Ifeanyi Udeze opens up on his experiences with the national team, playing at the 2002 World Cup, retirement, and more in this interview with Peter Akinbo of The Punch.
How is life as a radio presenter and pundit?
It’s okay. It’s something new to me, but I’m getting used to it. I mean, so far so good; it’s okay and there’s no problem.
Did you have any challenges when you first started?
Of course, from the beginning, I knew nothing about being a pundit and talking on the radio. But with time, I started building my confidence and I’m very grateful to Dr. Larry Izamoje, who gave me the confidence and let me know that ‘you can do this’. Also, all the staff at Brila supported me and have been there for me. I think now I’m good and that is the most important thing.
Do you miss playing football?
Of course, I miss football. I stopped playing due to injuries and have had three operations on my knees, but the truth is, I miss playing football. However, I thank God for life, as that is the most important thing. These days, sometimes I go to play with the ‘All Stars’.
Are you considering going into coaching?
For now, I will say no because my heart is very fragile and I don’t have the heart to become a coach. I could just fall down and collapse if the opposition is attacking my goal. Maybe someday I might change my mind, but for now, coaching is not my thing.
How do you think the Eagles’ failure to qualify for the World Cup will affect the football business, especially in the media, to which you now belong?
It’s crazy that we didn’t qualify. I think all media houses right now are really feeling the heat because of that. I was affected because I was almost signed to a very big deal with a big company, but the Eagles crashed out and the deal crashed. We had discussed and agreed on personal terms and all that. What we were just waiting for was for Nigeria to play that game against Ghana and qualify, and the next day, I would sign the deal. But since the Eagles did not qualify, there was no way we could sign the deal. I had this deal with a very big company. It really pained me. I lost a lot of money as Nigeria didn’t qualify for the World Cup, and that’s life anyway. Sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose. Life goes on.
You were a member of the Nigerian U-17 team that went to the Meridian Cup in 1997, where your team beat a Spanish side that featured Xavi. How did it feel to be part of that squad?
It felt good. We played that competition in Portugal and we went all the way to the final to beat Spain, and it was a great moment. That was my first international medal and it was great. Everybody was happy and from there, most of us went to different clubs in Europe. I think it was after that tournament that I got signed to Bendel Insurance, and after three months, I left for Greece, so it was awesome.
You made your Eagles debut in 2001. Can you still recall that game?
It was one of the happiest days of my life as a footballer. If you ask any Nigerian playing football, they’ll tell you that their dream is to wear the green and white jersey, so wearing it was a great honor for me. The shirt was heavy, very heavy. I played my first national game against Zambia. I remember that day, when I got to the camp. It was the first time I met some of the players. I knew Julius (Aghahowa) back in the day. We played together at Bendel Insurance, but I met Yakubu Aiyegbeni for the first time. When I got to camp, I was juggling the ball, and the first person that spoke was Yakubu. He was asking Julius, “Who is this guy? His legs are small. It’s so tiny. Are you sure this guy can play football? Are you sure his legs can carry football?’ I heard Julius tell him, ‘If this guy plays football for you, you will dash him money. But immediately after the Zambia game, Yakubu came to me in the dressing room and said, “You can play ball very well.” Please give me your number. ” He apologized, and that was how we became friends, very good friends. So, in that game against Zambia, the fans were happy with me, I was happy with myself, and the most important thing was that my late father was very happy with me.
You played at the 2002 and 2004 AFCONs, with Nigeria coming third on both occasions. Do you regret not winning the tournament?
Of course I do. On both occasions, we were supposed to win the AFCON. I didn’t know what happened. In 2002, Senegal beat us in the semi-final; in 2004, the host nation of Tunisia beat us on penalties, so I felt bad. I regret not winning the AFCON because if anybody had told me we would not win it, especially in 2002, I would have contested it because there were real players in the national team then. Even if you looked at our bench, you would think there was no way we would not win the AFCON in 2002, but then we didn’t win it, so we felt bad, but that’s life anyway.
You also played at the 2002 World Cup. How did it feel to play football at that level?
It was a beautiful experience, a great experience to play in the World Cup because it is the highest tournament when you talk about football. I felt good, I felt great, but I knew that we were not going to go far because they changed our team. We had a lot of young players in the team, we were not really that experienced. At least, it’s expected that when you’re playing at the World Cup, you bring a lot of experienced players and one, two, or four upcoming players who are struggling to gain experience, but then we knew we were not going to go far but went to play our part. We knew we were not even going to make it out of the group stage because they dropped a lot of our senior players, and that affected us.
What was it like to play against the likes of David Beckham, Gabriel Batistuta, and others at the Mundial?
During my playing days, I didn’t look at names. I didn’t give myself unnecessary pressure. I just carried one thing in my head: let’s just go onto the pitch and surprise everyone. So, I wasn’t really bothered by names when I played football. I just went in and did my job.