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Nigerian Clubs Cheat Players Who Don’t Have Lawyers — Ezeji

Heartland forward, Victor Ezeji, who has won the CAF Champions League and several Nigerian Premier League and FA Cup titles in the past 20 years, speaks about his career and the Nigerian league in this interview with Allwell Okpi.

Heartland forward, Victor Ezeji
Victor Ezeji

How did you start playing football?

I started playing like every other boy on the streets of Port Harcourt. We had an annual tournament we called Mock Nations Cup, where players represent their streets. That period, I was the highest goal scorer in the tournament year after year. In 1995, when we were playing semifinal, Barrister Chris Green, who was the secretary of Sharks FC then, came to watch us because somebody had told him about me. In that game, I scored a hat trick. After the game, he sent for me. When I met him, he said I was fantastic and that he wanted to give me a chance to try out with Sharks. Eventually, I had my first training with Sharks and they were impressed. On the second day, the chairman of the club, Adokiye Amesimaka, came to watch and he spotted me and after the training he asked me some questions and welcomed me to the club. That was how I joined Sharks.

How old were you then?

I was 14 to 15 years old. I was the youngest player in the league then. When I started, newspapers were addressing me as the young kid on the block.

Were you still in secondary school?

I had just finished from secondary school and I got admission that year into Abia State University. I started schooling early. I went from primary five to secondary school. sat for the Universities Matriculation Examination when I was in SS2 and passed. So I skipped SS3. I did one year in ABSU then switched to University of Port Harcourt because of Sharks. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Accountancy.

Did you ever have conflicts with your parents regarding schooling and football?

My parents were the brains behind my combining schooling with football. In my second year in the university, I had an offer to play in Italy. It was Churchill Oliseh who came looking for me all the way from Lagos. I took him to my parents and my father told him that they would not stop me from playing football but I had to get my bachelor’s degree first before travelling anywhere to play football. Adokiye Amesimaka, who combined education and football, also encouraged me to combine both.

You went to Tunisia at some point. Why did you return to Nigeria?

I went to Tunis to join Club Africain. I signed a two-year deal with them and started playing for them in 2008. I got married in 2007 and then travelled to Tunis only a few months later. At some point, I had a family issue that required my presence in Nigeria. I was in the CAF Champions League with the Tunisian team and they didn’t allow me to travel. When the club lost out in the Champions League and went down to the CAF Confederation Cup, I felt that since the club was in a lesser competition, they would allow me to go. I just needed a two-week break to sort out things. They still refused to let me go. You know that no job is worth anyone’s life. After pleading with them for a long time, I decided to end the contract. That was how I came back to Nigeria. I didn’t regret taking that decision because immediately I came back to Nigeria, the family issue was resolved.

What has been your experience with the Nigerian clubs you’ve played for in the past 20 years?

I played for Sharks from 1996 to 1997. I started as a winger and I was scoring goals. Then in 1997, most of our strikers left, I was converted to a full striker. I was Sharks’ highest goal scorer in 1997, and as a result, Eagle Cement (now Dolphins), who were playing in the CAF Champions League after winning the league came calling in 1998. I wanted a new challenge on the continental level, so I joined them. In 2000, I went back to Sharks and I was made the captain of the team. I was there till 2002, when we played against Enyimba and I scored a hat trick against Vincent Enyeama. Enyimba won the league that year and were due to play in the CAF Champions League. I accepted an offer from Enyimba in 2003 and that year we won the CAF Champions League and the Nigerian league title. In 2004, I went for trials in Denmark. I spent about two months there and had issues because Enyimba didn’t release my clearance. When everything failed, I came back to Nigeria. In my first training with Enyimba, I got injured. Then I decided to move over to Dolphins when they gave me an offer that was about three times what Enyimba was paying me. That year Dolphins won the league and the FA Cup and I was the Most Valuable Player in the two competitions. I was rewarded with a car, Volkswagen Polo 2004 model, and N1m, whereas the players who won the CAF Champions League for the second time in a row for Enyimba got nothing. In 2006, I was made the captain of Dolphins. We won the FA Cup that year and I was the MVP and top goal scorer. We won the FA Cup again in 2007. From there, I went to Club Africain and returned in 2009. By then Dolphins had been relegated to the lower division. Even though I loved the club, I didn’t want to tarnish my record by playing in the lower division. So I joined Sharks. I was with Sharks till 2013 when I moved back to Enyimba. In 2014, I joined Sunshine Stars because I wanted to move out of South-East and South-South.

Was Sunshine any different?

I really enjoyed playing for Sunshine because we were like a family. We did everything together. Before I joined Sunshine, I had talks with Crown FC but they couldn’t fulfill their own part of the deal. After Sunshine, I really wanted to end my career with either Sharks or Dolphins but some people opposed it. I just decided to call it quits. I announced my retirement. Later on, an offer came from Heartland and I had to come out of retirement to make it my 20th year in the league. I have scored in all the 20 seasons. It looked like I wasn’t going to score for Heartland. But when we faced Dolphins on Week 37, I got a chance and I took it. It was my second game for Heartland. It was historic for me. I was happy I scored against Dolphins.

Are you retired now?

Not yet. When this season ends, I will decide.

Was it when you moved from Enyimba to Dolphins that you became the highest-paid player in the league?

I was the highest paid then but when I got my highest pay was when I came back from Tunis and joined Sharks. The club paid me almost the same amount I got in Tunis.

That was how much?

The salary was $2000 that was N240,000 then and the sign-on fee was in the region of N10m.

The Nigerian league has lost much its glory over the years. What really happened?

In the 1990s, when we started playing, the stadiums usually got filled with fans by 2pm for a 4pm game. The reason was that nobody was watching Arsenal, Manchester United, Barcelona, etc. Everybody came to the stadium to watch Sharks, El Kanemi Warriors, Rangers and other Nigerian clubs. Our league started losing fans when cable TV arrived in Nigeria. We have a system where all our games start by 4pm and many of these foreign league matches are played around that time. So, many choose to stay at home and watch these games on TV. Secondly, then security at stadiums was tight. But at some point, security became poor at stadiums, when people bring their families to watch matches, they are harassed and sometimes they get robbed of their phones and other valuables.

Has the League Management Company helped in any way?

Somehow, things are getting better. The League management Company headed by Nduka Irabor changed a lot of things. Now our league runs till the end of the season and it is more competitive because clubs no longer win the league with as much as five games in hand. Then Shehu Dikko, who is heading the LMC now, has taken it further. Now referees are sitting up. One may not be able to blame the referees because they were often threatened and beaten up and they had no choice but to compromise. Now fans are gradually coming back to the stadiums. I can say our league is getting better. The fact that there were away wins on Week 36 is a sign that the league has improved.

What about the issue of clubs owing players?

There is a problem with the way our clubs are run. A club will invite a player and promise to pay him N1m, for instance, but at the end of the day, the club will pay him N200,000 and when the player wants to leave, the club will refuse to give him clearance until he agrees to forfeit his sign-on fee. I’ve always advised fellow players to have at least a lawyer to help negotiate their contracts with clubs. I have a legal team headed by Barrister Chike Onyeacho. He has been the one negotiating my contracts with clubs. If you do things legally, nobody can cheat you. I’ve never been cheated by any club because everything is written in black and white. It is cheaper to hire a lawyer than to go without one and get cheated by club managers. A club can rob a player of up to 80 per cent of their sign-on fee but a lawyer will collect at most 20 per cent.

Since you started at 15, why didn’t you play for Nigeria at the U-17 level?

One needs a godfather that will push him that far. I had nobody to get me into the Golden Eaglets. But I played U-23.

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