Former Rangers and Nigerian international Benedict Ugwu fondly called Surugede in his hey days made his mark as an uncompromising centre back. In this interview with Cyprian Ajah and Esther Egbe, he traces the ignominy that has befallen the game in the country in recent years to a lack of passion and a get rich quick syndrome by footballers
WHEN did you realise you have talent for a career in football?
I discovered that when I was six years old. That was in primary school when the civil war in 1970. Then, I was a member of the St. Patrick primary school Coal Camp Enugu team. From there, I went to play for Enugu Greater Tomorrow; I was the captain of the team. When I enrolled at National Grammar school Nike, Enugu, I continued playing football till I made the UNTH and Brickaways teams in Enugu while I was in school. I participated in secondary schools youth competitions and won several trophies. It was when we returned from one particular competitions that I was invited to play for Rangers in 1981 and that was how I joined the club.
During your time, lots of players were discovered from secondary school, why is same no longer the case toady?
It is disheartening that football competitions among schools have virtually disappeared. This is an area government and other football stakeholders need to come into by in order to genuinely revive the game in the country. Many of us were discovered from secondary school competitions before we were groomed our various clubs and later the Super Eagles. But these days, players simply go to the market, buy brand new boots and jerseys, travel overseas to go and play like Lionel Messi when he has never played on game in the local league. Nigerian players should learn how to exercise patience and horn their skills in the local clubs for a while before going abroad.
Unfortunately, several players get to the national team on recommendation letters from powerful individuals while quite a lot of hard-working and gifted ones with no godfathers never had the chance. It is not healthy for the game. We need to re-introduce school competitions to enhance quality of football in Nigeria otherwise, recent troubles will not abate in years to come.
How long did you play for Rangers FC?
I played for Rangers for ten years. It was our set that gave Rangers the last Challenge Cup and trophies in 1983 and 1984 respectively. I left for El-Kanemi Warriors of Maiduguri where I was one of the pioneer players. We brought the team from second to first division. I also played for BCC Lions of Gboko for four years. I was a key member of the BCC Lions that won the Challenge Cup that year and triumphed in the Mandela’s Cup as well. I was named the Best Nigerian player in 1990 and third best in Africa in same year. The following year we lost in the final and it was then that I returned to Rangers. Later, I went to play for 3SC of Ibadan where I won the league before travelling abroad for professional football. I was in the Super Eagles team that qualified for the 1994 World Cup.
How will you rate Rangers this season?
They are trying but the performance cannot fetch them any trophies (Challenge Cup or League). It is my own assessment. The commitment from the players in the local league is lacking and this has affected over the years. During our time, we were ready to die for the club. Then, the stadium we use for our home games was a fortress. We had tactics that we use to play and entertain the fans. That is that we must score within the first 15 minutes and continue to bounce on our opponent until they are tired. We never relent in controlling the game until the last whistle.
Aren’t you disturbed at the lack of trophies at the club since your exit?
I am highly disturbed because is not what we envisaged for one the best clubs in Africa. I believe something is wrong somewhere. This is not the Rangers of our dream.
If you are offered the Rangers’ coaching job, what will be your priority at mixing things?
I hope to win for the club the federations Cup if handed the responsibility as the coach. It is a dream I am pray to fulfil. And to achieve that only the best players will be selected to play for the club. There will be a new regime of rigorous training and discipline because we were schooled in similar process. Hard training do not kill but enhances players performances on the pitch.
What is the difference between football of now and then?
We played with passion. We played as if our lives depended on every game. Though, everything changes but if one wants to remain relevant, he must adjust but there are things that are constant in football. They are: commitment, seriousness and discipline. Let me use Rangers as an example. Rangers is a traditional team for a particular people. We committed everything we had to please those people. Then, before you accept to play for Rangers, you must be ready to sacrifice your life to defend that cause. We did not play for money. We played to satisfy our numerous fans who abandon their jobs to support us. We dedicate ourselves to working very hard to become a strong and efficient unit. This proved essential in overcoming several stubborn teams. The players of these days play for the sake of money and have no passion. They are constantly looking for profit at the expense of achievements. I lost a tooth playing at the matches at Nnamdi Azikiwe stadium. Any player lacking in commitment, seriousness and discipline cannot excel in the profession. Players should be ready to take risks to achieve success in their various clubs and the national teams.
Can Sunday Oliseh lead the Super Eagles out of the doldrums?
Oliseh was a good player during his active days. But I don’t know if he believes in hard training, this is because it is one thing that has been lacking in the national teams these days. Oliseh should not refrain from introducing rigid training course to the national team. Football is about constant training to keep fit. A coach should not stop a training because some players complain, The buck stops on his table.
here are good players and stubborn players but all must adhere to strict discipline. I will advise Oliseh to work for Nigeria instead of working for money. Let him select the best players that can play for the country. He should remember that he is not the one playing but the players. Therefore he should go for the best that can give him what he wants.
Is football dying or improving in Nigeria?
I can’t say that football is dying. It is the same footballs that we played that others still play today. It is the handlers that make football look as if it is dying. If a coach fields an unfit player just to favour him such coach does not want progress or success. Even if you are my son or a brother, you must get to a certain level of fitness before I feature you in a match. Coaches should not compromise their integrity for money or favouritism. So, if a coach makes wrong selections, he would reap bad result.
Do you have any regret choosing football as career?
No, I don’t. Football made me what I am today. It is from football that I trained my children to the university. Because of football, I have indelible name that cannot be erased on the surface of the earth. Football lovers are familiar with the name Surugede. I can travel with this name to anywhere in the world without spending much. My children wanted to play football but I told them to concentrate first on education.
What number was your favourite?
I love number 5. It was what I wore while playing for the Super Eagles. I was renowned for my defensive abilities. It was why the renowned commentator, late Earnest Okonkwo nicknamed me the Rock of Gibraltar.
Who were your notable companions during your days in active football?
They were numerous but those I can readily recall are: Charley Okonkwo, Louis Igwilo (Commander), Jude Agada, Ikechukwu Ofoje, Ede, late Patrick Okala, David Ngodiga, Moses Kpakor, Afam Nwankwo, Edema Fuludu and late Celestine Nzekwe who was one of the best strikers I ever played against. He could score goals from anywhere and Dan Amokachie.
When did you retire from playing active football?
That was in 2002. I was deceived by an agent who was supposed to hook me with a club out of the country. That same year, I enrolled for coaching course at BFUT African Brazilian Sports School in Abeokuta before attending the National Institute of Sports Lagos and later got a CAF license course at FIFA goal project Abuja. I now coach the Rangers’ feeder team
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