Victor Ikpeba: Nigeria’s Prince of Monaco

By Richard Johnson

Kayode OGUNDARE @kaybaba99

 

 

 

VICTOR NOSA IKPEBA was one of the players that the great Pele of Brazil tipped for greatness in the game. He went on to win the prestigious African Footballer of the Year award, four medals in four AFCON appearances as well as a coveted Olympics gold medal…….

Ikpeba conquered Africa in 1997 when he won the coveted African Footballer of the Year but that triumph did not come overnight. It was the realisation of a dream forged in the crucible of hard-work, a journey that started many years ago in the city of Sapele in the then Bendel State (now in present-day Delta State) in the South-South region of Nigeria.

Born on 12 June, 1973 in Benin City to a football-loving father who died when victor was quite young but whose photographs the young Victor saw as a toddler.  Probably because of the early death of his father, he grew up with his paternal grand-mother in Sapele and it was in that oil-city that he started his football career, kicking rubber balls on the streets with boys of his age.

It was also in Sapele that he started schooling, first at the Crowther Primary School and later at the Okpe Grammar School where he was a star member of the football teams. His fame went far and wide in the town, with everybody trooping to wherever he played, wanting to see the skinny left-footer who could do unspeakable things with the ball at his feet.

He lacked a formal structure to hone his skills in the early days but his perhaps most important saving grace was the fact that the Crowther Primary School field was just right behind his house so he could afford to play as long as he wanted until very late in the night. All he needed to do once he was through for the day was to jump the school fence and he was right back at home. This unfettered access to play football and the lack of a stern father-figure who could stop him or, at least curtail his movement, helped the young Ikpeba to get better and better at his trade.

Yet, he didn’t get into his first formal club until he made the transition to Lagos. On completion of his secondary school education, he travelled to Lagos to live with an uncle and got the opportunity to play for Green Berets FC, a team campaigning in the Lagos Amateur Football Association (LAFA) League.

However, his uncle kicked against his playing football, basing his opposition on the fact that football was a high-risk game that could lead to permanent disability in case of a major injury and, perhaps more importantly, it was not a well-paying job at the time unlike the current era where players make ton of money weekly. As a compromise, he sought and got admission to the Yaba College of Technology to study Business Administration and still continued to play his football.

From Green Berets, he was soon to move to Eko Holiday Inn FC, still in the LAFA league but his performance was attracting attention of those that mattered in the sport. The year was 1988 and ACB Football Club, a big outfit campaigning in the elite division showed interest but before they could move for him, he got a call up to the national U-17 team preparing for the qualifying series of the FIFA Youth Championship scheduled for Scotland the following year.

After a grueling selection process, he finally made the team and helped it to qualify for the World Cup. However, his job was not done yet as he still needed to make the final cut to Scotland because the national selectors had used a larger pool of players to prosecute the qualifiers and must trim the suad down to the final 18.ACB made a successful bid and got the signature of the budding star who, it was apparent to everyone, was destined for greater things. He made the step up to the big league and was already in the first team by the time he left for Scotland with the Golden Eaglets.

In Scotland, Ikpeba played every single minute of the Eaglets’ four games as the Nigerian starlets came unstuck in the quarter-finals against eventual winners Saudi Arabia. They were eliminated via penalty shoot-out after regulation and extra-time had ended barren.

With two goals in four games, Ikpeba stood out as one of the stars of the tournament even though their ambition to lift the trophy had been cut short.  It was a painful exit, particularly as the Nigerian lads had captured the imagination of the whole world with the great Pele of Brazil singling out Ikpeba among four of the Eaglets that he predicted would go on to do great exploits in the game.

Back home after the World Cup, Ikpeba returned to ACB but his days in the domestic league was numbered even though he had no clue at the time. Several European clubs scouts were in Scotland and he was one of the players whose names featured prominently in transfer talks. He was soon on his way to Belgium, which was then the destination of choice for Nigerian players going to Europe.

He signed for modest Belgian side RFC Liege, a decision he explained thus: “I was privileged and lucky to have gone to a club like Liege which had a fantastic structure to help young players develop their potentials. Not all clubs adopt that set-up; it was one of the oldest clubs in Belgium. Liege manager Robert Waseige knew that I was talented but he equally knew that it was not going to be easy for a 16-year-old to stay alone in a hotel; you would not be able to concentrate on what you were brought in for. So I was taken to a Belgian family, whom I stayed with for two years to learn their language and life. I was the only black player they had then but the old players accepted and helped me. The two years were helpful and I had to give credit to the family who helped me out.”

He was not to be the only black, nay, Nigerian player at the club for long. After one year, another Nigerian, Sunday Oliseh was brought in and both players struck up a close friendship since, apart from being clubmates, they were also compatriots and the only two blacks at the club. This situation was also redressed shortly as another Nigerian, goalkeeper Alloy Agu joined the Liege train to swell the ranks of Nigerians in the Belgian league and, shortly after, KingamboNgoy from Congo also signed up. Together, they made a fantastic African quartet and hung out after training and games, shopping and having a good time together.

On the pitch, Ikpeba had a rough beginning, having to battle the weather, the strange dos and don’ts which are alien to an African coming to Europe for the first time as well as the unfamiliarity of a strange environment.

However, his quality began to seep through and by the second year, with his rough edges polished, he started banging in the goals on a regular basis and soon became the talk of the town. That year, 1991, he got his first call-up to the Super Eagles team participating in the qualifiers for the African Cup of Nations to be held in Senegal.

When the final list was to be announced, Ikpeba had done enough to satisfy Dutch coach Clemens Westerhof and he was included in the team to Senegal ’92, his second major tournament in three years for Nigeria. However, because of the glut of quality attackers in the team (Rashidi Yekini, Samson Siasia, and Jonathan Akpoborie) meant Ikpeba, who was actually the youngest player in the team, did not see any action until the third place match against Cameroun which the Eagles won 2-1.

At his age, he was expected to headline the next generation of stars for the senior side but he never really got going principally because Yekini was at the height of his scoring prowess, the team was brimming with established quality players in every position and Ikpeba also had a running battle with coach Westerhof. It was for these reasons also that he played bit-part roles in the team that won the AFCON in Tunisia ‘94 and went to the World Cup in USA same year.

All of these factors inhibited his caps for Nigeria but, ironically, his profile kept soaring at club level. He won the Belgian Cup as well as the Ebony award for Best African player in Belgium as well as being named second best young player in the league in 1993, the year he scored as many as 17 league goals.

The big teams in Europe were keeping an eye on the young African at Liege and AS Monaco made a bid in December 1992 although they wanted Ikpeba on a six-month deal. Liege refused to release their star asset because they also needed his services in the battle to guarantee top-flight survival at the time.

At the end of the season, French side RC Lens came on board and, when it appeared as if a deal had been concluded for him to move there, Monaco came back with an offer player and club could not refuse. In one week, the deal was concluded and Ikpeba headed to the French principality on a five-year deal.

From the backwaters of Liege in the Belgian league to the giddy heights of Monaco in French Ligue 1 was a massive jump for the 19-year old African but he was determined to make it at the highest level. Week in and out, he was rubbing shoulders with some of the best players in the league and Monaco’s involvement in European football meant he could afford to play against football’s biggest names on the continent.

Things did not initially go according to plan at Monaco. The team struggled in his first year and, by the beginning of the second season, Arsene Wenger, the coach who brought him to the club was sacked.

Ikpeba recalled: “Initially for me, it was okay in my first season with coachWenger but later I went downward after he was sacked in 1994. Wenger’s departure touched me so much. Unfortunately, Jean-Luc Ettori, my former teammate who took over as caretaker coach did not give me the opportunity to express myself. Later, he was replaced by the youth team coach Banipe who gave me another chance. Finally, when Jean Tigana arrived, things became very difficult for me. Things weren’t going well between us and I was feeling frustrated.”

During this difficult period, he was involved in Nigeria’s attempt to qualify for the Atlanta ’96 Olympics. In the final qualifying fixture against Egypt, the Nigerian U-23 side, aptly nicknamed Dream Team walked a tight-rope after a 3-2 first leg win at home. All that Egypt needed was a one-nil victory at home and they, not Nigeria, would have been on the plane to Atlanta. The Dream Team proved their class in the return leg by drawing 1-1 with Ikpeba scoring a scorcher of a goal to get the Olympic ticket for the country.

In Atlanta, Ikpeba was an integral part of the team that played Hungary, Japan and Brazil in the opening round to secure a quarter-final ticket. They beat Mexico in the last 8 to set up a rematch with group rivals Brazil who had run away with a 1-0 win in the group game.

The semi-final match, played on July 31 became one of the most interesting of the entire Olympics as Nigeria came for three goals to one to level up and eventually win 4-3.  Ikpeba scored Nigeria’s second goal after coming in as a substitute and he had a hand in the winning goal when the ball hit him in the back and inadvertently fell into Kanu Nwankwo’s path and the Nigerian captain made no mistake to tuck it in.

He started the final as Nigeria beat Argentina to win the gold medal, a first for any African side in the competition.Because he was an active participant, Ikpeba had an insider’s view of happenings before, during and after the battle was won in Atlanta. Success has many fathers, he told a newspaper some years back, but the gold medal was not won on a platter of gold as the team had to go through hell and high water to succeed against all odds.

He recalled of the journey to the gold medal: “Our preparation (for the Olympics) was nothing to write home about. They (team officials) said there was no money. At a point, the players used their credit cards to hire some buses in Tallahassee to take us to training and back to the hotel. I was a driver of one of the buses. It got so bad that the hotel staff refused to launder our jerseys. They wanted it to get dry before they would wash it because of stories of AIDS. I think because we lost 3-1 to Togo while preparing for the Olympics, nobody gave us a chance but we had self-belief. We didn’t know if we would win the football gold medal though, but our target was the semi-final, where probably, we could win the bronze medal.”

On his return from Atlanta with a gold medal around his neck, Ikpeba continued his good form for Monaco by posting wonderful performances and scoring breath-taking goals. He helped Monaco to the league title under coach Jean Tigana with players like Jurgen Klinsmann, David Trezeguet and Emmanuel Petit and, finally, recognition for talent and hard-work came his way when he won the prestigious African Footballer of the year in 1997, beating AS Monaco teammate Japhet N’Doram of Chad to second position and succeeded national teammate and countryman Kanu Nwankwo who’d won the previous year.

Relationship between him and coach Tigana soon deteriorated to the point where they were no longer on speaking terms and though he had signed a contract extension until 2001, it soon became apparent that he would soon be playing elsewhere.

At the beginning of the 1999 season, he moved to Borussia Dortmund where he was reunited with Sunday Oliseh, six years after they separated at Liege.
He was a part of the squad to the France 1998 World Cup and scored the only goal in the second group game against Bulgaria, a result which was good enough to take the Super Eagles into the next round where they eventually crashed to Denmark and exited the competition.

In 2000, two important landmark events happened to Ikpeba. First, at the African Cup of Nations in January, Nigeria lost the final game on penalties with Ikpeba’s shot controversially ruled out to hand the title to arch-rivals Cameroun. He was roundly criticized by fans who claimed he was responsible for the loss. Later, in May, he lost his wife of many years to cancer and it was a trying period both in his personal and professional life.

The decision to go to Dortmund was not the happy move Ikpeba envisaged and, after a falling out with coach Matthias Sammer, he moved to Spain to sign a loan deal with Real Betis which had fellow Nigerian international Finidi George on its roster. He appeared at the 2002 AFCON with Nigeria but missed out on the World Cup of that year.

The move to Betis, just like the Dortmund adventure, also went sour and after few appearances he moved toLibya’s Al-Ittihad but he soon returned to Belgium to reunite with his former Liege coach at Charleroi. His last hurray was with Al-Sadd of Qatar before calling time on his career in 2007.

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