Former Flying Eagles star John Etim Esin speaks exclusively to Completesportsnigeria.com’s IZUCHUKWU OKOSI (@izuchukwu_okosi) on the chances of the team coached by Manu Garba defeating Ghana in Wednesday’s semi-finals clash of the CAF U20 Youth Championship in Senegal, his ‘sadness’ about the game against the Black Satellites and his hopes for the team that will be one of Africa’s four representatives at the FIFA U20 World Cup in New Zealand. Excerpts
The Flying Eagles will play against Cote d’ Ivoire in the semi-finals of the CAF U20 Youth Championship on Wednesday. What is your message to the team?
My message to the team is that they should continue building on the confidence that has seen them through difficult times. All the motivation that the players need should be instilled in them. Manu Garba and Nduka Ugbade have done fantastic job with this team.
Do you feel the Championship have been deprived of a good final as Ghana and Nigeria are the most successful African teams at the U20 level?
It’s unfortunate that both teams are not playing in the final but in the semi-finals of the competition. But that is how these things happen. We would have all loved a final between both sides, but they (Nigeria and Ghana) along with the other semi-finalists; Mali and Senegal, have qualified for the FIFA U20 World Cup in New Zealand, so winning the Championship is secondary now if they would not want to put themselves under pressure.
Some Nigerians believe the best of the team will be seen at the FIFA U20 World Cup proper. Do African teams find it easier to perform better at the world stage than on the continent?
The competitions in Africa are very tedious. Teams in Africa could be very physical, plus the fact that the weather could be harsh. Ghana have won the FIFA U20 World Cup (in 2009 when Egypt hosted) while Nigeria have won the AYC six times. As you rightly said, both sides are the most successful in Africa in the U20 level so we could see all the ingridients that make African football great to watch.
You played in the 1987 Tesema Cup, which was a prelude to the U20 World Cup in Chile. What was your experience playing for the U20 team before, during and after the World Cup in Chile?
We were a bunch of talented players when we represented the country at the Tesema Cup. We played some serious friendly matches against some of Nigeria’s best clubs and some African teams. The belief was there. We didn’t do well at the U20 World Championship due to inexperience.
These days, we have players in Europe. Back in those days, only a few of us were fortunate to ply their skills in Europe. When we got to Chile for instance, the Brazilian press were too eager to meet with me as they have been hearing of the ‘African Maradona’ who could single-highhandedly ensure their defeat so they, alongside, other journalists thronged our hotel seeking for interviews. They have not really seen me play before then.
When we came back from the World Cup, fans were naturally not happy because we were the darling of Nigerian football at the time because all the national teams were not doing very well then. Besides the squad in 1985 won bronze, so the expectation was too much.
What are the similarities, if any, between the Flying Eagles side you played for under coach Christopher Udemezue and Manu Garba’s team?
Most of the present players played in the U17 World Cup and won the cadet World Cup two years ago. The majority of the players are still in the present U20 squad. The Flying Eagles side I played for never had footballers who played abroad. Only a handful were privileged to go abroad. After the ’87 World Cup, I signed for Belgian side, Ghent. They had initially came to Nigeria to play a friendly against the Flying Eagles. That was when they saw me. I didn’t even hold trials with them again.
Austin Eguavoen was their captain at that time. He was one of the few big Nigerian players who played abroad at the time. They also had a Nigerian Uche Ofoche in their team. The Flying Eagles then had coaches and players who had same dream; which is to represent the country and possibly become world champions as many had predicted. The coaches had confidence in our abilities and we trusted them in return. The feeling was mutual. And I feel the present team have that understanding and respect going for them. I mean you could feel it that Ugbade has enjoyed working with Manu.
There was initial concern about the absence of Kelechi Iheanacho, Musa Yahaya, Isaac Success and Chidiebere Nwakali who are not in the present team in Senegal due to injuries or the fact that their clubs did not release them. How easy or difficult would it be for the missing boys to reclaim their spots in the team?
It is simple. They just have to prove their fitness. That is just it. They have been part of the set-up before. They know themselves so that shouldn’t be a problem.
But talking about players making their comebacks to a team, is there a possibility that the players who participated at the African Championship will feel hard done if/when dropped for the supposed ‘superstars’ after helping to achieve qualification to a major tournament?
That could be a problem in a team but I hope that will not be the case with the Flying Eagles. Iheanacho for example has been with most of these players and his little experience playing for a team like Manchester City will surely help the team when they play at the World Cup. When we played at the U20 World Cup in Chile, that was a major factor in our disappointing performance because some of the players were envious of me. I had joined the team after recovering from the gun-shot I sustained from armed robbers. I joined them in Holland, then we went to the World Cup in Chile. Some of the players wondered why I had to get the special attention I got from the Ibrahim Babangida government that I had to be treated and still included in the World Cup team. They refused to pass the ball to me, so there was no unity in the camp. I pray this will not be the lot of the present team.
Let’s talk about the Super Eagles. The team are expected to play two friendly games against Bolivia and South Africa on the 26th and 29th (of March 2015) still without a substantive coach. What is your opinion about the lingering contract talks between the Nigeria Football Federation and Stephen Keshi?
This matter is up to Keshi to decide. If he feels he cannot accept the conditions which the NFF want, then he should honourably turn down the offer. Keshi is the most successful Super Eagles coach now because he was the first to win the Nations Cup as a player and then, as a coach. I believe he will get a new job with his experience. When you are good on your job, then you don’t take contracts or working conditions that are not suitable to you.
And the NFF President, Amaju Pinnick, has been to some English clubs trying hard to convince players of Nigerian heritage to represent Nigeria at the senior level after having played for the youth teams. What is your thought on this plans?
We are not lacking in talents in Nigeria. There is nothing wrong in wanting to have the best national teams for the country but the point is that if football at the grassroots stage is up to the standard we all crave for, then we shouldn’t be talking about convincing players who had lived all their lives in the UK and know the benefits of playing for England to come and play for Nigeria. Let’s hope he (Pinnick) does what is best for the development of the game.
And recently some former internationals, coaches, referees and administrators travelled to the UK for a capacity building programme. Do you really think things will change positively for Nigerian football after this exercise?
My take on that is: People should be carried along. There seems to be preferential treatment given to some persons because they are from some parts of Nigeria. Nigeria have six Geo-political zones. Why not pick from these places and balance it with some representative from the FCT. I have my reservations with the composition of that team but honestly, the benefits could be immense really.
Alright. Thank you for your time, Etim. It’s a pleasure speaking with you once again