By ROMANUS UGWU, Abuja
Ben Iroha did not waste time in acknowledging that he has paid his price after carving a niche in his football career, which he scaled many hurdles to reach its peak. Easily accessible and unassuming, Machi, as his friends call him, is always a reporters’ delight, and he did not fell short of that expectation when TS Weekend took him on several issues, including nosing into his private life.
Iroha spoke like never before on how he stated his football career, the stiff opposition from his school principal dad, the problem with Nigerian football and above all, going beyond the horizon to reveal how he met his wife.
“My wife was a young girl of 18 years old when I met her. She was just beginning to understand what life was when I hurriedly took her away from her parents’ house and I had no difficulty in winning her heart neither did I had any competitor,” Iroha began.
“She was naïve to social life and I can’t tell if she had a boy friend then. Shortly after making marriage proposal to her, I quickly moved her to my house from where she continued her schooling. I provided her with everything she wanted, knowing that some young girls become wayward when they lack the basic necessities of life. So, I made sure she lacked nothing.”
He quipped: “What else would she have asked for with a husband whose name was ringing a bell standing by her side?”
Has Iroha hit his target in his football career? “I have not,” he snapped, “because I have yet to become the chief coach of any national team.
“I have not been lucky. Not that I don’t have the quality or technical know-how to handle that position, but providence has not paced it on my palms. Many hurdles have been on my way towards realising that goal, but I believe that God will certainly see me through very soon.
“However, I’m fulfilled because I belong to the generation of players that lifted Nigerian football to its pinnacle. I can boldly say that I was among those that opened the doors for many Nigerian players. Though many played football before us, it was during our time that Nigerian football gained international recognition.
“Also, I’m happy that I was among the team that qualified Nigeria to her first FIFA World Cup and one that won the African Nations Cup for the country for the second and last time till date, among other great achievements. Our team was rated second best in the world in my time and I’m proud of such achievements.
“The Super Eagles’ 1994 set, which I was a member of, was a great blessings to Nigerian football and it has continued to remain a blessing to the country. For instance, the most senior coach and leader of the national team today as it were, is of the 1994 stock. Most of my teammates had done well in the various coaching/administrative positions they have held both within and outside the country.
“I don’t know any of my contemporaries that did not excel in his assignment. Even if we single out the isolated case of the country’s woeful performance in football last year, I would say that it was not just about the 1994 squad. Don’t forget that we brought more glorious moments to the country than bad times.”
Why Eagles ’94 was a winning team
Unlike today, the love to play for our fatherland was uppermost in our minds than financial rewards, which the players of today are much after. It is on record that I play better for the country than for my clubs. We loved Nigeria so much and wanted to promote her name at all cost. A bond held us together. We never regarded national team invitations as opportunities to come home for holidays. Rather, they were moments to give our best to the country.
Then, we played football with passion. We enjoyed the recognition we had at home because such was not there for us to enjoy abroad. And till today, that privilege is still opening doors for someone like me.
How Iroha started playing football
It all started in Aba in the then old Imo State. I was lucky to have met one Coach Imo, who was like a father to me. He was the person that helped me to realise my dream of playing football. He made us to start from Greater Tomorrows to ball pickers before he assembled us together as a team. It was the good foundation the coach laid for us that took us to the height of our careers in football. In the days we were coming up, we learnt the elementary skills like ball trapping and dribbling among others.
However, my first formal club was the defunct Falcons FC of Aba, owned by a businessman from Abiriba. It was more or less a replacement for Enyimba FC, which was at one point disbanded. Falcons had the complement of stars like Uche Okechukwu, Okechukwu Ajah among others in its squad. We brought the team out of Division 3 before Enyimba International bounced back.
When I left Falcons, I joined Flash Flamingoes FC with Okechukwu Uche because I insisted that we must go together since I didn’t know Benin very well. On getting to Benin, I made sure he signed for the club first before I appended my signature for the deal. From Flamingoes, we joined Bendel United FC before Okechukwu, afterwards, left for Iwuanyanwu Nationale of Owerri. I later joined him at the Owerri side, but he left me for Denmark.
I played for one more year for Iwuanyanwu Nationale before I moved to Cote d’Ivoire, where I sign for Asec Mimosa FC. I later move to the American League, where I became the best player with the highest assist in the new league. I also won the league trophy with DC United FC in America before I joined a second division club side in Spain ahead of the 1998 World Cup.
Unfortunately, that World Cup was marred with controversies after some people conspired and said that Austin Eguavoen, Peter Rufai, Samson Siasia and myself, among others would not make the national team so that we would not corrupt other players, as they stated. They said that we were the cabal in the Super Eagles simply because we spearheaded the fight for our entitlements. The team officials did not invite us for the preparatory games until I got a phone call from the presidency to report to camp. I was ordered to travel straight to Zurich to join the team. Although I made the team, I played only one match because of the politics that was played out.
After the World Cup, I joined Watford FC of England. But, unfortunately, I had a very bad injury. Though I manage to play with the injury, it kept recurring and getting worse up to the point that I had no option than to quit playing active football. Thereafter, I returned to the US with my family, took up a coaching job and continued with my car business.
His coaching profession
In 2006, when Eguavoen, Amokachi, Ike Shorunmu and Siasia were in charge of the Super Eagles’ preparation for the Nations Cup in Egypt, they invited me to come and hang out with them. In fact, it was Jay Jay Okocha that placed the telephone call to invite me to Egypt.
The day I stepped into the Eagles’ camp in Egypt, I was surprised to get a standing ovation from everybody, even when I didn’t know most of the relatively new players. They were all happy to have me around. It was more of a reunion because I did everything with them, including training and dinning together. It was all fun in Egypt.
Before I returned to the US, I told Dr Amos Adamu and Fanny Amun that I would like to coach any of the national teams and I was lucky. During the era of Alhaji Ibrahim Galadima, I was called to become the chief coach of the Golden Eaglets, with Henry Nwosu as my assistant. However, before we began the work, Galadima was forced out of the Glass House and before I knew what was happening, the late Yemi Tella was asked to handle the team with me as his assistant.
I accepted the offer since I wanted to come home and contribute my quota to the development of football in the country. The first day the late coach Tella saw me in camp, he was very happy and announced that he could go and sleep with a competent hand like me as his assistant. I was happy he recognised my qualities. We had a good working relationship and with Garba Manu, we won Africa and the world in Korea with the Golden Eaglets.
Unfortunately, instead of appointing me as the head coach of either the Under-17 or Under-20 national team, I was asked to assist Coach Ladan Bosso in handling the Flying Eagles. Both of us lost the job after we finished third at the African Youth Championship in Rwanda.
Thereafter, I joined Heartland of Owerri and almost took the team to the semi-final on the continent before I was allegedly sacked in very controversial circumstances. But God miraculously made me an assistant to Eguavoen, who was handling the Super Eagles then. With that development, I jumped back to national limelight.
Eguavoen had requested that we should work together with the Olympic Dream Team, but I was more interested in continuing with the Super Eagles. It was when they gave the job to Siasia that I had to join Eguavoen again. I was so guilty, but he gave me a chance to work with him.
Competition in picking starting shirt in Super Eagles
I did not compete with anybody for my position right from the time I joined the Super Eagles. I was on top of my game then. In fact, without sounding immodest, I would have become one of the best and richest players in Nigeria, but I was so unfortunate with injuries stopping my progress.
It was my kind of game that inflicted injuries on me. I could use 200 minutes to play a 90-minute game because of my overlapping style. I was in Bendel United in 1989 when Clemence Westerhof came to watch one of our continental games. After the game, he told the media the next day that if ‘this light skinned player could be cool-headed, he had found a left back for himself’.
From the time I reported to the national team’s camp till I retired, there was no serious opposition in my position. I was way ahead of others because I was at my peak. It was just injuries that slowed me down to participate in only two FIFA World Cup and two Nations Cup tournaments.
The only time I had a challenge was after the exploit of players like Celestine Babayaro at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games. But for me, it was more of a political thing. Most Nigerians were of the opinion then that the 1994 Olympics’ squad, which won the gold, should take over the national team because, according to them, we were getting old.
The Olympians did not help matters either, because they also joined in the campaign to push us out. Because of that, Eagles’ team became so divided that we could not do well at the 1998 World Cup. The camp was strictly divided along camp of old and new players. Babayaro was in his own class and I in my own class. I was far ahead of him, but in fairness to him, he did very well during his days.
The toughest match I played was in Algeria during our World Cup qualifiers. It was a tension-soaked encounter because we needed at least a draw to qualify, while Cote d’Ivoire needed outright three points. Cote d’Ivoire came with so many incentives to ensure the country qualifies. The Algerians equally wanted to deny us the ticket by all means. So, as soon as we managed and scored one goal, we gave the match everything to keep the result. We built a network of defence, which was marshalled by Stephen Keshi, Uche Okechukwu, Eguavoen and myself. And we pushed through.
The game in Algeria was great, but the most memorable one was the game against Cote d’Ivoire because about 80 per cent of my teammates in Asec Mimosa were in the match. Before the game, I had to bet with Troure that instead of him scoring, I would take him out of the game. Coincidentally, he could not finish the game because of my tackle. That was my best game in that Nations Cup.
Eagles and 2013 AFCON
I have refused to make any prediction on the extent Eagles could go in the tournament billed for South Africa early next year until I watch their first game. I want to see the form, shape, fitness, ball possession and cohesion of the team before I can tell Nigerians how far the team can go.
However, I must point out that Keshi has a lot of work to do because he has many good players to pick from. But with best selection and preparations, I think we can go far.
Home-based players as training materials
I don’t think that Keshi is using the home-based boys as mere training materials. But the genesis of giving the home-based players a sense of belonging started when Eguavoen and I were in charge of the Super Eagles. He brought in many of them into the team and when we went to Korea, we had the ratio of 50:50 of the foreign-based and home-based players.
However, our major concern now should be on how to have players that can make us proud. Westerhof succeeded with home-based players like Alloy Agu, Uche Okechukwu, Daniel Amokachi and myself. I don’t believe that any difference exists between home and foreign-based players. Keshi should go for players who are hungry irrespective of where they are based.
Assessment of current Eagles’ left back
We all know that Taye Taiwo has done very well in the past. I was in Miami to watch the team against Venezuela in their last international friendly, and I saw that Uwa Echiejile played very well. But I doubt how consistent he could be. The same goes for Juwon Oshanuwan. But I would advice Keshi to invite the three players to camp in order to make competition for that position very keen. With the competition, he would pick the best among them.
For me, however, Taye is still far ahead of the rest because of his exposure, experience and the unique firepower in his leg. I was at the Nations Cup in Egypt during the match against Ghana and saw what he did. Taye has a Roberto Carlos-like quality, which others do not have. In all, it is left for the coaches to decide.
Career option other than football
I would have been a major dealer in car business because I love car much. Even while I was playing football, I was thinking of doing car business; I love buying and selling of cars. After my retirement from playing football, I went to America, bought a junkie and dismantled it as some traders do it in Onitsha. I then sold the parts. Up till now, I buy cars from abroad and ship them to Nigeria. I do this alongside my coaching job.
My parents wanted me to go to school
I have to admit that education clashed with my football career. Playing football could not allow me to go beyond obtaining my secondary school certificate. But I never had an express permission from my parents to play football. My dad was a school principal. He did not allow me to touch football and would give me the beating of my life anytime I disobeyed his orders and played football. But I saw football as my calling and gift, so I did everything to remain in the game.
My father did not know that I was a good player until one day when he was watching a live match on the television and saw what one player was doing with the ball. When that player scored a good goal, he happily asked who the player was, and was told that I was the one. It was after that episode that he endorsed my playing career. However, none of my relatives bought playing kits for me. Rather, it was my friends and well wishers that bought kits for me as gifts.
I was lucky my parents did not disown me for taken to football instead of going to school. Again, I am happy that my exposure from travelling and meeting people has brushed me up that people wouldn’t know that I did not go beyond secondary school. But I will advice young players to combine their playing career with education because they may not have the opportunity to travel around like me to upgrade their standard.
My wife didn’t know I was a footballer
As at the time I approached my wife, she never knew that I was a footballer. I met her through one of my friends, who was living in Aba. He just told me that he had a wife for me and I followed him to Aba. The moment I saw her in their house, I told her that she was going to be my wife.
Initially, she was hostile to me. She asked what gave me the courage to say such a thing and ordered me to leave their compound. She told me that her parent would kill her if they met us together. When her mother came back eventually, I introduced myself to her. She was not pleased with me. But respite came when her sons came home after a while and started shouting my name, extolling me to the high heaven as their best player.
Then, I heaved a sigh of relieve because their arrival surged my image high. They opened the road for me that my mother-in-law immediately asked if I were the person making them proud. When I informed her that I wanted to marry her daughter, it took only a little resistance of asking me why I should ask for her daughter’s hand in marriage the very first day in met her. She, however, endorsed my proposal and commended me for coming out straight with my intension. She, however, warned that I should not behave like other young men who would deceive girls with marriage only to dump them after getting what they wanted.
After a week, my parents came for the marriage rites. There was no date between my wife and I. It was like love at first sight and luckily, we have been married for 18 years now. We are blessed with three wonderful children.
I had girlfriends, who I was dating, but when I saw a wife material, I jumped to it. Immediately I saw my wife, something in me told me that she was going to be my wife. Even when I left for Europe, I did not regret the decision I made about marrying her. I love her.
In Europe, my club was very happy that I was married. They even told me to bring her to Europe because they believed that her presence would check me from distraction from European ladies. I married in 1994 after the World Cup.
Competition with other men
My wife was only 18 years old when I met her. There was no competition as she was naïve and was just come up to understand what social life was. I hurriedly took her away from her parents’ house and nurtured her the way I wanted us to live. In fact, I wouldn’t know if she had a boyfriend when I met her. Immediately after my proposal to her, I moved her to my house and she continued her schooling from there. I provided everything she needed because I know that some girls become wayward when they lack the basic necessities of life.
I provided everything for her from abroad, including her clothing. She was the first to arrive in America during the 1994 World Cup, even when we had not wedded formally. I had to put her in her brother’s house in America. She saw herself on top of the world by dating a football star.
Challenges of playing outside Nigeria
The most outstanding challenge was the weather. It was terrible when I arrived in Europe. I went to Holland for trials with Ishaya Jato. There, I was lucky the club considered me even when they were only looking for a striker. The weather was very hostile to me, but I had to continue because of the survival instinct in me.
The language was another challenge. But I was lucky we played in a city where blacks were loved and majority of people there were speaking English language. So, communication was easy and I never suffered racially abuse. The former Barcelona coach, Rycaard and Seedof were among some of the notable black players in my club while I was there.
Meeting career target
I would say that I have not met the target I set for myself because I’ve yet to become the chief coach of any national team. I’ve not been lucky; not that I don’t have the needed quality or technical know-how to be there, but providence has not placed it on my palms. I have to scale some hurdles, but I believe that God will certainly see me through very soon.
Again, having coached big clubs like Heartland FC and Dolphins FC, I am not looking for any club less in that category. However, I will remain patient until the opening comes.