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While playing in Monaco, I had over 100 shoes – Victor Ikpeba

While playing in Monaco, I had over 100 shoes – Victor Ikpeba

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Former Super Eagles striker, Olympic gold medalist and 1997 African Player of The Year, Victor Ikpeba, speaks with JOY MARCUS about football and life as a TV pundit

Since retirement, you’ve been a football pundit as well as serving as an ambassador to several brands. How will you describe life in retirement as a football analyst and being involved in football development in Nigeria?

I have been lucky and privileged because it’s not easy to do something else after football. Retirement for footballers is the toughest (decision) sometimes because you have money but don’t know what to do the next day. We all know that sometimes, footballers engage in business and they lose a lot of money. For me, coming back home finally was the right decision in 2009. I want to give credit to the likes of Sam Audu and Felix Awogu who encouraged me to go into the media. It was another phase after my football career. Though, I’m no longer playing, talking about football has actually changed who I am and the way I see the world. When you leave the shores of your country as a young man and spend almost 20 years of your life abroad, you will get a lot of experience. I played in Belgium, France, Spain; went to Libya and came back to Belgium again. As a person who had a 15-year career as a professional, I think it has been a privilege. Aside from the personal setbacks I had, these are some of the things that give me joy. I have had the opportunity to work alongside Coca-Cola and my state’s (Delta) FA in developing football. I’m also a member of the Nigeria Football Federation’s technical team. I think the previous NFF board felt I had something to contribute. We know that all footballers cannot become the NFF president or coaches, but some of us have a role in the development of our football.

What was the motivation that kept you going for about two decades as a footballer?

I will say the desire and passion. I have been playing football since I was a kid and I think it is genetic because when I grew up, I found out that my father actually played football too. I lost my dad when I was very young; so, I can’t say that he encouraged me to play football. It was something inborn. I lived in a compound in Sapele, Delta State, that had a small space where I and my friends played football and we really enjoyed ourselves. This became part of my life. Back then in primary and secondary school, I was involved in athletics. I enjoyed playing table tennis and other sports too. Those were the good old days when there was no money but after school hours, you came home to play football.

What were some of the challenges you faced in your career?

As an African player, you face a lot of hurdles. There are some countries that are a little bit helpful. Overall, the Europeans are very helpful in the development of African players; I think we should be very grateful. Though sometimes, the white players may think we are coming to take their positions and then you have to fight for yourself. At times, you suffer a little bit of politics or racism even with your teammates. They may be jealous of you because of your success. You have to battle every day, every week to show them that you are better. I had some success in Belgium, France but I didn’t have that type of success in Germany because it was a different type of football, mentality and people. Then, I went to Spain and came back to Belgium. When I eventually ended my career, I had no regrets because when I looked back, I realised I had more successes than setbacks.

What are some of the challenges of playing football in Nigeria?

I cannot be so critical because growing up as a young boy, the Nigerian football league was one of the best in Africa. They had the likes of IICC, Enugu Rangers, Bendel Insurance and Leventis United. They took Nigerian football to another level because the league was well organised. There were men that put their money into football. I played in this league before I went abroad; so, the challenges are enormous. The main actors are the players and their welfare should be priortised. Also, the right environment for people to watch good football should be put in place. It is not a question of talking on the pages of newspapers; it is what we can do to make our league prosper. Even in South Africa some years ago, they had their own domestic issues. We call ourselves the giant of Africa but not the giant of domestic football in Africa. We might be giants because we won the Nations Cup and Olympics but what makes a country great in football is its league. The World Cup holds every four years and the Nations Cup comes up every two years. When I went abroad, I wasn’t dreaming of playing in England; I wanted to play in Serie A because they were the top league in the 90s. Their league is one of the most televised leagues in the world. Now, countries are spending money on their leagues. There are a lot of flaws in how we run our football here. We have to get back on track. There must be honesty from everybody and we don’t need a B.Sc. or PhD to run football. You don’t run football with the thought of making money individually. You have to think about the welfare of the players and the club. Then you look at how sponsors can come in and how the money is spent. There must be honesty in the way we run our league. If we don’t do that, then, we are deceiving ourselves.

Who gave you the opportunity to showcase your talent to the world?

Opportunities are given to players especially when a player has the talent. In those days, you must know how to play before you will be given an opportunity. I had the opportunity to play the U-13 tournament in Sapele. When I came to Lagos to stay with my uncle, Kenneth Olaniyan was the first guy while I was playing with the military team, Green Beret, in Yaba, because we lived in Mayong Barracks. Then, I eventually played for Eko Holiday Inn. Also, the late Prince Okundana played a massive role in my development. He saw my talent and that was it. I am grateful to these people for the roles they played in my life because without them giving me the platform, I may not have made it in football. I have seen some fantastic players who didn’t make it, so I’m lucky and grateful to God and the men that played major roles in helping me get to the next level and eventually play for the Golden Eaglets at the 1989 U-17 World Cup. When I got there, I told myself that I had to fight and work hard for it because back then, playing for the U-17 was a massive opportunity. It is a platform for young players to move to greater heights. So, that is how it all started. And that led me on to become the African Best Footballer in 1997 while playing for AS Monaco. Then, I got my nickname, Prince of Monaco, through Emeka Omeruah (ex-sports minister). It is a thing of joy for me because aside from playing in Monaco, I have also been an ambassador for Nigerian footballers. We took Nigerian football to the next level to show to the Europeans and the world at large that we have quality players in Nigeria.

Despite winning Africa’s best footballer award, you found it difficult breaking into the Super Eagles first team where you had the likes of Rashidi Yekini and other big names…

(Cuts in) I have never doubted my quality as a footballer. There are lots of things that will come to play and you have to take them as they come. I won’t say I had the same level playing field because the competition for positions wasn’t really there as a result of one or two issues. I didn’t play in 1994 (World Cup) but I was part of the squad. I eventually played in 1998 under a different coach, after I had moved on to another level in my career. I was nominated as part of the Olympics squad and being the 1997 African Player of The Year, nobody could really say I was not good enough. I joined the national team in 1992 as a young man and in 1993 and 1994, the competition for places was tough because there were Emmanuel Amuneke, Finidi George, Daniel Amokachi, Samson Siasia and others. So when you have these great players in one squad, it is hard for the manager to do his best for everybody to be happy. I think Clemens Westerhof didn’t handle it very well in 1994 because if he had, we would have beaten Italy and moved to the next round. In managing the team, it is imperative to make people happy and these are the few things we didn’t do well in 1994. In 1998, it was a different level. Sometimes, you don’t understand why managers do what they do but that is their call. I scored a goal at the 1998 World Cup to prove a point. Sometimes you have to be patient and not fight because the time will always come for you to shine. This is what we need to tell our younger players. When you are not playing, don’t think it is the end of the world, never give up.

Some people feel that you didn’t break into the Super Eagles squad in your early days because of the mafias?

I have moved on from that. The same mafia (members) have all retired. It simply shows that you can be a mafia for a while but not forever. I don’t agree that there was a mafia; maybe they are important players in the team that the coach respects and that is part of football. If you have a captain, there must be a relationship with the coach and it does not make anyone else less important. There may be a few players who communicate with themselves without carrying the other people along.

Are there some changes you will like to see in football in Nigeria?

I won’t say it now because I am not a philosopher of football but because when you talk, people won’t be happy about what you are saying but I keep talking. The problem is that most people are afraid to speak out. We think a few people can run football which is impossible because we cannot run football with a few people. For instance, we have FIFA but that does not mean that it is only the president that runs the organisation. There are committees, the same way we have in CAF, Asia and Europe. They should employ people that know the game. It doesn’t matter if it is in football or in athletics, they should just be people who will be able to develop football. It is not rocket science in doing what is right in sports but people have to be honest before going into it. It is not something you go into with the hope of making money. It is not right because what kind of legacy would you leave behind? People talk well about MKO Abiola and Israel Adebajo because they spent their money to help other people. I remember Flash Flamingoes, Iwuanyanwu Nationale. These were people who used their money to develop football in this country. Government money or sponsors’ money should be used properly. I am not calling out any organization; I am just talking about sports in Nigeria. People should have the honesty to develop any sport they are asked to develop because people aspire to become athletes.

Is that the way forward for you?

Yes. I have been a member of the NFF Technical Committee for eight years and I know a lot now because before, I was just a football player. My argument is that what makes a country’s football tick is the league. We have to rethink ways to create a good league.

What do you miss most about your playing days?

I miss playing but we all know that one can’t play forever. When you get to a particular age, you need to stop. It is tough but there is always life after football. Now, I have much time to spend with my family and do things the way I want it. I still have that hunger of playing games, scoring goals and training every time but I have to stop. Training daily seems like a punishment but a lot of people don’t understand what comes with it. The body cannot always be the way it used to and there will be a time to stop. I don’t miss much anymore because I had my time and the only regrets I have is that I never played in any of the European cup finals. I have personal success and collective success for my country.

In your time, Nigerian players left the home front to play in the big European leagues but today you find our players going to Tanzania or Sudan to play football. How do you feel about this?

I don’t blame them. People have to survive; because football is just a job. You train every day and you are paid every month like civil servants. We have heard stories of players going to beg governors or some people for their money to be paid. We forget that these players have families who depend on the money they earn monthly. I have so much sympathy for our players back home. With all the problems we have, there is one area we should not have problem in and that is sports. Let’s look at Brazil; with all their setbacks they still have their organised leagues and sports. We need to think. People aspire as children to become footballers.  Though we encourage them to go to school and still play football because if football does not work, they can still fall back on what they study in school. That is why I am involved with Let’s Play with SuperSport; we encourage our kids on the importance of education and sports. For me, I went to primary and secondary school and I studied for about six months at Yaba College of Technology before travelling abroad. I am proud that I had those basics before I went abroad.

You won the Olympics, were named Africa’s best player in 1997 and represented Nigeria at two World Cups, amongst several other accolades in a remarkable playing career. How do you feel when you reflect on your playing career?

I also won the Best African Footballer in Belgium in 1993 before I went to Monaco and became the second best player in Ligue 1 in the same year. In fact, 1993 was a fantastic year for me. I had my first daughter too in June 1993. The month of June has been fantastic; I signed my contract on my birthday in Monaco on June 12, 1993. It is a year I will never forget in my life.

There are cases where footballers on retirement hardly have anything to fall back on after earning megabucks during their career. What do you think is the cause?

It is tough; money can be evil sometimes. It is the root of all evil. It depends on how you manage it. Some players are becoming clever these days. As a footballer, you have so much money and people will always be around you. We are not like the Europeans whose money is just for their immediate family and that is it. Here in Nigeria, we try to help our families and we can’t say the people that played in Nigeria in the 70s, 90s can sustain themselves with what they earned then. Those that played for the country then gave everything for this country and that is why I am trying to appeal to the sports people (administrators) to accommodate some of these people that have contributed to the growth of football. They should engage them. There are so many ways we can accommodate former players. It could be through the former clubs they played for in the past; but we don’t have this type of structure. In Europe, they have a structure that accommodates their past players whether at club or international level but it is complicated in Africa. I know some people have made money and lost money. Naturally, nobody wants to lose money; some of them used their money to help others.

Among all the awards you have won, which one would you say is special to you?

I didn’t play at the 1994 World Cup but I enjoyed tremendous success in 1996 in Atlanta, Georgia, when we won the Olympic gold. We have not really been celebrated back home and that is the truth. Some people remember us but most people don’t really remember those players that played a role in 1996. We need to educate our younger generations because we can’t forget about the past.

As a football pundit, have you had any embarrassing moments on TV?

People sometimes criticise my pronunciation but I am a black man and I didn’t have a British teacher back then in Sapele. My teacher had Nigerian accent but I try to improve myself and I am not scared of being criticised because it is part of my life. I have been criticised all my life. As a footballer, people always talked about me. I take criticism positively and try to improve because in life, we can’t stop learning. I won’t go on air and become afraid to say what I know about football because I know the game; someone who doesn’t know can’t tell me otherwise. I thank SuperSports for being patient with me and improving me. When I am on set, I am not nervous because I know what I want to talk about compared to the earlier years. I am not afraid to make mistakes because that is the only way I can learn. If I don’t put the sentences right, I move on but the most important thing is that I know my audience understand what I am saying and that for me is satisfactory.

What are the peculiar challenges that come with being a football analyst?

Some people would not like your opinion because they are very passionate about the game. It doesn’t matter if it is the English Premier League or the national team. The Russia 2018 World Cup was a trending topic on social media. For the first time, everybody played their role. It was amazing. I was even afraid to tweet but I spoke my mind. I don’t expect people to always agree with everything I say. Even Jesus Christ, who had the greatest personality, was criticised. So, who is Victor Ikpeba that people won’t criticise? If anyone criticises me, I move on because the criticism won’t take anything from me.

Who were your close friends in the Super Eagles?

I don’t have a particular player as a friend. All my teammates were my friends even when we were fighting.  It is very tough to pick a particular person when you have about 22 players on the team. We sometimes share rooms with different players but when you do almost everything together, you become one big family.

Do you have the intention of going into politics anytime soon?

No, I can’t be a politician. I am from Isoko, Delta State, so I don’t think I have the political platform to start. I enjoy what I am doing presently, which is educating young people about the importance of education and sports. Football is my terrain and I don’t need to have a PhD to run it. I give a lot of credit to ex-NFF president, Aminu Magari, who appointed some of us to the NFF Technical Committee. In the first four years, we were able to contribute a lot behind the scene despite the criticisms. Now, we have a good coach, Gernot Rohr. I like his style of encouraging the young players because they are the future of Nigerian football and I am happy that the federation is sticking to him but sometimes, there must be checks and balances. We want to know what the coach thinks about his players because it will help the coach to know the strengths and weaknesses of each player. We did it with Keshi, Siasia and (Sunday) Oliseh but it was all problems.

With the benefit of hindsight, were there things you would have done differently?

Yes, I think I was too generous but I did it for God. The painful thing is when people don’t appreciate the good you have done for them but that is human beings for you; it is not new. Whatever I have done to help people, I did it for God.

What are some of the important lessons you have learnt in the course of life?

Sometimes I tend to be erratic. I get angry so quickly but I have learnt to manage issues maybe because of age. My general manager in SuperSports told me to learn to manage people. Sometimes it is not easy to be patient with people especially when you are in a complex society but I have learnt to be more patient unlike before.

What were some of the qualities that helped you get to the pinnacle of your career?

It is the desire and hard work, and also, setting a standard for myself. As a footballer, you need to have a decent life apart from sports; try to settle down early because it is not easy to be a sport person living alone, to avoid being distracted. I had a stable life because after two years of going abroad, my late wife joined me. Knowing that there is someone waiting for you at home gives you that peace of mind instead of going from one restaurant or bar to the other. It is tough to combine all these things.

Was it easy growing up at such a young age without a father?

It was difficult emotionally. Even till today, I still miss my dad because he is not here to see what I have become in life. It is sad but that is life. I also lost my wife (Atinuke) too but that shows that in life, you cannot have everything. I have moved on, after all we will not live till eternity. I have children and maybe soon, I will become a grandfather. However, I think those setbacks made me a better person and my grandma really played a major role in raising me. I am very grateful to her; though she is late now, she made me who I am today. I’ve always had that struggle, growing up on the banks of River Ethiope in Sapele. It was a tough life but that is what makes a man.

How were you able to repackage your life when you lost your wife?

It was very tough. It is not easy losing one’s wife. We as men want to live long but die before our wives so that they can take care of the kids. That shows you that money can’t give you everything, especially when it comes to your health. The most important thing in life is to have good health. I lost my wife through cancer and I moved on but she is still part of me. She was buried in my compound and we have our kids and they are becoming big girls. They are doing well in their own world. When you lose your loved ones, you can never forget them because they continue to be a part of your life.

Are your kids taking after you as footballers?

No. I have four girls and one of them is playing tennis. The third one is involved in sports. The fact that you are a sportsman doesn’t mean your children should be involved too. I am still a young man and I may still have a male child that may play football but for the moment, I don’t see my daughters playing football. If they eventually want to play, I will encourage them.

Was there any incident that changed the course of your life?

Last year, I was sick, though not everyone knew about it. For me to get out of that, I am grateful to God and the people who were there for me: the likes of Yemi Idowu, who came to check on me at the clinic; the Bet9JA family, led by their chairman, Kunle Soname; and CEO, Ayo Ojuroye; my colleagues at SuperSports and Monday Night Football; our GM, Felix Awogu, all played roles to make sure I was fine. Former NFF Technical Committee chairman was also there for me. It just shows that in life, you might have everything but without good health, life is baseless. I watched my late wife die. When you go through this type of phase, it changes you and makes you reflect about life. I am grateful to God and my friends who were supportive emotionally.

As a player with good money and popularity, was it easy keeping away the women?

No, don’t talk about the women. Some people think I was always with women all through my career but that was not true because I was married. Even after I lost my wife, I had a French girlfriend that had two kids for me. So, I have always been a family man. I have not eventually settled down but that doesn’t mean I am a womaniser. It is not the first time I would be asked this question but it is not true. As a man, you have to respect yourself. It is just speculation. I don’t live my life like that because I have four children. If I had been reckless, I would have had children everywhere.

How do you balance your life?

I manage my life now. Gone are the days when people say they see me in different (night) clubs. I think I have outgrown all that and I pride myself to be a very private person now. SuperSports has given me the platform to organise myself and I am grateful to be part of the MultiChoice family in Nigeria. This year will be my ninth year with the organization. I am sure I will have a big party next year when I eventually clock 10 years as a pundit.

What are your best and worst moments?

Losing my dad, grandma and my late wife are the worst moments but my best moment is football.

Who are your role models?

I had quite a number in those days: the great Muda Lawal, Mathematical (Segun Odegbami), Adokiye Amiesiamaka and Felix Owolabi. These were the people that played in my position in those days. They inspired me. I didn’t even know I would play up to the level I played. When I see them now, I enjoy every moment with them and I wish Mathematical success because he is into politics now. I pray he becomes the George Weah of Ogun State. He will be a great state governor.

What were your childhood ambitions?

I came from a military background. My father was an Air Force officer and my uncles were in the Air Force and police as well. As a child, I dreamt a lot about so many things. I wanted to become a pilot, lawyer or join the forces. Football just came from nowhere and I have no regrets because it transformed my life and made me a better person.

How do you like to dress?

Now, I dress to suit the occasion. I was finicky about dressing in those days when I had so much money but now when I have to pay school fees, the price tag alone will chase you away. When I was still playing at Monaco, I used to spend a lot on fashion and I had almost 100 shoes but I am more modest now.

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