Victor Ezeji had an exceptional career playing in the Nigeria Professional Football League for 20 years and winning a lot of team and personal honours. In this interview with Completesportsnigeria.com's ADEBOYE AMOSU, the Accounting graduate from the University of Port Harcourt speaks about how he is struggling to cope with life outside football and the difficulty in combining education and soccer together. Excerpts …
Victor, let's start by congratulating you on the upcoming testimonial game in your honour coming up in Port Harcourt on January 7...
Thank you my brother for finding time to talk to me and I must say it's a great honour to talk to someone from Completesportsnigeria.com.
You played top flight football for 20 great years, how did it all start?
Actually, you know the normal story for every footballer out there. I started playing on the streets, taking part in different local competitions.
The breakthrough came for me when I was discovered by Barrister Chris Green (chairman, technical committee of the Nigeria Football Federation) during a local competition called Mock Nations Cup in Port Harcourt.
Barrister Green was the secretary of the defunt Sharks Football Club of Port Harcourt at that time, and he invited me for trials at the club.
I could remember vividly it was towards the end of the year in 1995. I was very young then, around 14 years close to my 15th birthday.
What was the experience like for you during the trials?
I did my thing and was not scared of big boys in the team. They initially wanted to put me in their feeder team because of my age, but they were so impressed with my performance and had no choice than to promote me to the first team immediately.
What was the support like from your parents then, did they raise any objection to you becoming a professional footballer?
My mum and dad were very supportive then. None of then objected to the idea of me playing football on a full time basis. The only condition they gave was that I have to combine playing football with education. They made that clear to Chief Adokiye Amiesimaka who was the chairman of the club then and we moved on from there.
Combining football and education at such a younger age must have been tasking for you, how were you able to cope with the challenges?
It was wasn't easy combining football with education back then. But the support from my parents, and the University of Port Harcourt authorities made things a bit easy for me. The management of Sharks provided a bus for me which eased my movement from training to school.
I got a special treatment from the club, So I didn't really feel the stress much.
A professor in the school, Ken Anibeze also made things easy for me.
That would probably have made you a kind of 'boy star' in school then…
(Long laughter) You are actually right. I was very popular back in school then. Not only in Uniport, but almost every part of the town. People were like who is this boy and I really enjoyed the attention.
Do you have any regrets now that you are out of active play?
I really don't have much regrets, only that when we had the opportunity of playing for the Super Eagles, we didn't have a coach like Stephen Keshi to encourage us, like he did to the home based players he handled during his time.
There was a time we were in camp for over three months and needed to go to the United States of America to represent Nigeria in an Obama Invitational Tournament. We were to play some friendly games and the coach (Samson Siasia) brought in some overseas-based professionals to play in just a mere friendly game.
It was so pathetic for us as to have been in camp that long and not have the trust of the coach.
Later, when the oversseas-based guys discovered that the game will be played on a synthetic turf, they turned their back and they started looking for players to play the game.
It was an opportunity for us to show what we can do, but they didn't give us the chance. If we had done well, Nigerians would have had a different thought about home-based players then.
What about your memorable moments?
I have a lot of them. Winning the CAF Champions League with Enyimba for the first time in 2003 was special.
Moving from Enyimba to Dolphins was great. Winning the Federation Cup and the league with Dolphins was also a big one for me. That same year, I was voted the Most Valuable Player in the league and the Federation Cup.
The good moments are so enormous, winning the Federation Cup with Dolphins back to back in 2006 and 2007. In all, it was a fantastic 20 years for me. The good thing for me is that they were all in the top flight.
Who is the toughest opponent you played against in your active days?
I can't really mention any name. As a striker, my job is to score goals and I was always ready for any opponent.
Did you ever get the chance to play in Europe during your active days?
Yes. There was a time Churchil Oliseh, the elder brother of former Super Eagles coach and captain, Sunday Oliseh was keen on taking me to Europe, but my father was like we have to be careful with the whole thing.In the end, I never got the chance to play in Europe, but it's not something I regret.
I played in Tunisia with Club Africain between 2007-2008, and I enjoyed my stay there.
How are you coping with life outside football now?
Honestly, I missed playing football so much. My system is still adapting to my new lifestyle. I have been used to training, travelling with my teammates ahead of games, staying in the hotel, sharing banters with my teammates and a whole lot of things.
I still wake up early around 5am in the morning every day to do the normal exercise.
It's not possible to play the game forever and I'm trying my best to cope without it. It is a whole new life entirely.
What are you into now in retirement?
At the moment, I'm back to school studying football adminstration. I want to give back to the society all the key things I learnt during my active days. I want to nurture the youths, to help them actualize their dreams.
That means there is the possibility of seeing you become the president of the Nigeria Football Federation in future…
(Long laughter). I didnt say that o, but if that's God's plan for my life, no problem.
How is the home front?
I'm happily married to the best woman in the world. We have four lovely kids
and all of them are doing great. I must say marriage is sweet when you are married to the right person. My wife is best woman in the world and I'm happy to have her as my life partner.
Would you love any of your kids to become a footballer in future?
Why not. I won't object to that if that is their wish. I was not stopped from playing football, so I don't see any reason why I should do that to my children.
Already, I have been to the stadium with them on a number of occasion to see football matches live. They love the game too and are showing interest. Even if all of them decide to become footballers I won't stop them.
What has changed about the NPFL from when you started playing for Sharks and now?
A lot of things has changed, but the key one is the spectatorship. Then the stadium is always filled to capacity by 12 noon but things are no longer the same now – I can tell you that authoritatively. People followed the league religiously then.
The love for foreign leagues has affected the level of followership of our league.
Lately, things have started improving with more fans showing interest in the Nigerian league. Then there is the issue of security. Back then, you can't just misbehave in the stadium or harass people like you see now. If you try doing that, the fans will stop you.
What do you think the League Management Company can do to remedy the situation?
We have seen a lot of improvement since the time of honourable Nduka Irabor. He did a remarkable job then and Alhaji Shehu Dikko coming on board has improved on Irabor's achievements. It has been like an icing on the cake.
Talking about ways of improving the league, the first thing I think they need to do is get more matches live on television. Then we must also improve on the security aspect too. The stadium environment must be made conducive for people to come in without fear. You see fans in Europe come to the stadium with their families. It will be nice to see the same thing here.
The officiating aspect must be look into as well. The era of winning at all cost at home is long gone and clubs must fight for points anywhere.
Let's talk about the big one coming up on January 7 at the Sharks Stadium Port Harcourt – the Victor Ezeji Testimonial…
Well, I'm not the chairman of the main organising team, but we have gotten positive responses from the people we are expecting to be part of the game.
The game was initially planned for December 10 but it was postponed because of the re- run election in Rivers State.
Then we shifted it to December 17, but we were forced to shift it again because of the Annual General Meeting of the Nigeria Football Federation. Now we have agreed on January 7, and we are praying that nothing will forced us to shift it again.
Basically, the key message I want to pass out to footballers out there is that you can achieve great things by playing in our league. That they don't need to run to obscure countries like Malaysia, Vietnam, Bangladesh and so on to be big.
You can do your thing here and when you are done, you are celebrated. To let them know there is light at the end of the tunnel. To let them know they can be celebrated here too.
On a final note, how are u looking forward to the start of the new NPFL season?
Like every keen follower of the NPFL, I'm keen to see the season starts and hope it will be another fascinating one.