Former Super Eagles giant centre-back and AFCON 2013 winner Azubuike Egwuekwe tells TANA AIYEJINA about his experiences at the 2013 AFCON, Confederations Cup and the 2014 World Cup in this session
Let’s take you back to nine years ago, when you were part of the 2013 AFCON winning squad. How did you feel after the Eagles beat Burkina Faso 1-0 in the final to pick up a third AFCON title?
Before then, we knew that Nigeria had not won that trophy for the past 19 years and in the late Stephen Keshi we had a coach that was not just a coach to us, but a father figure. He motivated; whatever time we spent with him, we learnt something from him, may his soul rest in peace. When we got through the group stage and knockout stages and we became the winners, he was very happy because at the beginning of the competition, everyone wrote us off. After our first two matches ended in draws, there was a whole lot of backlash, you know Nigerians don’t have patience, but we came out victorious in the group stage, and from there, miracles started happening, before we won the trophy. It was very good, it was like a change of life for many of us, a dream come true. When we were receiving what was promised us, it was like I was dreaming. I really don’t know how to express it, but it was really nice.
Against Ivory Coast in the quarter-finals, it was alleged that some officials of the federation said the Eagles won’t be able to withstand the likes of Yaya Toure, Didier Drogba, Kolo Toure and all the big Ivoirian stars. What was actually the situation in camp ahead of that game, which the Eagles won 2-1?
Yeah, everybody knew Ivory Coast were one of the biggest teams then in Africa, and we had to play them. I was in my room the morning of the game when our team secretary knocked on my door and said ‘Egwuekwe, where are you going? Where are you leaving to?’ I said ‘I’m going back to Nigeria’, because I was playing for Warri Wolves then. They were asking everybody, ‘where are you going from here?’ So, when we went to the lodge, I saw some of my colleagues, Ahmed Musa, Efe Ambrose, Reuben Gabriel, Godfrey Oboabona; the home-based players stuck together with some of the professionals that we knew from the local league. So, we were asking each other, ‘have they asked you where you are going?’ And some people said they had already booked our tickets; that we were not going to beat Ivory Coast. But Stephen Keshi told us that we should remember that the game was 11 against 11, that Ivory Coast won’t field 20 players against 11 Nigerians. At first, everyone was jittery, of course, maybe not the coaches, but the players were. My friends called me from Warri, and I told them no one should bet his money on the Eagles, that it’s Ivory Coast. I already packed my bags and I told myself, ‘Today, Azubuike Egwuekwe is coming back home after this match.’ But 10 minutes after the game started, I told Chidozie Agbim that we were going to win the game because the only Ivoirian who was playing very tight football was (Cheick) Tiote. He was the only one playing tight, but Sunday Mba, Mikel Obi and Ogenyi Onazi were playing very well. Anytime they had the ball, they would play. That’s why I told Chidozie that we were going to win, and we didcourse, the World Cup is one of the biggest competitions globally. When you get to the World Cup, you know this is a different ball game, this is not like the Africa Cup of Nations, this is not the Confederations Cup; the World Cup is different. And you have to tell yourself that ‘now I know that I’m playing football.’ It was a superb tournament, the biggest in football.
The Eagles lost in the second round to France, after the impressive Ogenyi Onazi was injured. What was going through the minds of the players when Onazi was down injured? Was it a game you felt the Eagles should have won?
I have to say the truth, we were very confident that we were not going to lose to France, but after Onazi got injured, we realised that we lost a key player in the game. You know, you won’t know what you have until you lose it. But we didn’t prepare like a team that was going to lose. We decided that at worst we’ll play into extra time, then penalty shootout. We had a good strategy to play France, although they had good players and world-class stars in their team. But we had a good plan, because we were training morning and evening because of the game and there were many strategies from Keshi and his backroom staff. It worked at the early stage of the match until Onazi got injured and our strategy collapsed.
What was your relationship with Keshi?
For me, I don’t know how to describe the late Stephen Keshi. I will call him a God-sent because I didn’t know him from anywhere. The FA Cup final held in Warri and NFF president, Aminu Maigari, invited him and he watched me play. He was the one who handed the trophy to us and I was the captain. From there, he started monitoring me and I was called up to the national team. From there, he made all the home-based players believe that they could do it. He made us believe we could get to where people didn’t believe we could get to. He was not only coaching us, he was like a father to us. Sometimes, he would call all of us and discuss – me, Oboabona, Ruben Gabriel, Solomon Kwambe, Benjamin Francis and so many others – he would tell us we haven’t seen money, that when money comes, we will be surprised and we were when the money started coming. He just said we should play well and value the country’s green and white colours. I don’t know how to describe him.
What was it like playing against a big player like Andres Iniesta at the Confederations Cup in 2014?
It was a very big experience for me, you know then I was a home-based player, I watched him on TV while playing for Barcelona. So, coming face-to-face with him was a very big surprise for me.