The name Azubuike Okechukwu does not ring a bell in the Nigerian football circle. However, on his lean shoulders lies the desire of millions of Nigerians to see the country repeat the heroics of the famous Atlanta ’96 Olympics in Rio next year. He shares his knowledge of the game with ESTHER EGBE
TELL us a bit about your background?
I am Azubuike Okechukwu, the second of three boys in my family. I am from Umuahia, Abia State.
How did you get into football?
I started playing from football since I knew myself. Let’s say since my primary school days. When I realized I had a passion and flair for the game then I joined Suleja Football Academy. I was there for several years before I finally moved to Minna where I commenced a professional career with Niger Tornadoes.
Were your parents instrumental to you taking a career in football?
My mother is a football lover. She was my first and most supportive football fan. She got me my first pair of football boots. It is unfortunate that she is now late. She always wanted to watch me play.
Where are you plying your trade now?
I am currently in Turkey where I play for Yeni Malatyaspor. I joined the club five months ago and the experience has been fantastic.
Why do you think Siasia settled for you as his captain?
I am not actually very certain but I probably gained his confidence due to my perseverance and hard work on and off the pitch
What is it like captaining the U-23 team?
It has been a great opportunity to be part of the team. Being the captain is just a bonus. I am honoured to be chosen as the representative of a group of some amazing players. It is naturally a demanding task and it is comforting that we are now qualified for the Olympics.
What is your impression of the technical crew?
The head coach, Samson Siasia, is an amazing coach and so are the other members of the team. They are like fathers to all of us. They demand the best at every training section in order to bring maximise the potential of the players.
What is the one thing you would want to change in the Nigerian League if given the opportunity?
I will insist on regular payment of the salaries of the coaches and the players. That is the best way to see the best of the players. Football can’t be played on empty stomach.
Have you ever felt like giving up football in your budding career?
I have never felt like giving up in the game. I’m optimistic that big treat is around the corner.
Who is your favourite Nigeria player?
That is Mikel Obi.
Have you scored any goals for your club this season?
None. It is mostly because I play in the defensive midfield.
Did the success of Golden Eaglets serve as any motivation to your side?
Of course. When a team does well, it has a ripple effect and it really spurred us to maintain that trend for Nigerian football.
Apart from Turkey, where else in Europe are you eager to play?
I pray that I can soon move to either England or France. Those are the leagues I wish play in soon.
Are there any similarities between the Turkish and Nigerian league?
No way. The difference is too big. The league in Turkey is better organised and technically better than Nigeria’s.
Are you completely satisfied with the performance of the team in Senegal?
I feel happy that we qualified for the Olympics but there were several lapses in our play at the competition that demands urgent attention and correction. We will be lost in Rio if they were not corrected.
Which of the strikers in the team has impressed you most?
Both Junior Ajayi and Taiwo Awoniyi are fantastic players. The new guy, Victor Osihmen, has also been very good. He has amazed me; he could be a great player for Nigeria in the future if his skills are properly nurtured.
Who is your favourite manager in the Nigerian league?
That will be Ladan Bosso. He is a wonderful coach.
Which is the best and worst stadium you played in while in Nigeria?
I rate the Enyimba Stadium in Aba as best and the Katsina Ala as the most frightening.
Do you think the Nigeria media is giving enough coverage to the league?
The Nigerian media are doing their best but I would say that haven’t been enough compared to what obtains in other countries.
Do you still monitor the Nigerian League?
Yes, I do, because that is where I started from. I am still very interested in what happens there.
What do you think should change?
There is the need to improve on officiating, administration and publicity.
What’s your favorite food?
I love eating fufu and egusi soup.
Where have you seen the largest fan in Nigeria league?
That will be Kano. The Pillars’ fans have no equal in Nigeria when it comes to supporting their team.
Do you believe Nigeria need foreign coach?
Not now in our national teams. The indigenous coaches currently handling the national teams played the game to the highest levels and they are very knowledgeable. Except we are saying they aren’t god enough because they are Nigerians.
Who is your favourite foreign player?
My favourite foreign player is Xabi Alonso. The guy is one best defensive midfielder in the game ever.
Are you married or single?
I still have a long way to go, am too young for marriage now, so that makes me single.
Which club do you support in Europe?
I am a die-hard Arsenal fan.
How do you relax?
I love playing Fifa games and read spiritual books.