By Paul Erewuba
After sharpening his horns in the act of goalkeeping with clubs like defunct NITEL FC, Lagos, Vasco Da Gama F.C of Enugu, Jasper United of Onitsha and Julius Berger of Lagos where he strolled the length and breadth of the football pitch like a colossus, Uche Akubuike broke into the Super Eagles star-studded camp after a star performance during an international outing.
And because of his goalkeeping prowess, he was called up to camp by former Super Eagles by then Super Eagles Manager, Bora Milutinović as back-up goalkeeper in the 1998 FIFA World Cup and part of the Nigerian team in the Hong Kong 4-Nation Tournament.
However, his inability to make the cut for France 1998 World Cup saw the agile goalie concentrating on club football until injury retired him.
The Abia State-born goalie, while lending his voice to the crisis of goalkeeping bedeviling the Super Eagles, said matter-of-factly that the issue must be addressed squarely before the Indomitable Lions and Bafana Bafana World and AFCON debacles.
He also talked about his failed marriage, which fell like a pack of cards saw his world crashing on him, having lost all he had to court litigation against his ex- wife.
Q: Who motivated you into playing football?
My first sport was basketball. But a day came when my team went to play at Abalti Barracks, Kaduna. As we were playing our goalkeeper started to misbehave and with anger I volunteered to keep. And that was how I stuck to keeping and left basketball. I also watched keepers like Raymond King, Peter Rufai, etc when they came to Kaduna to play. My late father also contributed to my playing football. He told me to go to school first and after I finished schooling, he bought me my first boot, jersey and gloves. I started improving in goalkeeping and that was it.
A: Tell us some of the clubs you played for during your football career.
I played for so many clubs like defunct Jasper United, Gabros International, Heartland, Gombe United, Rangers, Dolphins and so many that I cannot remember now.
And outside the country I played in Austria that is Hoshen Philadon, and in South Africa where I played for Silver Stars now Free State Stars FC, Swallows FC, Kaizer Chiefs before I returning to Nigeria.
Q Which is your most memorable game?
It was when I debuted in Julius Berger of Lagos, and that was what got me a club in South Africa in game between Julius Berger and South Africa’s Mamelody Sundowns during CAF Confederation Cup. Chijioke Ejiogu was Berger’s first choice, but he sustained an injury and I had to replace him.
I saved two penalties. I caught one in the first half and the second in the second half. Twenty two minutes into the second half I saved the second while we were leading them 1-0. I equally saved a straight header. It was the match that earned me a call up to the Super Eagles and as well made me have a club in Austria. I earned more money than most of my team mates, because I remember the late Idama called me to his office and gave me a cheque of N600, 000 for my performance. Whenever I remember that encounter it gives me joy.
Q Tell us the saddest moment of your life when you were playing football.
It was when my case with my ex wife was still fresh. I was playing for Wikki Tourists of Bauchi, having been transferred from Rangers of Enugu. And I lost concentration in my career.
My coach then, Ladan Bosso was encouraging me but he later handed off because things were got out of hand.
There was a match we were to play against Bayelsa United and mid way at Okene, I was told on phone that I had to honour a court case in Port Harcourt. Immediately my team dropped me at Okene there and I proceeded to Port Harcourt.
It was then the club decided to drop me from the team because I was not even 30 per cent concentrating on my job any more. That was the saddest moment in my career. If I am sleeping and I dream of it, I wake up sweating. That was in 2006/2007. It is not that Wikki Tourists officials were not nice to me, but it was the case that revolved around me that reduced me and I became bankrupt.
Q: Do you think Vincent Enyama should come back to Super Eagles’ fold?
Yes. He should, because he is still relevant. I support him, but he should not wait until the NFF apologises to him before he serves his father land. He should allow what happened in the past be.
Super Eagles coach has insisted that Enyeama be reconsidered, However if Enyeama doesn’t see the need to come back, he should be left alone.
A lot of Nigeria football fans have spoken about goalkeepers crisis in the Super Eagles. I want to say that there is none. All the keepers are good. The thing is that we should not depend on one keeper alone. The ones in camp should be given the opportunity to showcase themselves.
That a keeper makes one mistake in a crucial encounter does not mean he is bad. As they say, practice makes perfect. For how long are we going to depend on an individual? I tell you, we equally have good keepers in the NPFL. What we need do now is identify them, call them to camp and start featuring them at international friendly matches. By so doing, we would have solved the issue of goalkeeping problem in the Super Eagles. We should look beyond goalkeepers’ crisis and equally focus on other departments like defenders and midfielders.
Q: What is your take on administration of the league in the country?
I think that the area of owing players should be looked into. Many clubs owe their players salaries and sign on fees. It is not the best. Even as I talk to you several years after, Wikki Tourists still owe me about N4.9m. I have dragged them to the Arbitration panel, I have sent letters to individuals just to help me fight yet nothing has been done. Players should form a union to fight for them. There is a players’ union but I don’t think it is functional.
I think footballers deserve their pay. If the managers of the league can solve that, I think 55 per cent of our league problems would have been solved.
It is affecting players’ performance no doubt. Before some players go for training, they do other things to make ends meet. It doesn’t allow for 100 per cent concentration on the side of the players. They have families to cater for and bills to pay.
Q: Since you retired from active football, how has it been?
It has been difficult. But I thank God that I have gone to the Nigerian Institute for Sports (NIS), Lagos to update my knowledge in the game in terms of coaching the beautiful game. But for now I am still searching for job, which I strongly believe, will come soon.
Q: What advice would you give to up and coming footballers who look up to you?
They should stick to God and allow Him to shape their career. If you put your hands in juju thinking it will take you to greater height you are doomed. My advice to them is to hold on to God because he is the author and finisher of our faith. You must believe in yourself.