waiting for Ishaya to score goals but I was the one scoring goals from the defence. We scored three goals and I was involved in all as I scored two and made one assist. So I was chosen as the President was crazy about me but the coach didn’t want me. The President recruited me. After everything was done, the coach then wanted to show that he was in charge. He didn’t play me for complete four months. He did everything to frustrate me, to tell the president that when it came to team selection, he was in charge. I was tired and frustrated every Saturday but I remained patient. As a professional player, it is not good for you not to be in the first team because the next day you will run like anything in training. So I was frustrated, growing beards and even smoking.

By then, my wife was not with me, it was not good at all. I watched Babangida. I was the first person that got to Holland before Finidi, Kanu, Babangida started coming. It happened that one day, the left back was playing and he got injured and it was time to play me. It was a tough game against Ajax.

I took Overmars inside my pocket. Instead of marking him, he ended up marking me because I was overlapping and dribbling. He was forced back. Overmars was a top star in Holland before he moved to Arsenal. After the game Overmars came to me, asking, “what kind of player are you and where have you been?” Even Van Gaal wanted to sign me but he was looking for a right back. I was a left back.

The man called me secretly and asked if I could use my right foot the way I used the left. He was looking for a right defender. As a defender, it is more advantageous if one could use both legs. Van Gaal is a great coach. Coach pass coach my brother. We were moving with 50 balls at the same time. He wanted a right back because Frank de Boar was on the left – a no go area. He was looking for a right back to balance the team. My right was not too good.

I was like a hundred per cent good with the left foot and fifty per cent with the right, so it didn’t work out. That was how the dream ended. But on the whole, that is how one game changed everything and I took over the position.

I remember one encounter I had with Babangida, when Rhoda met Vitesse Arnhem. When he saw me, he shouted ‘ah!’ The coach said, Ben, it doesn’t matter if you don’t touch the ball, but Babangida must not play Babangida was a terrific player. He was flying and we were at the same pace. I took over the position until I left for MLS.

At the ’94 Nations Cup in Tunisia, I remember you told me I have a feeling I am going to score in that game’ and it happened. How was it possible?

Tunisia ’94 was the first tournament that I was injury free. Injury was not my friend. In 1990 Algiers, I played only one game due to injury. In 1992, I played all the qualifiers on getting to Papendal training camp I got injured and Nduka Ugbade came. I followed the squad to Senegal but I was so angry and decided to fly back to my club. In 1994, God said this was the time to showcase myself. I was so fit and the confidence level was so high. That formed part of the highlight of what happened in 1994 World Cup. Westerhof gave us the best preparation possible and thank God the FA supported him.

How I knew I was going to score was after our first game against Zaire. I was moving like a hot knife, as there was nobody who could stop me. Siasia then asked me, “Ben why not come and play forward for us, because of the way you move with the ball upfront? The things you do with the ball, we couldn’t.” Ask Jay Jay. He once said I was the only player he could not dribble past with the ball but I could dribble past him.

When he was doing his thing I would just be looking at him and carefully, I would take the ball from him because I am as skillful as himself although he was in his own class. I would take it easily. I used to be a left forward, playing in from the wings. It was coach Paul Hamilton(God bless his memory) that converted me to a left back. Once you have the skill, you don’t need too much training to do these things. Just like Messi or Jay Jay, they don’t learn the things they do with the ball. It is gift from God. Talent, that’s what it is. It is just unfortunate that Okocha is from this part of the world, he would have been compared with the likes of Messi and Maradona. The skill that boy{Jay Jay} has is uncommon. It is like that.

There were certain things I did with the ball but I couldn’t comprehend how it was possible to do them. That is the difference between Messi and Ronaldo. Messi doesn’t need much training. Ronaldo, however, is a hard worker but for Messi, it is a gift.

So when we were playing, almost half of the Cote d’Ivoire team were my team mates at Asec Mimosa, Traore, Akakume, all of them. When I passed the ball to Jay Jay, the guy that was marking me was confused.

He felt after I made the pass to Jay Jay I would remain static at the same place, we didn’t plan it but it was chemistry. Instinctively, I dashed forward and he made the return pass, because he knew I would be there for it. The moment I came in contact with the ball, I poked it with my toe and scored. The ball was already in the net before the goalkeeper dived. I was happy that Jay Jay understood my style of play.

Do you see any similarities between your style of play and Marcello of Real Madrid?

The player that I was always compared with was Joe Cole. When I was at the World Cup, he came and took pictures with me. He said he learnt how to play right foot because of me. He was a left footer but as a defender, it is better to play both legs.

What you said about the chemistry between you and Jay Jay reminds us about Finidi who, in our interview with him, recalled how he could close his eyes and know where to place the ball. He said then, one could see a move and know it it would result in a goal. And that is what you can’t find in today’s Super Eagles?

The boys are playing according to their level. There is no way you can play above your level. You can’t give what you don’t have. People want to compare them with our set. There is no basis for comparison. No set can be like our set.

Who can play like Okechukwu; a man who can take the ball away from you without dropping a sweat, almost 90 games no yellow card. We played simple football. As the ball got to Uche, he would pass it to Oliseh and from there you could predict who next would get the ball. Now they get the ball, caress it like a baby in trying to play possession football which is good. But do you have the players to play it?.

These days who talks like Keshi did in our time. Keshi was just like a coach. When he stood everybody else must sit. We don’t have such a commanding figure again. Today, when you see the Eagles in the bus, all of them would cover their ears with gadgets. When I was coaching them, as interim coach with Eguavoen, before Siasia took over, I would ask Yobo, what is happening? Bluetooth or whatever should be used in your private time. When you are in the bus going for a game, you should make noise and motivate one another as one big family. I said this was not the Nigerian team I knew. Too cold, not warm like we were. They are now strangers, even among themselves. When we were playing, while in camp, we chose one room every day to go and gist and it bonded us.

We would be there playing and making rib-cracking jokes till 2 am. But now, everybody is so big and each person unto himself. There is so much ego these days. Money, no matter how much of it you have ends in your house. When you get to Eagles camp you are all equal. Go to Brazil camp, you hear them singing and beating their samba drums. They are all billionaires but they play together like kids. But I don’t know what is wrong with our boys. I think ego is too much. Even when we were playing in Europe, when we got Eagles camp, we were like children. Fraternity.

Does this attitude also bother on coaching and man management?

Yes. You are the coach and you have the authority. If Westerhof noticed you were distancing yourself from the rest of the squad, he would change your room. As a coach, you have to behave like a father also. When one player signed billions of Dollars and wanted to bring that attitude to camp, Westerhof brought him down to earth. He said if you are ‘the king in your club here is Eagles camp. Before you knew it, the player was beaten to form.

In 1994, FIFA wrote to Nigeria to ask what they were feeding you people with; the kind of nutrition you got that made you to be very fit.

They tested us severally, but could not find anything. After every match, at least five of us were tested. The joy was that they found nothing. Our diet was okay in Holland. Our preparation was top notch. We trained four times every day for good two months. You couldn’t stand and look yourself in the mirror. We were so fit. If you hit a metal, an iron on the body of any of then the person withstood it. Early in the morning we would run for like 30 minutes from 6 am. Breakfast 8 am, gym 10. After lunch we would go to the pitch at about 4 pm for training.

It was like that for two months. From then we started moving from one country to another for friendly matches. Our not winning the World Cup was God’s design. We did everything humanly possible to target it. But it was not to be. If we had escaped Italy, we would have beaten Spain. Spain should have been a walk over. We were so fit that we could have won that cup. Truly, things happened and we lost it outside the field.

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We spoke with Finidi and he recalled that there were a lot of distractions and Westerhof wanted to move out of the hotel with the team but some players resisted the move.

We came to Boston for that game and Westerhof was not happy with the conditions in camp. The place was loose and he wanted to instill discipline. Some players resisted. Again, the conduct of Jo Bonfrere. It appeared Bonfrere started scheming. That too affected the team as some players were on the side of Bonfrere. If you could notice, that affected the substitutions Westerhof made in that match. When Amuneke got injured he brought Oliha. Amuneke was pushing them backward. Oliha was in the central midfield as he held the ball, the Italians started coming at us. Because Westerhof was fighting with his assistant, he made the substitutions without consulting his assistant. If he shared that thought with him before the change, perhaps, they would have deliberated on it and it could have yielded a different outcome.

And I think it was not even about consultation because Westerhof at that time probably didn’t want to use a player who was a rebel or in bed with Bonfrere. That USA ’94 squad could have gone all the way to the final because the road was clear for us to have capitalised on. You can’t compare any other team with that team because the passion, the love and the patriotic zeal kept pushing us on.

Till date, when we meet each other, we don’t shake but we hug each other. We still behave like school boys. I remember when we met again during the NFF-AITEO annual awards when we were honoured, the mistake they did was to put us together. We did not sleep till 4 am.