Former Super Eagles assistant coach and Heartland of Owerri goalkeeper trainer, Christian Obi, is optimistic the national team coach Stephen Keshi can rekindle fans enthusiasm. He spoke with KUNLE ADEWALE
Despite the many problems that confronted Heartland of Owerri, the “Naze Millionaires” still went on to win the Federation Cup. But to the team’s goalkeeper trainer Christian Obi, it wasn’t a feat he found surprising.
Heartland Football Club’s players at a stage threatened to boycott their games over alleged unpaid salaries and other entitlements. A player who asked not to be identified told THISDAY then they found it disgusting to be owed sign-on fees running into several millions of Naira by the Imo State Government that at a point before their 1-0 win over Dolphins they had to boycott two training sessions.
However, Obi said he was unfazed by all that. “I’m always positive in my thinking. I even sent a text to the general manager of the club, Fan Ndubuoke, at the early stage of the league season that we will definitely have something to show for our effort at the end of the season. Even though we had some crises I was still positive,” he said.
With few minutes to full time in the Federation Cup final against Lobi Stars of Makurdi, Obi introduced Chijioke Ejiogu to replace first choice goalkeeper, Daniel Akpeyi. Ejiogu took Nigerian football by storm in 1999 when he helped an unknown amateur league side, FC Arugo from Owerri to the semi-finals of the FA Cup and his exceptional agility, particularly, his penalty-stopping ability, which has since become his trademark, earned him the nickname, “Arugo Monkey”.
Asked why he brought in Ejiogu, the former Nigerian international said: “At half time when it was still goalless I told my number one choice goalkeeper that if the result remained a draw with some few minutes to the end of the game I might have to introduce Chijioke who over the years have proven to be a penalty stopper.
“He is a good penalty stopper right from his early stages in football; he can anticipate where the player will direct his kick and he will dive in the direction. That has been one of his strongest points as a goalkeeper.
In the semi-final game against Prime FC of Oshogbo played at the Ilorin Township Stadium, I also brought him in at the tail end of the match when it was obvious it’s going towards penalty shootouts and because some of the players already knew about his track record, after he saved the first kick the other players got jittery and started throwing away the other kicks.”
As the team now prepares to represent the country in the CAF Confederation Cup, the 1985 U-20 World Cup silver winning player said the team would be strengthened with more experienced players.
“We will go for a mixture of experienced and youthful players so that we will have enough players on the reserve that could ignite fire into the team when the need arises. We’ve identified the lapses in the team and everything would be corrected before the commencement of the Confederation Cup,” he noted.
Despite the gates of the Teslim Balogun Stadium being thrown open, the stadium was still barely half full, something Obi attributed to the uninspiring level of football.
“Maybe because of the way the referees handle matches the crowd are not comfortable with it because they watch European matches and see how referees officiate. The fans are tired of referees messing up games and they are therefore not encouraged to come out and watch matches.
“Moreover, anytime the timing of European matches coincides with our local games fans will sit back in their homes to watch their favourite European games. Football administrators in this country should therefore take pain to educate and enlighten fans on the need to back their local clubs and try as-much-as possible not to fix matches such as the Federation Cup final to coincide with European league matches.”
The Heartland goalkeeper trainer appealed to the Lagos State governor, Babatunde Fashola, not to relent in his determination to return the competition to its glorious years.
“The governor is doing everything to let the Federation Cup take back its pride as it was known for years back. If we can have two or three other governors like him who will champion the cause of the game, and lead by example fans will definitely return to the stadium,” he assured.
On the campaign by Lagos State government for the Federation Cup final to be permanently hosted by the state in the same way that Wembley Stadium has become the permanent venue of the English FA Cup.
“I think it’s a move in the right direction. But my only fear is if another governor who is not really keen about sports emerges in the state he may not be too excited with such idea and will not, as a result, be ready to spend money to host an intriguing competition. However, I don’t see anything wrong in Lagos being a permanent host of the Federation Cup,” Obi enthused.
The former Julius Berger of Lagos safe-hands also faulted the recent trend of laying artificial turf in our different stadia saying it does not augur well for our football and the players.
“My stand against artificial turf is 100 per cent. Players’ life span on artificial turf is shorter than their counterparts that use natural grass. If you have 10 years to play and you are playing on artificial turf you might not last up to seven years because the floor is very hard but covered with artificial grass and this affects players’ knees and ankles and it slows the movement of the players,” he said.
Asked how long he hopes to carry on with his coaching career, the coach who is also a pastor said it was God that asked him to return to football after he had initially dumped it for full time ministry. “If God says ‘stop’, I’ll stop.”
He however said his coaching career does not in any way affect his evangelical call but rather helps him propagate the gospel.
“I use my life style to propagate God’s ministry because people emulate my ways of life, just as people idolize stars. So the young stars also want to end the way I ended my football career in Christ,” he noted.
Obi also hailed national team coach Stephen Keshi on Nigeria’s qualification for the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations slated for South Africa, saying his former national team colleague is going about his job in the right direction especially with the way he injected home grown players from the league into the Super Eagles team.
“When Clemens Westerhof was here he picked players from the local league, nurtured them and turned them into stars. Keshi should be saluted for having the courage in spite of the fact that Nigerians want quick result. I’m sure that some officials must have tried to talk him into dumping the home-based players but he stuck to his guns.
“What these home-based players really needed is exposure and if they know that they have a future in the national team they will definitely improve on their game. Keshi is therefore on track and has given the local players a voice,” he said.
Obi dispelled the notion that the local league no longer boasts the array of gifted talents that was the case during Westerhof’s era.
“The same talents are still much with us waiting to be tapped. Anyone that says we don’t have such talent again is not telling the truth.”
With regard to the view that the rank of great goalkeepers has dwindled, he said: “Each goalkeeper has his own challenge, which include organizing the defence. Goalkeeping position is the most subtle component of football because there is only one goalkeeper unlike other aspects that has more than one man manning it. When a defender makes a mistake, his partners cover up but in the case of a goalkeeper it is always a disaster.”
He is optimistic that Nigeria will do well in next year’s Nations Cup in South Africa.