It is over 20 years now since a Nigerian emerged as the African Footballer Of The Year. The closest the country has come in recent times was in 2014 when ex-Super Eagles goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama finished in the third position.
Now, with some amazing young talents on the horizon, Super Eagles goalkeeper Ikechukwu Ezenwa feels it is high time the country produced another king for the continent.
In this interview with PREMIUM TIMES, Ezenwa speaks on many issues including the kind of relationship that exists between goalkeepers in the national team and the struggles goalkeepers face generally.
Ezenwa: Firstly, I think we have to thank God for the grace of being alive despite all that happened. I was relieved to hear that my friends, family, and well-wishers were doing great after I put a call across to them. It wasn’t easy to be under lockdown for six months and as a professional that knows what it takes to be in shape, I had to indulge in personal training. I spoke with the Reverend Father of the Catholic Church where I live and asked for permission to train around the church. I told them I had to be in shape pending when we will be called back to our clubs. I thank God I was able to put myself in good shape even though you cannot compare club training to personal training. The only challenge I have now is to have my heart opened so that I can run very well while the issue of goalkeeping and diving won’t be a problem. I thank God I’m alive to tell the story because lots of lives were lost due to Covid-19.
PT: You once said your biggest dream is to play for Manchester United.
Ezenwa: Every player has his dreams, and coupled with the fact that my roommate Ighalo at the Nations Cup played for Man U. Ighalo is a lovely person and I said to myself that I have to work harder and join the club to reunite with him.
PT: David Gea has not really rediscovered his form. What could be responsible for keepers’ dip in form?
Ezenwa: Every human being has their bad times but all that matters is how well you’re able to bounce back. Bad times will always come but that does not make you a bad goalkeeper. I know he really helped Man U and he is going to bounce back. There was a time I had family issues while I was at Sunshine, it really affected my performance and I lost my place as Number 1. But I faced the problem and solved it and I regained my shirt back. There was a time he (De Gea) was not doing well due to his impending move to Real Madrid, but as soon as that was sorted out he came back stronger. He could be going through some emotional problems too.
PT: Chelsea goalkeeper Kepa had a similar problem. How do goalkeepers cope with depression?
Ezenwa: Kepa must be good for Chelsea to splash such a huge amount on him, but it’s good that he opened up on his problem because not all players can do that. Goalkeepers too struggle with personal problems and before you know it you will suffer a dip in form. It’s not easy for a goalkeeper who is seen as the last man standing. But once I have such a problem I run to God for help because I know he alone can solve it. Life’s journey is always bumpy.
PT: How often do watch clips on De Gea and Kepa? What do you learn from them?
Ezenwa: Honestly I don’t really watch clips but I watch games and learn from a goalkeeper’s reactions when his team is under attack and try as much as possible to see their positioning. We have goalkeeper trainers but I need to learn a lot about the technical aspects of goalkeeping. But in everything you learn you must do it in game situations and like my mentor Vincent Enyeama used to do, he is always relaxed when his team is under attack, it is a pattern that is worth learning. The same thing applies to Manuel Neuer; he is so relaxed during matches and he joins the attack too. We have to watch these technical aspects and learn. Everybody knows how to dive but there are some technical aspects that make you an outstanding goalkeeper.
PT: How has Super Eagles goalkeepers’ trainers duo of Alloy Agu and Pionetti impacted your development and goalkeeping skills?
Ezenwa: I’m so happy to work with them; they’re great goalkeeper trainers. Before I got to meet Pionetti, Alloy Agu had been the coach drilling me. He is a wonderful man and hard-working too because he doesn’t want any keeper in a comfort zone, that is one good thing about him. He ensures the goalkeepers are always on their toes, he wants us fit to an extent that any of his three goalkeepers can be in goal. I don’t joke around him because he demands 100 per cent concentration. They call him Bishop and a lazy goalkeeper cannot work with Alloy, but you must give your all to work with Alloy Agu. I really thank both men for helping my game.
PT: How would you describe your relationship with Akpeyi and Okoye. How often do you encourage one another?
Ezenwa: We always talk to ourselves because it’s all about relationship, brotherly love and whosever is playing is encouraged because you’re representing 180 million Nigerians and not only your family. We give moral support to who is in goal. I remember vividly against Brazil when Okoye was called to replace Uzoho against Brazil and I told him, “boy you can do it” he went in and we got a draw. I also remember Kaizer Chiefs’ game against Bidvest Wits and Akpeyi had a collision in that game while I was watching the game. I sent him a get well soon text and he replied back after he regained consciousness in the second half. I was so happy when he replied me. It’s all about being your brother’s keeper and you must support whoever is in goal so that when your time comes you too can do well.
PT: How far do you think Super Eagles can go should Nigeria eventually qualify for AFCON 2022 in Cameroon?
Ezenwa: I think it’s a good team and everyone is doing very well at their respective club sides. We have a young side as well as experienced players in the team and with the way things are going, by the grace of God, we will qualify like we normally do. But we need to be focused because the Nations Cup in Cameroon won’t be an easy one. They know Nigeria has a young side with fast attackers and before you know it, all eyes will be on our team. If you look closely, you will discover our players are doing well and attention will be on these players before qualifiers restart. It’s not going to be easy having won bronze in Egypt. Besides, Africa knows Nigeria is a team to watch out for and I just have to encourage my teammates to step up and keep working hard because Cameroon will be a team to beat and it’s not going to easy. We must keep up the winning mentality and we will do well in Cameroon 2022.
PT: How does it feel to see Osimhen move to one the biggest club in Europe?
Ezenwa: I’m so happy for Osimhen because he has character and his resilience shows that he wants to play and that is another plus for him. One thing I like about him is his respect; he comes around Ighalo several times and he (Ighalo) will tell Osimhen to remain patient and that he will do well once the time comes. I remember Enyeama told me the same thing when I came to the national team and I cannot forget that. The respect Osimhen has for Ighalo in the dressing room is another factor why everything is going well for him. I remember his debut in the national team and he did well and he has been doing well in the qualifiers too. I like the way Osimhen and Chukwueze humble themselves around senior players and I also like to way they’re going about their career. These two players listen to you when you talk to them. We need to have African footballer of the year coming from Nigeria, we need to have the top three players coming from Nigeria. Messi has made name for himself. I pray to God to give them a good career that people will be wondering how top players like them hail from Nigeria.
PT: You have been the sole voice for home-based players in the national team. What do you tell your inspiring club teammates about the national team?
Ezenwa: I do spend time with my club teammates even when I’m in the national team. I do tell them nobody is an island and that when your time comes, nobody is going to stop you. But you have to keep working hard and keep grinding because nobody can tell when it will come. I gave them an instance of the 2014-2015 season when I was in the national team, but in 2008-2009 I had that premonition that I will be invited but it never came. But I was shocked when Keshi invited me in 2015 even though I knew I did so well that season and Keshi knew I deserve a pat on my back. Once you’re invited, you need to re-enact what you were doing well at your club be it fighting spirit or something else then you can rest assured you will keep coming back. Commitment, discipline, and attitude will also play a huge role in your success. Attitude plays a big role in everything you do in life. A bad attitude with talent won’t get you an invitation but a good attitude will take you to greater heights.
PT: Thank you for your time
Ezenwa: My pleasure always.