My heart almost stopped beating after Mahrez goal at AFCON 2019 — Etebo


Super Eagles midfielder, Oghenekaro Etebo, shares his national team and club experiences in this interview with JOHNNY EDWARD

What was the experience like playing in Greece with Aris Thessaloniki last season? 

It was a good experience for me. Thessaloniki is a great city in Greece as well and I loved my short spell there. It was alright. It was a good season and I’m glad I could help the team achieve part of their ambitions for the new season. They finished fifth on the log and will be competing in the UEFA Conference League, which is good for the team.

Many expected you to stay back in England or return to Spain or Portugal last season. Why the move to Aris?

To be honest, I was going to be a free player this season and that mattered most in the kind of decision I was going to make. I wanted to play regularly as I was just coming back from an injury that kept me out for over five months. It was just the best option for me. Besides, I didn’t get anything from the Premier League or the English Championship and even the offers I got from Spain were not as juicy as what I got from Aris. So, it was a good move for football reasons and otherwise as well.

Now that you’re a free player, where would you be playing next season? 

That’s a little too early to say now. There are offers I’m currently considering, but let’s see from now to the end of July. Everyone is going to know where I will be playing.

Will you extend your stay in Greece if Aris come back for you?

You want me to tell you discussions are on right? I’ll decide where I’d be playing next season before the end of the month. I just have to weigh all my options carefully and pick the best. Obviously, I have to weigh all my options properly before deciding.

How would you rate the Greek league compared to that of England, Spain and Portugal, where you also played?

It’s competitive, just like the other leagues you mentioned, but not as followed as the Premier League, LaLiga or the French Ligue 1. But it’s a good league.

You joined the legion of Nigerian Premier League players when you joined Watford, on loan from Stoke City two seasons ago. How did you feel playing in the EPL?

I was happy transiting from the English Championship with Stoke City to Watford but sincerely it wasn’t really a good one for me because of injury. I was really looking forward to it. But it is football, anything can happen. My injury came at the beginning of the season and halted my progress at the Hornets. I tore my quadriceps in Watford’s game against Newcastle United. That injury kept me out for over six months and when I returned the season was almost over. But that’s football. What can you say? What can you do? Injuries can come up anytime, but the most important thing is that I’m back and better now. I’m okay. At least I played nearly all the games in Greece.

Let’s talk about the Super Eagles. Your teammates recently bagged the 2023 AFCON ticket. How are you looking forward to the tournament?

I’m happy for the team and congratulations to the coaching crew as well because they’ve done a great job qualifying for the AFCON but we still have a long way to go.

Are you not satisfied with the performance of the team?

I am but what I meant was that we need to improve and play better than our last game. We must not rest on our oars. The most important thing is that the Eagles qualified for the AFCON.

Were you disappointed you were left out of the last qualifiers? 

Not at all, I wasn’t. I’m part of the team. Even before the game, I was rooting for the Eagles to win. I wasn’t disappointed. When the time is right I’d be back in the team again. The most important thing is that the Eagles will be playing at next year’s AFCON and I cannot wait to be part of the team.

Do you think you have a team to compete for the title this time around, having reached the semis in 2019 and crashed out at the last edition in Cameroon in the round of 16?

Of course, we have a good team. I strongly believe that we have a team to compete with other nations for the AFCON title. We have a very good team. It’s just for us to stay focused and make sure we avoid slips. We still have enough time to prepare well and make the team very solid to win another title. At the 2019 AFCON in Egypt, we won bronze, although we were unlucky not to reach the final of that tournament because of the late goal we conceded against Algeria. That Riyad Mahrez free-kick wrecked us. But we’ll see how it goes this time around. Like I said, the AFCON is still far. We still have six months to go, which is enough time to prepare, but I think we’ve got a good team to measure with other countries to compete for the title. Let’s see how it goes.

Let’s talk about that game against Algeria on 2019. How did you feel when that Mahrez free-kick went past the wall and Daniel Akpeyi, who was in goal for the Eagles?

To be honest, it was as if my heart just stopped beating because conceding that late goal gave us no time to even motivate ourselves, that we could draw level again. It was heartbreaking. It was a good free-kick though. No one is to be blamed but that is in the past.

You’ve been in the team for seven years now since you broke into the Eagles in 2016. When was your best moment in an Eagles shirt?

It was playing at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Every player wants to play at the World Cup. All through my years playing for the Super Eagles, I can tell you that remains my best moment as a player with the team.

But you did not have the best of starts at that World Cup, having conceded an own goal against Croatia in your opening game. How did you psyche yourself up for the next game?

It was unfortunate, I didn’t believe it could happen. The ball just deflected off my leg. It was painful.

How were the players able to psyche themselves up ahead of the 2-0 win against Iceland, after that Croatia defeat?

We had no choice because we had our backs against the wall and we knew only way out was to beat Iceland and we did record a win to put us back in contention.

The crucial last group game against Argentina, where the Eagles needed a draw, ended in another painful defeat. How did you feel when the team crashed of the tournament?

The game against Argentina was another heartbreaker. We just needed a draw to advance, but just like against Algeria, we conceded another late goal, which dashed our World Cup dreams. We knew we had the talent to match our best ever finish at the World Cup, but we disappointed ourselves by conceding that late goal. I can’t forget that game against Argentina. We were just seconds away, before Lionel Messi scored. As players we all knew it was a lifetime opportunity for us to make history and we needed to do everything to ensure we avoided defeat, but we let ourselves down.