Kwara United goalkeeper, Dele Aiyenugba, in this interview with EBENEZER BAJELA, talks of his time in Israel, his best Super Eagles moment, comparisons with Vincent Enyeama and more
How do you feel as one of the most successful goalkeepers in the history of the Nigerian league?
First I appreciate God for the grace given to me in having a successful career, actually it’s not been easy. And I feel great being regarded as one of the most successful goalkeepers in the country and also being compared to legends who graced the league because it’s a rare privilege. I hope I can help young and up-and-coming goalkeepers, so that they can be better than me.
How does the comparison with your contemporary Vincent Enyeama make you feel?
This is something that has been on from the onset, from Enyimba and down to Israel. A lot of people compared us to each other, but Enyeama is someone I have a lot of respect for and I give him kudos for all he has done. When you look at his achievements with various clubs and the national team, you’ll realise he is a legend. So, being compared to him is something I appreciate and I feel great about.
You spent 13 years playing in Israel. How will you compare football there and in Nigeria?
The differences between the two countries are miles apart because they are way beyond us. Taking a look at their TV rights, things have improved significantly over there, in this regard. I remember when I first got there, they had only two matches broadcast live on TV and they didn’t even have their second-tier football televised at all. Now, look at things over there today, they show all their matches live on television. Both the top-flight football and the second-division matches are available on TV for fans to watch. Football is all about improving every season and this is something that they are deliberate about. When you watch their old matches, you’ll see a lot of fans at the stadium. But something happened and you barely saw them come to watch matches but now they have improved and fans are once again coming out in their thousands to watch their clubs play. We can see Maccabi Haifa contesting in the group stage of the UEFA Champions League, that is the improvement we are talking about and I believe it is very important that we do the same here. They have TV rights, their players have insurance and some other benefits and these are what make their league better than ours.
Recently, LaLiga has been under the spotlight, following racist abuse of Real Madrid forward Vinicius Jr by Atletico Madrid fans. During your 13-year stint in Israel, did you suffer any form of racial abuse as well?
Of course, I did suffer some form of racial abuse, especially when I played against Arab teams. As a goalkeeper, you get booed and I remembered there was a game a fan threw a banana at me and I remember they did the same to Enyeama. They threw bananas at him too; and some will even call your mother and sisters whores. They said all forms of things but this is the game and we just have to stay focused and continue with the game. Recently, I think it is reducing, unlike the way it used to be back then.
What was your reaction when they hurled racist chants at you?
I just looked at them and gave them a thumbs up. Sometimes, I just looked in the direction where the chants come from and clap for them. I remember when they threw a banana at Enyeama, he picked it up, peeled it and ate it. These things happen when you play in Europe, but like I said, they are getting better because, now, the fans can be seen on TV and are banned from the stadium.
Do you remember your Super Eagles debut?
My debut for the Eagles was during the Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers. It’s a game I will forever cherish, it was a great moment for me as a player and as a person. Representing your country and reciting the national anthem for everyone to see is a feeling that you cannot describe, and I give thanks to God.
How did you react to your first call-up?
I was still a home-based player when I got the invite and knowing that I would be competing with Vincent made me realise that I must have been doing something right. I knew Vincent had been there and yet I wanted to be invited, so, I worked so hard. And when the invitation came, I felt so great and the feeling was indescribable.
What was your Eagles’ best moment?
Qualifying for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa was my best moment playing for the national team. I was part of the team and you can’t get any better moment than being at the biggest football showpiece in the world. Definitely, qualifying for the World Cup was my best Eagles moment.
You had a great outing at club level, lifting 10 trophies. But you weren’t that lucky with the national team. How do you feel about this?
It is not something I want to lose sleep over but to remain grateful to God for the opportunities I had. When I look back and realise that I didn’t win anything with the Eagles, I just say to myself that it wasn’t meant to be and I move on. I actually don’t feel bad about it but happy and we need to understand that it wasn’t an individual thing but a collective effort. Also, there were some issues that affected us back then, ranging from administrative issues to changing coaches. I just feel okay with myself.
Do you still have all your 10 medals with you?
Of course, I still have all my medals, so that my son can see them and use them as a motivating factor to push himself to be greater than me.
Who is the toughest striker you ever face?
Generally, I think the toughest striker I faced was Yossi Benayoun because I was in Israel when he returned home from the Premier League.
At 38, what keeps you going?
I will say it is the grace of God and how you keep your body. The grace of God in the sense that I have been lucky with injuries because a serious injury can cut short the career of a player, but I’ve been lucky in that regard. I have never suffered any major injury that kept me out for so long, and I think that’s one of the things that have kept me going.
You’ve often stressed that you won’t return to the national team. Is there any chance that you may change your mind?
This is a question people keep asking me and I want to say it again that I am done with the national team because we now have a lot of young and very good goalkeepers in the national team. What I want to do is to encourage them, support them and see how I can be of help to them. This is the only thing I want to do but as far as playing for the national team is concerned, it is practically over.
You made 324 appearances at club and national teams levels so far, how do you feel about this massive number?
Honestly, I am not aware of these figures. I never knew I had played so much number of games until now, and I can say I’m grateful for that. It feels so great to have made these numbers of appearances because it’s not easy to have played a such number of matches as a goalkeeper in another man’s land. It is such a honour and I can’t wait to have it posted on all social media because not even in my wildest dream did I realised I have played that many matches combined for clubs and the Eagles.