Azubuike Egwuekwe is the latest among recent generation of Nigerian footballers who have plied their trade overseas and returned to add quality and glamour to the domestic top flight – the Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL).
After stints at Nasarawa United, Yerima Strikers, Egwuekwe featured for Warri Wolves before joining Finnish side, KuPS. From there he moved to SuperSport United of South Africa and later Al Nasr of Libya.
Egwuekwe, 30, won the 2013 AFCON with Super Eagles in South Africa, made the national team cut for both the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup and World Cup finals in 2014 both in Brazil. He is back in the NPFL and has penned a deal with Rivers United for the upcoming 2019/2020 season.
In this exclusive interview with Completesports.com’s SAB OSUJI, Egwuekwe speaks about his travails abroad, why he terminated his contract with Al Nasr, Stephen Keshi’s role in his career, and why he joined Rivers United. He also urges Super Eagles coaches to borrow a leaf from the late Keshi and give more home-based players opportunities in the national team.
Completesports.com: Egwuekwe, welcome back to the NPFL after several years sojourn in Europe and Africa.
Egwuekwe: Thank you. It is always nice and great feeling coming back to a familiar terrain.
Tell us how delighted you are joining Rivers United ahead the 2019/2020 Nigeria Professional Football League season which kicks off very soon.
I’m very happy, to be honest with you. After I terminated my contract with Al Nasr of Libya, which was my last club outside Nigeria, I spent about four or five months at home without playing and waiting for the transfer window to open. I felt I wasn’t helping myself sitting back at home. I felt it wasn’t going to help my career, especially as I had always wanted to relaunch my career back into Europe. So, I decided to talk to coach Stanley Eguma over the possibility of me joining them and he said I should come and help them. That was why I came, trying to keep myself busy and fit while waiting for another transfer opening in Europe.
That’s interesting, but why the choice of Rivers United even when there are other big teams like Enyimba and Rangers who are even playing in the continent?
You are right. At first, I tried talking to some agents about joining Enyimba, but I was told I was already late because their registration had closed. You know they are playing in the CAF Champions League and CAF registration closed much earlier because of the alignment of African season with that of Europe. I missed the Enyimba registration timeline by the fact that I was working on a deal that could have taken me back to Europe. But unfortunately, visa hitches hindered that. So, it was like disappointment, disappointment all over.
So I said to myself, that if I continue to stay like this, time will continue to run out fast on me because I wasn’t having enough training that could keep me fit. That was when I decided to speak to Rivers United. I know Eguma knows me very well because when I was still playing in the Nigerian league, I played against his team several times. So, he knows my quality and what I can bring to a team in any given game.
You talked about the disappointments you went through, can you shed more light on that?
Yes, I had an offer from Saudi Arabia. It was same club Paul Onobi plays for (Al Najoom). At the last minute, the deal collapsed. But the most serious one was from Canada. It was coming from one of the big teams in the Canadian league. I really wanted to go to Canada because, if that worked out well, the club could help me bring my family over to settle down in Canada. I put every effort in pushing the deal through but unfortunately, there are still hitches.
What’s the name of the Canadian club?
(scratches his head) Honestly, I can’t quickly remember. But it is one of the biggest clubs in the Canadian league.
Egwuekwe, you earlier talked about terminating your contract with Libyan club, Al Nasr?
Can you tell us what happened that prompted you to terminate your two-year contract with a foreign club?
My first club in Europe was KuPS (Finland). It was a two-year contract. In the first season, I scored seven goals. In the second season, I was still doing well when an offer came for me from South Africa. At that time, I had two months left on my contract with KuPS. I decided to move to the South African Premier Soccer League, PSL, where Nigerians could be watching me play and fortunately, it happened and I signed a one year contract for SuperSport United with an option of two years extension.
In my first season, I scored two goals in 12 games before I suffered an injury that kept me off for the rest of the season. Then a new coach came but refused to renew my contract. Luckily for me, just then, an offer came from Libya (Al Nasr) with good package. They promised me big money and everything. They were also playing in the (CAF) Champions League. I accepted because playing in the (CAF) Champions League could fetch me offers from different clubs, even from Europe. The reception was great. We were doing well as a team. Things were really rolling smoothly.
But wait for it! One month, two months, three, four, five months gone, yet no payment. Unbelievable. And each time I tried to ask, they will tell me, ’10 days’, ‘five days’, ‘tomorrow’ and that preventive excuses. And don’t forget the fact they don’t speak English, only Arabic. How can a foreigner be playing for five months without being paid? How would you survive in a situation whereby you don’t speak or hear their language neither do they hear yours?
When the unfulfilled ‘tossing’ promises became endless, to the point where I could endure it no more, I decided to terminate my contract with them. That was after we had lost out in the (CAF) Champions League.
I said to myself, I can’t bear this any longer. I told them I’ve been here for five months and nothing, financially, is happening in terms of paying me so I need to leave. In January this year, while I was still with them, I had an offer from a Chinese club. It was a very good offer but while the Chinese club President was calling the Libyan club (Al Nasr) they refused to answer. It was at this point I told myself that if I continue to stay here (Al Nasr), I would be deceiving myself.
I terminated my contract with them and came back home to see if I could play in the second round of the (2018/2019) NPFL. Unfortunately, delay in securing my passport made it difficult for me to meet the second round of (2018/2019 abridged NPFL) season.
How many Champions League games did you play for Al Nasr within the period (five months) you were with them?
I played three Champions League games for them before we were eliminated. I also played in one league match which we won away from home.
Egwuekwe, you were part of the Super Eagles squad that the late Stephen Keshi took to South Africa and won the AFCON in 2013?
Yes, you are right.
And you also made the Super Eagles team to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil as well as the FIFA Confederation Cup in 2013 also in Brazil?
Yes. It was special moment for us, winning the Nations Cup, playing in the World Cup and also in the FIFA Confederations Cup tournament.
How do you reflect on those ‘special moments’?
Yeah, when I sit down and think about the days I spent in the national team, I always give thanks to God for using somebody like (the late) Stephen Keshi to encourage me and other players still in the local league then. That’s no longer the situation now and I’m not happy about that because the present national team [coaches] don’t encourage our players in the local league.
Truth is, there are more quality players in the local league than in some of those leagues in Europe. But if you don’t give them chance in the national team, how would you know that they are good? That was a ‘war’ Keshi fought because he believed in the home grown players and we never disappointed.
It’s not that I’m criticising the present national team handlers, but I’m only trying to let them know that there are a lot of good and quality players in the local league that could be given opportunities in the national team.
During our time, you could notice that for each Nations Cup, there were always about six players from the local league in the Super Eagles’ final squad for the tournament.
There were about five local league players making the Super Eagles final squad to the World Cup and about eight home-based players making the Eagles team to the (FIFA) Confederations Cup, and we always did very well in each of the tournaments.
We [the home-based players] always gave good account of ourselves and from there some got offers to move to Europe. The current home-based players should be given that kind of opportunity to prove themselves.
When you heard about Keshi’s death, how did you receive the news? What was your reaction?
It was the most shocking news I’ve ever heard. I was terribly devastated because Keshi was like a father to me. He always encouraged me, always giving me the chance to prove myself. Even when I wasn’t playing well, he would keep on shouting at me to do the right things I was supposed to do on the pitch as a professional.
Honestly, speaking, Keshi was like a ‘God sent Angel’ to me. Not just only me, but all of us then playing in the local league. I pray Nigeria gets another ‘Keshi’ again in the national team that can encourage the home-based players too because we have the quality and potential.
How would you assess the current Super Eagles? Are they doing well?
Yeah, they have the quality, from the goalkeeping area, to the defence, midfield and the attack. The players are hungry for success.
I can see that in their eyes and the way they play. They really want to play; they want to wear the green-white-green and defend their fatherland. All that I’m saying is, even if they are inviting national team players from abroad, they should as well encourage two or three players from the local league. That will boost the morale of the other players who are still playing in the Nigerian league, believing that if they do well, they could be invited to the national team.
Finally, Azubuike, were you disappointed that the Super Eagles didn’t win the last Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt?
No, I wasn’t disappointed. For me, the team played well. The boys fought hard. Though I ealier tipped them to win it, but they came back home with a third-place medal. It’s okay. The players are still young and I believe they can make it up in the next championship.
Thank you very much Egwuekwe, for sharing some thoughts with us. Its really nice speaking with you.
You are welcome.