They say I was arrogant – I was just confidentThomas Kwenaite
They do not produce them like they did during the generation of
Yakubu Aiyegbeni who remains to this day the third all-time top goal
scorer for Nigeria and the first African to score a hat-trick in a UEFA
Champions League back in 2002. A bit slow on the take-off, but he
was not your ponderous fellow that relied on brute strength to
bulldoze his way past defenders. He was simply lethal in front of
goals and considers himself the deadliest striker ever to come out of
Nigeria following successful spells with Portsmouth, Everton,
Middlesbrough and Blackburn Rovers among others. In this LOCKDOWN CHAT
the Nigerian hitman accepts that he was indeed arrogant, but explains that it was because
he was always confident in his abilities. He also reveals that he holds fond
memories of his relationship with South African Steven Pienaar, his
epic battles with Lucas Radebe and how a decade later, he deals with
insults from Nigerians who still cannot accept the “open goal” he
missed against South Korea at Moses Mabhida Stadium during 2010.
Thomas Kwenaite: How have you been keeping under this lockdown?
Yakubu Aiyegbeni: I’m spending more time with the family. I enjoyed my football
career which spanned almost 20 years. It was not easy, it required
dedication and hard work. But, I chose to retire and I think it was the
best decision and the right time to retire. Even when my brother and
family asked me why I didn’t play one more year, I said no, because I
felt it was time to stop. I didn’t want people asking “why are you still
playing?” I’ve been happy about the decision.
TK: You spoke quite strongly against those French doctors who
suggested that a vaccine for Covid-19 should be tested in Africa?
YA: When Dr Jean Paul Mira from the French Institute of Health
Studies commented that they should conduct a test of their vaccine in
Africa, I felt that this racial thing had gone too far. It doesn’t mean
because we are a different color, then we are a different species. I
think there is a great need to educate the kids. Those kids do not know
anything about racism. It’s their parents that have no prejudices and
teach these children about hate, that a Black man is different. That
French doctor needs to be jailed.
TK: How do you feel when you see EPL clubs taking the knee stance in the
#BlackLivesMatter salute before the start of every match?
YA: This movement started in the United States after the brutal
murder of George Floyd and has spread rapidly. It is encouraging to
see EPL clubs printing on their shirts: “Black Lives Matter!” We need
to put a stop to this nonsense. But we must also show the world that
we are not violent and that this is a peaceful demonstration.
TK: What are you up to now that you are retired?
YA: I had a great career but I chose not to be a coach. I have my own
company, a kind of football agency. I have a couple of the young boys
and want be involved in football. They will be the top next
generation. I talk to them about my experiences and relate to them
some of the mistakes I made in my career. I don’t want them to make
the same mistakes. I practically show them that “these are the kind of
stuff you need to correct” in your career so that it should take you to
TK: But Yak, it sounds like you are involved in coaching?
YA: Not exactly, I enjoy training them only when I am free. They
have their own coaches. Some of them are strikers, some are
defenders, I merely give them tips and try to prepare them to be ready
for professionalism. I spend more time with family, I still travel a lot
sometimes but because of this (Covid-19) you cannot move an inch
due to restrictions. I enjoy staying at home, bonding with my children
and attending football matches on weekends.
TK: I believe you played barefoot until your brother purchased your
first pair of boots for you in Benin City where you were born.
YA: These boys are very lucky. I mean, growing up in Nigeria we call
it – face me face your apartment – it’s an area where the houses are so
close to each other you can practically see into the bedroom of the
next house from the street. And the streets are simply congested and
that’s where we played football without boots. Naturally there were
some kids playing with boots. But I wasn’t scared. I trained with
players wearing boots with six studs! I was ready to take them on
barefoot. I would get smacked studs that would open up a huge gash
on your leg. But, you don’t stop or whine and run home. You simply
scoop sand and rub it onto the gaping wound to stop the bleeding and
continue with the game. That’s when my brother bought me a pair of
TK: Did you set yourself targets during your playing days?
YA: The media always liked to ask: “what’s your target for the
season?” I would reply that I didn’t have any targets. But deep down I
knew my own targets. I just didn’t want to put too much pressure on
myself. You tell the public that you would do this, maybe score 15
goals. But you are unwittingly raising expectations and if you fail,
you would be crucified.
TK: How did you manage to remain among the top strikers of your
YA: We had Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Mark Viduka, Teddy Sheringham,
top strikers that averaged 20 goals a season. But I would target ending
the season among the top eight, if not five. I scored 15, 17 and even
21 goals per season. Mind you, I played for clubs that were different
from their clubs. Some of them were at Manchester United where
they had better players around them. Others were at Arsenal or
Chelsea like Didier Drogba. Take nothing away from him, he was a
top striker but they were luckier because of the quality around them.
For me to challenge these greats strikers for the golden boot was an
TK: How did you manage to stay on top every season?
YA: If I scored 17 goals for the next season, I would set a target of
scored 19 and then fix a new target for next season of 21 goals. I
figured that every year I needed to improve otherwise if I stood at the
same level or fail to achieve better results, that is retrogression. At
every club they naturally brought in new strikers every year, but I
would tell myself that “I’m better than this guy!”
TK: One could describe that attitude as arrogance.
YA: That was the arrogance that made me believe I was better than
others. I didn’t want to train Monday to Friday and then come match
day, sit on the bench, no way. It’s was that attitude I carried with me
even to the Super Eagles. When I got a national call-up, sometimes
when they put me on the bench I’d ask why, because I believed I was
“better than the other guys!” It was not arrogance, I believe it was
confidence in myself.
TK: But Yak, surely Nigeria had some of the best strikers and you
had to wait your turn.
YA: When I went to the national team, like I said that I respected my
teammates. But when the coach tries to put me on the bench I went
straight to him and told him I was better than “this striker they
preferred” over me. It’s not arrogance, it was the truth. I have
statistics to back me up. I’m one of the best strikers in Nigeria. Forget
about the young generation or the old one, I’m still the best and the
record is there to bear me out.
All Time Nigerian leading top goal scorers:
Rashidi Yekini – Period (1984-1998) Caps (58) Goals (37)
Segun Odegbami – Period (1976-1982) Caps (46) Goals (23)
Yakubu Aiyegbeni Period (2000-2012) Caps (57) Goals (21)
EPL All-time African Top Goalscorers:
Didier Drogba – Appearances 254 and scored 104 goals
Emmanuel Adebayor – Appearances 242 and scored 97 goals
Yakubu Aiyegbeni – Appearances 250 and scored 96 goals
List of first African to score hat-trick in UEFA Champions:
2002 – Yakubu Aiyegbeni – Maccabi Haifa vs Olympiacos
2003 – Didier Drogba – Olympic Marseille vs Partizan Belgrade
2005 – Samuel Eto’o – Barcelona vs Panathinaikos
TK: Were you always this confrontational to your managers?
YA: I arrived at Middlesbrough and Steve McLaren played me one
match, put on the bench, brought me back then sat me on the bench in
the third. I went up to him after the third match and told him: “You
paid £7.5-m for me just to put me on the bench?” It was the same
when I went to Everton. David Moyes would play me one game, two
games and then put me on the bench, I went straight up to him in the
office one morning before the rest of my team-mates arrived. He
asked why I was at his office so early? I told him I didn’t understand
why he was resting me one week and then playing me the next.
TK: Are you telling me you questioned the coach’s decisions even if
it was perhaps for tactical reasons?
YA: No, I told him: “Just give me five straight games, and if I don’t
deliver, take me out!” He pondered my request and then responded
that he couldn’t guarantee me five games. He did however
acknowledge that he had been impressed by my attitude and work
ethic at training. I was in the starting line-up for the next game and I
never stopped scoring. That is who I am.
TK: Do you still recall your debut for the Super Eagles?
YA: I received a call-up from Shaibu Amodu and Jo Bonfrere. But on
the day of the match, Bonfrere called me in my room and told me that
I would be sitting “upstairs!” I couldn’t understand why I had been
called all the way from Israel only to sit in the grandstands. He replied
that he wanted me to get a feel of the camp. He added that I would get
a chance to play, but first they wanted me to observe and learn. I was
not a happy chappie at all. As a player you cannot be happy about
being called only to make up the numbers. I was going crazy. I just
wanted to play, period!
TK: When did you accept that the coach could not play all the players
he had called up?
YA: Well, I reluctantly went up to the grandstands, watched and
surprisingly learned quite a lot in a single day. I told myself that my
time would come. It came during an AFCON qualifier against Eritrea
and from there I never looked back. I remember playing on the left
with Victor Agali on the right and Julius Aghahowa leading the
attack. I went to the coach and told him: “Boss, when I play on the
left side and I don’t score, Nigerians will forget that I was playing on
the left.” It’s better for me to play as striker. I was lucky to be with
those boys. Yes, I worked hard was dedicated to the game, but I felt
that I deserved to be in the team on merit, as much as I still believe to
this day that I also deserved to have played at the 2002 FIFA World
TK: What happened?
YA: We played qualifiers and I scored the goal that qualified Nigeria
for the world cup. But when the national coach (Festus Onigbinde)
asks you what position you play, you just know you are not going to
the World Cup! The strikers that went to Korea/Japan, were they
better than me? No! I respected those guys (Pius Ikedia, Bartholomew
Ogbeche, Femi Opabunmi) And please do not get me wrong as I’m
not trying to bring anybody down. But I believe I deserved to go to
that World Cup.
TK: What has been your best game in a Nigeria shirt?
YA: Nigeria never allowed me to play football (Laughing
uproariously) There has always been so much wahala
(trouble/problems) But the best game and I think people will never
believe this, was against Argentina in South Africa 2010. We lost the
match 1-0 but I believe that was my best game ever. Forget about the
score, I worked my socks off in that game!
TK: In 56 matches, is that the only game that stands out for you in a
YA: I also remember going to Niger where nobody believed we
would get a result. We won 4-0 and I scored twice, Jay Jay Okocha
and Aghahowa scored the other two. That is another one of my best
games for Nigeria. In actual fact, it helped us qualify for the 2002
World Cup. Then I was dropped afterwards and so was Sunday
Oliseh, Victor Agali, basically so many of us that had worked so hard
to qualify our country, I was gutted.
TK: Yak, you seem to have a chip on your shoulders about the way
you claim to have been unfairly treated in Nigeria.
YA: Sometimes it is not just scoring goals, but your general
contribution to the success of the team. I scored goals and assisted. I
was a team player. I would bring players into the game, I could shield
the ball, pass the ball, I ran forward, and I scored! I could visualize a
game before I played it. When I scored on Saturday (club level), this
was the confidence in me. I knew already how the game would pan
out in my head. But most of the time have never felt appreciated.
TK: How so?
YA: In Nigeria they don’t appreciate people that speak the truth. To
this day I still receive nasty messages from people insulting me about
that miss (against Korea at 2010 World Cup) and I knew at that
instant that everything good I had ever achieved for Nigeria would be
forgotten. Agreed, I missed a clear-cut opportunity from close range. I
was watching the replay on the big screen at the stadium. I remember
chewing gum, smiling, even though inside I was devastated. You
know why, I was smiling, it’s because I knew already that 2010 was
my last World Cup. No matter what, I said I needed to score a goal. I
just knew I was going to get a lot of flak for that miss and like I
predicted, I still get insulted a decade later.
TK: You played with Steven Pienaar at Everton.
YA: I had a great relationship with Pienaar. We still communicate and
send each other messages. We were friends more than teammates. He
understood Pidgin English spoken in Nigeria. When I played with
him sometimes I would fall back to assist and he would say ‘bra,
don’t worry, just push the defenders up, push them back, trust me I
will give you the ball where you want it.’ And sure enough, he would
deliver a pinpoint pass and I would score.
Yakubu Ayegbeni of Everton celebrates scoring the third goal with Steven Pienaar during the Barclays Premier League match between Everton and Portsmouth at Goodison Park on March 2, 2008 in Liverpool, England.
TK: That sounds like a match made in heaven.
YA: Pienaar knew where to move and when to release a long or short
pass. He practically understood my body language and would know
instantly when I wanted to make a run. He is a stocky fellow, but he
was fit. In my estimation, he could run from Johannesburg to Lagos
without stopping along the way. Pienaar was good, I always say to my
young striker to try and establish relationships with the guys in the
midfield. They must cultivate friendships because sometimes without
the midfielders you might not get the necessary supply.
TK: A couple of weeks ago, Lomana LuaLua described your
relationship at Portsmouth as incredible.
YA: I used to share a room with Lua Lua. Anyway, we stayed within
the same complex in Portsmouth but on the eve of every match, we
roomed together. We also communicate to this day. We had a
wonderful relationship both on and off the field. But eish, Lua was
always late. The man loved his sleep. I would call him to check if he
was ready to get to training, only to find that the man was still asleep.
He was another player that used to create and provide for me. You see
Lua was a tricky customer and used to bamboozle defenders and gave
me the ball to finish. I love Lua and still do, we stuck together.
TK: As a player, where did you enjoy yourself the most?
YA: I had a great time at Portsmouth. I arrived there from Maccabi
Haifa while they were still in the Championship. It was during
January and bitterly cold. We had a game a few days later and the
manager told me to get ready as I needed to play in that friendly
game. The game was at 8pm and can you imagine 8pm in the middle
of winter? I wore gloves and a beany, but my fingers and toes were
frozen. I thought it was crazy, but 20 minutes before the game ended,
the manager threw me in.
TK: And then, how was your baptism in English football?
YA: The tempo was different from what I had been used to in Israel.
There keep possession and try to pass the ball around but in England
its quicker, the pace is faster. My first training session, I remember
thinking: “This is hard!” I had already signed and my first game was
against Brighton away. The manager told me to be ready and he
would give me the last 20 minutes. That 20 minutes was like
120minutes, and coming from Tel Aviv where the pace is slower, I
wondered then if I had made the right decision.
TK: What do you mean, many players would have given an arm and a
leg to be in your position.
YA: It was hard. The wingers race down the line and pump the ball
into the penalty area. You had to chase every ball and I was thinking
if I hadn’t made the wrong decision to come to come to England. It
was way too fast and too cold! But, it was all in the mind. I was lucky
to score goals. At Portsmouth it was great, it was a family club you
know. There was Teddy Sheringham, Lua Lua, Patrick Berger, Shaka
Hislop, so many great and experienced players, we had a ball.
TK: But you stayed at Everton the longest.
YA: Indeed, I stayed there for four years. From Middlesbrough
Everton came calling and I took my game a notch higher at Everton. I
got injured just at a time when my agent had finalized a deal with
Stoke City. I was out for 10 months. That was a period when I learned
that when you are not playing, there are no bonusses. It was a period
that made me decide to start planning for when I would no longer
getting an income after retirement.
TK: You also played for Leicester City.
YA: I’ve never told people why I joined Leicester. So, I went to
Moyes and I told him I needed to go to a club where I could play
regularly. I joined Leicester in the Championship. The media was
awash with reports that going a division lower meant I was finished.
It was a huge career decision. But I needed to go there in order to
prove to myself that I could still play at the top level on a consistent
basis. I scored 11 goals in 20 matches and Blackburn Rovers came
calling. It had not been easy, but through hard work and dedication, I
made it back to the Premiership.
TK: Why did you go down to the Championship when you could
have joined any Premiership?
YA: I tell these youngsters that sometimes you don’t have to rush to
the Premiership where you train five days a week only to sit on the
bench. I tell them to sometimes go to a difficult environment like the
Championship, prove your worth in the Championship and offers
would come. I tell them that it also makes my job of marketing them
easier. I do not have to go to clubs begging them to sign my player.
But the clubs would call me asking for the player because he proved
his worth in the field and not sitting on the bench in the Premiership.
TK: Did you ever meet Lucas Radebe on the field.
YA: Oh yes, I did. He was at Leeds and I came against him several
times. But let me tell you that while I was still in Israel, he was
among the players I looked up to for inspiration. As an African
player, he was starring in the English Premier League and was one of
the players that aspired me to dream. When I speak to him today, I
call him Big Brother because of the inspirational role he played in my
career. Daniel Amokachi, Nwankwo Kanu, Jay Jay Okocha, I
watched them all on television and they fired my dreams to also get to
England. I fulfilled those dreams.
TK: Why is it that Nigeria hate losing to South Africa and their
clashes almost always brings Africa to a standstill?
YA: I think South Africa had an unbelievable team. But their
weakness, and I used to tell Steven Pienaar, that their problem was
that they loved the tiki-taka. They loved keeping possession without
hurting us. And they were quite good at keeping the ball, being fancy
on the ball and all that. But when we gained possession, we scored.
TK: But Bafana have turned the tables of late and even defeated
Nigeria in Uyo.
YA: In that game Bafana were superior in everything they did. They
deserved to win because they were better and played better. Nigeria
struggled. But I strongly believe and I even told this to Pienaar, that
you don’t have a proper striker in the mold of McCarthy (Benni),
Masinga (Phil) and Shaun Bartlett. I think if you had a number nine,
you could dominate Africa and qualify for every FIFA World Cup. I
also liked that guy Tshabalala (Simphiwe).
TK: We understand that if you so wish, you could play basketball as
you are equally good in the game.
YA: Not at all. My daughter actually plays netball and so whenever
she is involved in training, I join her and I remember I put in some
shots into the hoop and posted that on Instagram and people just
thought I was unbeatable. I do this everyday but in truth practice
makes perfect and the more you train, the better you would be.
TK: There are pictures of you with world heavyweight champion
Anthony Joshua at a gym, are you perhaps considering boxing?
YA: Not at all, I didn’t go there to spar or anything. I happen to attend
the BXR gym because its closer to where I live. And Joshua is
Nigerian and I was very sad when he lost his belts and I celebrated
profusely when he regained them in that win against Andy Ruiz
Junior. However, boxing is tough. You see in football you could lose
a match on Saturday and get a chance on Tuesday to make things
right. But in boxing, you lose and have to wait six months or so to get
TK: Do you find time to talk to Odion Ighalo about his challenges at
Manchester United and give him tips?
YA: We chat constantly and I congratulated him when he signed for
Manchester United. We joke around quite a lot and when I saw him
sweating out, I send him a message that read: “hard work and
dedication!” and he responded: “hey Bru, I’m actually following in
your footsteps and you know I watched you all the time in order to
learn.” He is a very humble fellow, very disciplined and we all know
that dedication will take you far in football.
TK: Among all the managers you played under, who brought the best
out of you?
YA: Harry Redknapp must be there at the top. His man management
was spot on. He was not like other managers who would get into the
dressing room and go crazy. Yes, he would vent a bit after we lost and
say his piece, but 30 minutes later, he would put his arm around your
neck and say: “C’mon, you know we have a game on Tuesday, we
have to win!” He kind of made you want to play for him.
TK: He must have been a special manager.
YA: Well, David Moyes was also a superb manager, very hard
working but would make you believe you could rush through an
inferno with. Bucket of water. During pre-season, after he had worked
our legs off, he would ask you how are the legs. You respond that
your legs are gone. He would tell you that he knew, but we needed to
complete just a few sessions and we would be done for the day, only
to find that a few sessions were another hour long, hard session and
yet he made you believe you were capable of finishing it.
TK: You have certainly worked under interesting managers.
YA: Steve McLaren was different with football. He is a calm
character and once he pulls you over on Friday, you knew that you
were out of the squad for Saturday’s game. You tell him that you are
not happy because you are not playing. He would respond that he gets
a kick out of seeing you angry, he said it showed him that you are a
fighter and he loved fighters in the team. He would urge you to show
him the same fighting spirit in training during the week and if you
convinced him, he would put you in the team.
TK: Seems like you learned quite a lot from your previous managers.
YA: When I went to Blackburn Rovers, I was on the bench on the
first game. I came in from the bench and I think by the third game I
knew already on a Friday that I was not going to start. I was very
upset you know. I went to the reception in the lobby and waited for
him. Then I saw the assistant manager and he sked me what was
wrong. I explained that I wasn’t happy that I would not be playing. I
told him to come from Everton only to sit on the bench would be
better if I went back. The next day I was in the starting eleven and
guess what, I scored two goals in Blackburn’s 3-2 win over Arsenal.
TK: Finally, looking back, which defender gave you problems?
YA: I have to pick Nemanja Vedic. That man was a beast, he never
gave you space. For him, a football match is like going to war. He
went in hammer and tongs, elbows, fists, knees everything just to win
the ball and made sure he keeps a tight leash over you and is always
in your face. I must say John Terry was another fearsome defender,
very aggressive and competitive. He was very difficult to beat until I
realized that I needed to keep him at a distance which allowed me to
turn him, but that was at a later stage Then the third fellow that was
hard to beat was Jonathan Woodgate.
TK: Thank you very much Yak, and best of luck.
YA: It was a pleasure big brother, anytime and take care of yourself and the family.