It is just over eighteen months that members of Nigeria’s Olympics football team defied all odds and braved every negative circumstance to force their way into Olympics record as medallists as World’s most recognised global event.
Forgotten in the cold region of Atlanta, unable to arrive Brazil ‘normally’ and entangled in a seeming power tussle between the Football Federation and Sports Ministry; the Dream Team were primed for a nightmarish outing in Rio until they dissipated all of such beliefs with a masterclass in their first game against Japan, barely six hours after they touched down in Brazil.
The team went on to claim Bronze at the Football event of the Rio Olympics and six players in that side have gone on to become part of the Super Eagles side preparing for this summer’s World Cup finals in Russia.
Imoh Ezekiel was a key component of that Olympics team as a player contracted to Qatari side Al Arabi but his career has not followed exactly the same pattern many expected it would go after a stellar Olympics campaign.
ACLSports was in Las Palmas recently; where Imoh is hoping to relaunch his career and he could not but recall Rio with nostalgia. “We are all Nigerians and we know how we do our things,” began Imoh to www.aclsports.com
“No matter where we play anywhere in the world and no matter any kind of money you have. You have that spirit that you can survive in any way so that was the mentality we had there (in Brazil).”
“We just put it into our heads already that we are here already and we are Nigerians, we know how things work and it’s for our own good (if we excel) so we just did everything game by game,” he added.
The coach’s role
Rio 2016 was the second time Samson Siasia led a Nigerian side to the Olympics football event.
The former Super Eagles striker was head coach when Nigeria unashamedly finished second to Lionel Messi’s Argentina at the Beijing Olympics but his second stint in charge required him to put his strength of character into use. “Siasia is a very strong man and he knows everything that it is a difficult time,” Ezekiel said quite frankly.
“All he was just doing was to push the boys that we can do it. ‘Try to be there’ ‘Try to win game by game’ and also play for yourself, your future and everything.
“That was what Siasia was all about and we also realised that we needed to win something for all our sufferings.”
They did! Beating Honduras 3-2 in the Bronze medal match in Belo Horizonte.
Disappearance after Rio Olympics
Imoh’s displays for Belgian clubs Standard Liege and Anderlecht have had Nigerians rooting for the quick-feet attacker to play for the national teams.
He justified such calls at the Olympics with some eye-catching performance but then went under the radar after the Rio tournament.
“No, no, no, it wasn’t injury,” he retorted when asked if it was due to injury problems. “I had a contract with the Qatari club (Al Arabi) for four years and I was on loan at Standard Liege, then Anderlecht so after the Olympics they said I had to come back and play for them so I went to Qatar for one season.
“I now went to Turkey (after then). My journey has been a long journey but I’m happy I’m back to Europe and hopefully I will get my condition back and be in a good level,” he enthused.
On World Cup aspirations
Having featured for the Under-23s, the next stage in the line of progression has to be the senior national team.
Imoh’s outing in Rio rightly caught the attention of many, including the newly appointed head coach of the Nigerian national team, Gernot Rohr. The German included the forward in his first call up in charge of the Eagles (for the Nations Cup qualifier against Tanzania) about a month after the Olympics. He has however been overlooked ever since, leaving him with virtually no hopes of a Mundial appearance this summer.
“Sometimes we have to be sincere with ourselves. Everybody wants to play at the World Cup but you have to be in a good condition and you need to have a good season to play in the World Cup,” posited the 36 Lions of Lagos product.
“This season has not been the best for me. I’ve been struggling and trying to get a good season and a good playing time,” he noted admittedly.
As bleak as his hopes of attending his first ever World Cup finals look this summer, Imoh was quick to acknowledge the dynamism of football where things change quickly within a short period of time.
He believes that except such a change in form and fortune happens, he might have to hope for subsequent World Cup tournaments. “For me, I will just say this (2018) World Cup is not for me. I’m not prepared in much games.
“Although (I believe) in football anything can happen maybe in the last two months and I can explode. Maybe I can score one, two, three, four or five goals and you know, everything can change in the last minute and that’s football for you,” submitted the 24-year old.
Imoh Ezekiel’s focus will be on his new team in Spain where he hopes to spend a good part of his future in; Las Palmas. They are currently enmeshed in a relegation dogfight and Imoh will hope they don’t drop.
Watch out for the Las Palmas angle in the second part of our one-on-one with Imoh Ezekiel.