Former Super Eagles goalkeeper, Ike Shorunmu, in this interview with EBENEZER BAJELA, shares his experience in the national team, missing the 1994 World Cup, and the decline of keepers in the Eagles squad, among others
What’s the cause of the decline of quality goalkeepers in Nigeria?
As regards the goalkeeping department, we need to go back to how things used to be. I remember the late Stephen Keshi, as Eagles coach, believed in the players bred in the country before combining them with the overseas-based players. The truth is, if we don’t have the basis back home and develop talents in our league, we will continue to struggle in the goalkeeping department.
How were you able to produce quality keepers in your time?
This is still related to what I said earlier, there were quality goalkeepers back then because of the league. Most of us played in our league and we made names for ourselves before we left for Europe. If our league continues to be in shambles, we will struggle to have good goalkeepers in the national team. No matter how good the players we invite from outside, they may continue to struggle here. For instance, the keepers we’ve been inviting don’t know the intrigues of African football, especially the passion the Eagles fans have for football. They fizzle out along the line because of the fans reactions, which they are not used to. If the Nigeria Football Federation and the Interim Management Committee of the league don’t improve our league, the problem will still be there. The national team has to be a blend of both the local league players and those playing outside the country because I could remember when I came into the national team, I was still playing in the league in Nigeria. And I met Peter Rufai in the national team and learnt from him. I also gave him a fight for the No.1 jersey. He would often joke about me wanting to take his No.1 spot from him but I would respond that he remained the first choice while also teasing him that he also took over from Best Ogedengbe.
What was the rivalry for Eagles’ No.1 jersey like in your time?
The rivalry back then was very tough. Whenever had dinner, we joked a lot but the moment we stepped on the field, it was a different ball game entirely because we were all fighting for our future. But that didn’t stop us from respecting each other. The most important thing then was the healthy rivalry and the fight for the No.1 spot. The rivalry between Rufai and Alloy Agu was very tough, while Alloy was also scared of Wilfred Agbonavbare, but people will be surprised to hear that Wilfred wasn’t scared of competition from Rufai. That was the way things were in the camp. The fight was tough, but there was also mutual respect while those of us who were younger learnt and also tried to challenge them too, but we respected them. We still talk now and joke about it and how we all wanted to be the No.1 Eagles keeper back then.
As current Eagles keepers trainer, how far do you think the squad has improved?
We have a lot of talents and we can’t get it right at once but in stages. In my era, we had lots of great players and keepers and we still have them now. I have seen a lot of them but they still need time to get better because the national team is different from clubs. When you get a call-up to the national team it means you have the potential. It is now left to the player to translate the potential and zeal into what is required of them. I am sure that as time goes on, they will deliver because they are a work in progress.
How did you feel after being left out of the ‘94 AFCON-winning team and World Cup squad? What did coach Clemens Westerhof tell you after you were dropped?
The ‘94 squad, which is regarded as the best squad the country ever produced, is the template on which the country is still operating on and I was in the midst of great keepers back then. We were in camp in Portugal ahead of the AFCON in Tunisia when I was told (about being dropped). But during the qualifiers, Rufai wasn’t part of the squad due to a knee injury but he showed up in Portugal and Westerhof was adamant, that he wasn’t going to drop me except Rufai proved that he was better than every other keeper in camp.
Rufai was a great keeper and he proved to everyone that he was the best around. The coach still insisted that he was not going to drop me. And he took me along to Tunisia and assured me that whatever they gave the players I would get half of it because I was part of the team and that I was still young. He had an agreement with the federation, that he wanted me to be with the team and that was how my name was included in the 23-man list instead of the 22-man list recognised by CAF. We won the tournament and all the goodies that were given to the team was equally given to me. Recently, I got my own apartment in Ibadan and I want to thank the government for keeping to their word. The same year we qualified for the World Cup and I was part of the team during the qualifiers while Rufai was injured, but the coach stuck to the team that won the AFCON. Westerhof called me and told me to be patient because I had years ahead of me and that he would love to take the experienced keepers to the World Cup and I wished them well.
You played for Lagos and Ibadan darling sides Stationery Stores and 3SC respectively. What was it like playing before the fanatical supporters of both clubs?
(Laughs) Firstly, I will say I got my boldness as a goalkeeper playing for Stores in 1990. I remember when I went for my first screening with the club while they were training in Ikeja. A lot of players came and we were about nine keepers that showed up for the screening but my height stood me out from the others. I, Abiodun Baruwa and one other keeper were picked. They had a keeper who was with the Super Eagles to Algiers ‘90 AFCON, Presley Berthold, and wanted a backup for him. Every day at the training ground, fans would troop in to watch us, but in our opening game of the season against Iwuanyanwu Nationale, they hauled insults at Presley because he didn’t have a good outing and we lost the game, though the coach brought me on few minutes before the end of the game. The next day Presley didn’t show up for training and that was how I got the opportunity to man the posts.
Were you ever booed by the fans?
I will say I was very lucky with the Lagos fans because 1990 went very well for me. That was when I also got invited to the national team after the FA Cup final between Stores and Rangers. Westerhof was there and he was preparing for Senegal ‘92 AFCON. When I came back from Senegal, my first game in the league was against Shooting Stars and the fans hailed me, they were happy to see me back with the team. Things were going so well for me and we were leading by a lone goal, but with just two minutes left, there was a cross from Bright Omokaro, which I wanted to parry over the crossbar. Unfortunately, I parried it into the net. I was expecting a backlash from the fans because they were already saying the fans would finish me that day, but instead the fans said I was lucky it was me and that was how we moved on. That was how I knew they actually loved me and I had to improve my game.
Is it true that Stores players’ handkerchiefs were used to bewitch opponents?
That’s absolutely not true. People were comparing us to the Stores of the 80s because then they had a coach who they called Baba Joo. I didn’t meet him when I joined in 1990 but I heard a lot of stories, that he was a very fetish man and when I went to watch their trainings, I saw things too. When I joined, the coach Austin Ofokwu would stop by the roadside on his way to camp and buy two dozens of white handkerchiefs and share them with every player. While every other player tied theirs around their necks, I always tied mine around my wrist and people concluded that it was our juju. They said I used mine to command the ball. I won’t say it didn’t happen before because I wasn’t there in the 80s but coach Ofokwu was a very religious man and a born again christian.
What was it like playing topflight football in Europe?
Playing in Europe is a big feat because it shows you have done well. I remember when I left Shooting Stars in 1995 for Switzerland, I could tell that my game had improved compared to when I started. I got exposed to so many things and I got better due to the facilities over there compared to what we have in Nigeria. And I am always happy to have fulfilled my dreams.
Where did you enjoy your best football?
It is very difficult to say this is where I enjoyed the most because life is in stages and I have had different experiences at every club that I played for. I met a lot of friendly people right from Nigeria to Europe. With every move I made things improved both mentally and financially. I enjoyed every club I passed through until I retired in 2005 in Switzerland. They didn’t want me to go but I told them that I got a call back home to come and serve and I had to honour it. I left the club in the middle of the season and they told me I was part of the reasons they sold out their tickets for the season. But I had to beg them and they eventually agreed after a lot of argument.
Who was the toughest striker you played against?
It was definitely Gabriel Batistuta. I first came face to face with him when I was with FC Zurich in 1997 when we went for pre-season in Italy and we played against Fiorentina. It was like a tug-of-war between him and my defenders and even though he is an Argentine he played like an African. Again, I faced him at the World Cup in 2002 in Korea. The first 20 minutes of that game was tough and we had a collision and my boot got torn. I had 60 per cent advantage of getting to the ball first, but all of a sudden, I don’t know how it happened, Batistuta got there before me and I rushed out and tore my boot. I had to collect Vincent Enyeama’s boots to continue the game because I didn’t have extra boots. He was the toughest striker I ever faced, no doubt about it.
Can you recall the funny goal you once conceded?
The funniest goal I conceded was in a game in Zurich in 1997. We were leading 1-0 and playing away to Sion FC and with just two minutes to the end, there was a freakish shot from about 25 to 30 meters and I thought I was going to save it but surprisingly I fumbled it and it went in. What actually happened was that I saw my striker way ahead all alone and the plan was to quickly grab the ball and launch a counter-attack but I lost concentration and didn’t know how the ball went through my legs and into the net and the game ended 1-1 instead of 2-0. Switzerland is not a very big country and its about two and a half hours back to Zurich from Sion. In the bus back home, the other players complained from the beginning of the journey till we got to Zurich because my blunder cost us some bonuses. I got home around 2am but couldn’t sleep till in the morning. Back at training the next day, it was like a nightmare because there was a funny guy in the team who continued making jest of me.
Who is the defender that you were most confident of while you were between the posts?
That defender is Uche Okechukwu because he was very calculative and intelligent. It was very difficult to beat him and that’s why anytime I saw him, I was confident that I was in good hands. We called him Gentle Giant because he hardly got involved in any altercation, he is very quiet.