He is no doubt one of the finest midfielder Nigeria has ever produced. But in spite of his brilliance he never made it to the World Cup. Friday Ekpo still rues that cruel fate as he recalls the highlights of his career and outlines the way forward for Nigeria's football. Ekpo, blunt as ever, speaks with KUNLE ADEWALE
Though he never made it to the World Cup, but Friday Ekpo delights in the fact that he contributed in immensely to Nigeria's first appearance at the World Cup in the United States in 1994.
"I thank God for the kind of talent he endowed me with which made me enjoy playing for the various club sides I played for and the national team. At the club level I won virtually everything that was available to play for. I emerged as the highest goal-scorer in the league in a particular season which was no easy feat, especially when one considered the fact that I was a midfielder.
"Also, at the time, the Nigerian league paraded a lot of great strikers. I also played in the final of the CAF Champions League with Iwuanyanwu Nationale which we lost narrowly. The experience was very useful to me in the latter part of my career. My greatest experience however was helping Nigeria qualify for the World Cup for the first time in 1994 under Clemens Westerhof. It was a great experience, even, though I wasn't selected for the World Cup proper. It will always remain my greatest achievement in my football career," Ekpo said.
The former international also had kind words for all the coaches he had passed through but rates his coaches at Leventis United and Shell FC higher.
"I will always be grateful to all the coaches that helped me get to the top of my career, but special thanks will forever go to Dimitri Toufenis, the Greek that coached me at Leventis United and Coach Robbin at Shell of Gabon. These two coaches really shaped my game and made me the player I eventually emerged to be."
He cites age cheats as the bane of Nigerian football.
"Many of the players that have represented the country in age-grade competitions in the past failed to move up to the next cadre of national team because they falsified their ages. The use of over-age players for age grade competitions is one of the major reasons why football has not fully developed in the country. It has done a lot of harm to our football and the image of the country at the international level. You will expect a good player that is truly 17 years of age to move to the U-21 category and later to the senior team later in his career. But that has not been the case; when you expect to see them at the senior level, they fade away because they had falsified their ages at one point in time," he said.
Ekpo therefore advised that seminars should be organized for upcoming stars in the danger inherent in age falsification, adding that football administrators should desist from putting pressure on coaches to win competitions at all cost, as such coach would be left with no other option than to include over-age players in his team.
"Most of the coaches include over-age players in their team so as to save their job which is doing a lot of damage to our football," he said.
Comparing the national team now to when he was playing actively, the former Leventis United of Ibadan star player said: "Every generation has different types of players. In my time there was really no money in football; we were playing primarily because of the passion and commitment we had for the game. That, of course, cannot be said of this present generation of players, who were mainly involved in the game because of the monetary gain. And that is why they are not really passionate about the game and you don't get to see much commitment and skill in present day football. I therefore implore the present day footballer to be more committed and develop themselves."
On the African footballer of the year award, Ekpo said any of the selected trio (Didier Drogba, Yaya Toure and Alexandre Song) could win it, saying African players have longed bridged the gap that existed between them and players from Europe and South America some 40 years ago.
"Today, African players have forced their way to the prospect by competing with the best players in the world. Africa has produced great players like George Weah, Austin Okocha, Anthony Yeboah, Roger Miller, Samuel Eto'o, Michael Essien, Didier Drogba and many others that are regarded as legends by fans of top clubs they star for in Europe, and have brought glory to their European clubs and to African nations. What we saw at the last Africa Cup of Nations in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea is a reflection of the growth of football in Africa."
Ekpo is optimistic that Nigeria will do well at the 2013 Nations Cup billed for South Africa, saying Coach Stephen Keshi has brought back hope and belief in the Super Eagles.
"Though the building process is still continuing, the coach has brought sanity and hope into the team, most especially on the part of the home-based players. In the past, the home grown players had no chance of playing for the national team except they travelled out of the shores of the country. But now the reverse is the case. They now form the bulk of the team and they now believe in themselves. Their foreign counterparts now know that they cannot just walk into the team like it used to be. This was exactly what Clemens Westerhof did during his era by having a stand-by home-based Eagles that will give the foreign-based a run for their money," he noted.
Apart from the patches of grey hair Ekpo still looks quite fit - a fact he attributes to the regular training he has indulged in after retirement.
"I never really stopped playing football even after my retirement from active play. I still train and play at tournaments. I play football every weekend. I still have what it takes to play the game because it comes naturally," Ekpo, who once played for Al-RaedGassim of Saudi Arabia, said.