The 2005 U-20 World Cup silver-winning goalkeeper, Ambrose Vanzekin, who is currently the goalkeepers trainer of NPFL side Bendel Insurance, shares his FIFA U-17, U-20 and Olympics experience with ABIODUN ADEWALE, in this interview
Firstly, how did you get the Bendel Insurance job?
Three years ago, I called coach Monday Odigie that I wanted to join the team as a goalkeeper. I didn’t want to be a coach yet then, so, I started training with the team. Being the kind of person that coach Monday is, he insisted that I must be 100 per cent fit, so, I started doing a lot of training. Along the line, they went for pre-season in Kogi and I didn’t go with them. While they were in Kogi, I got a call from a team in Togo and I left. After training for a few days, the owner wanted to sign me. It was at that point that I called coach Monday again to inform him that I was in Togo. He then questioned the idea and asked me to come back and train his boys as a goalkeeper trainer. That night, I left Togo and started work with Insurance as their goalkeepers trainer. The first year, I did it without a certificate and went to the National Institute of Sports the following year.
How was your experience at the NIS?
It was fun. It’s just like schooling and it required a lot of patience. I am very proud to have passed through the lecturers there and the whole experience taught me that everything won’t be learnt on the pitch. Although they say experience is the best teacher, there are many valuable lessons inside the classroom as well.
What was it like in the NNL and gaining promotion to the NPFL?
Gaining promotion to the NPFL was like opening a new level of happiness for me and the boys. I remember the team was in the league (NPFL) in 2019 but didn’t survive. Having played for the team in the topflight before, I could easily connect with the boys and I am happy everyone understood the job and delivered the NPFL ticket. For me, I personally appreciate the goalkeepers for retaining the training throughout the season, it makes me feel proud as a good trainer. We are still working hard; we are not there yet. So far so good in the NPFL, we weren’t expecting this kind of (unbeaten) run. It’s like magic and it makes me appreciate God more. I like the spirit of the boys, they are working hard to achieve every point.
What’s your relationship with the goalkeepers like?
I had and still have a good relationship with all the four goalkeepers. Sometimes they lose their head but as someone who has been in their shoes, I make them see reasons not to misbehave. Sometimes I remind them that I have multiple medals for Nigeria, including silver medal at the Olympics, so they have to achieve more than that before they raise their shoulders. Eventually, we turn everything to jokes and it ends there. For instance, the current goalkeeper, Amas Obasogie, is someone that listens a lot and I’m not surprised he is one of the best goalkeepers in the league at the moment.
Can you tell us about your childhood and growing up?
The first thing I always remember about growing up is that I lost my dad at a very tender age. So, living with my mom and sister in Kaduna, my love for football was uncontrollable. In fact, it was greater than what I had for education. I started playing football like at the age of three and I think that is why I could play with my legs very well before becoming a goalkeeper. I started as an outfield player until I joined Pepsi Football Academy in 1995. I went to Lagos for the first time in my life because of football, to play the Pepsi Academy Cup. After that, I also played in the Shell Cup, after which I was given a scholarship to attend Great International School, which was one of the best in Kaduna State then. Remember I said my love for education isn’t as great as that of football, so even after being given scholarship, I found it difficult to cope and stay in school. I saw different people from different rich backgrounds and I was just a boy from the streets of Kaduna. I felt like I was in a cage for the first time in my life because it was a boarding school. I had to go and meet the proprietor that I could not stay in the school. So, he asked what I wanted and I asked that some of my friends should also join me and he allowed it. So, some of them came to join me in the school and that gave me a sense of belonging and I managed to catch up a little. I did my WAEC and NECO in the school.
You played at all the age-grade levels from U-17 to U-23 for Nigeria. How did you manage to keep getting into the teams?
I was invited to the national U-17 team from the Shell Cup in 2002, when I captained Great International School. The head coach was Ganiyu Salami and he invited other players and we were all teammates till the U-23 level. Salami took us to the U-17 AFCON in Swaziland and then Austin Eguaveon took us to the World Cup in Finland in 2003. Unfortunately, we were eliminated from the competition by a toss of coin. After that tournament, I went to Benin to join Bendel Insurance, but they said I was too small, so, they didn’t sign me. From there, someone else gave me the opportunity to join Plateau United and they signed me. I remember playing against Insurance in Benin and I saved a penalty. The match ended in a draw and after then I received lots of calls to come back home and join Insurance. In fact, they started paying me before I left Plateau United. From Insurance, I got a call back into the U-20 team.
Having failed to go far at the U-17 level, how did you guys handle the pressure that came with the U-20 World Cup in 2005?
First of all, the U-20 World Cup was tougher and there were lots of drama in the team because there were so many big boys playing abroad. We had issues; different clubs and bodies trying to sign players, so, there was so much attention on the team. First game against Brazil, we played a draw and the pressure was high. In the second game against South Korea, we lost again and the tension became higher. But coach Samson Siasia didn’t panic, so he called us before the last group game against Switzerland.
All of us gathered and coach asked us for the starting 11 and we all agreed on who and who should start the match. Eventually we won 3-0 and then we beat Ukraine 1-0 in the round of 16.
Which game was your toughest at the U-20 World Cup?
Truly, every game was tough, but it was sweet at the same time. We felt joy and satisfaction going through all the stages and winning. Even after losing the final, we still had solace that we did well. But the game against The Netherlands, the host country, was the toughest. Like two hours before the game, the stadium was empty and temperature was high. When we were warming up, there were still just few people inside as well, so, I was still calm. But by the time we finished warming up, the stadium was already filled with orange colour. It was as if they went to the farm before the game and they all came back at the same time. Inside the dressing room, I started listening to Akon to give me some inspiration and coach Siasia apparently knew what we were going through, so he just told me to go and do it. As we were playing, I was hearing different sounds and felt a lot of pressure, but I think scoring first in that game helped me a lot. That really helped my confidence and eventually we beat them on penalties. That was my best game at the tournament. They even told me that a lot of people went to my mom’s shop and packed a lot of things and told her I would come and pay for it. The joy was so much that at some point in Kaduna, people were giving my mother things for free. She had to stop going to the market when it was too much.
You always had a rosary on the field. Do you believe so much in prayers over ability?
I am a Catholic, so I believe so much in it. I always put it in my goal post. Each time opponents try to score against us and they can’t, I always go back to where I put it and kiss it. I remember during one of our matches, one of the fans entered the pitch and I had to run to the referee. So, the guy was at my goal post, looking for my rosary but he couldn’t find it even right in his front. It was like a miracle.
Lionel Messi scored two penalties against you in the final of the 2005 U-20 World Cp…
(Cuts in) It was so easy and I think if he played 10 against me that night, he would have scored because when he was coming to play, he wasn’t running. He watched me and observed where I would go before playing the ball. So, it was difficult for me to decide where to go to.
Aside those penalty incidents, I wasn’t really in awe about Messi, even when we met three years later at the Olympics. When we shook hands, I told him we will meet again in the final and we did.
How about the Angel Di Maria goal against you during the final of the 2002 Olympics?
I read a lot of people saying I should have stayed or rushed out. But what I wanted to do was to slow him down to see whether he would try to keep the ball and dribble me and, in the process, maybe one or two players would have covered up for me. I wasn’t thinking he would loop the ball over me straight away. It was a very painful goal and I felt that if we had won the Olympics, some things would have changed about my career.
Who was the toughest attacker you faced?
Di Maria scored a very clever goal against me, but Messi is still the best player I’ve faced. I don’t know how to describe that guy. He is just fantastic.
Any regrets about not playing in Europe?
Yes, like I said, maybe something would have changed for me after the Olympics. Not so much regret, but I wished I played in Europe as well. One of those things I also regret was a loan move I could have earned to South Africa from Warri Wolves, but the club rejected the offer, saying it was too small. All the same, I enjoyed my time in the Nigerian league. From Kaduna to Plateau United, then to Bendel Insurance, Enyimba, Akwa United, Warri Wolves, Bayelsa United and Wikki Tourists, I really enjoyed playing in Nigeria.
The Flying Eagles are currently in Argentina for the U-20 World Cup, while the U-17 team are also in Algeria for the Nations Cup, how well do you think the boys will perform?
I think they have everything to go far, particularly the U-20 team because they have got some hard lessons from the Nations Cup. The U-17 boys are equally good too and I hope they will reach the World Cup and perform better as well.