Friday, April 23, 2010

INTERVIEW: Heartland Will Reach Continent – Ibenegbu

He earned his first break into professional football with Maiduguri side, El-Kanemi Warriors, before his stopover took him to five-time Premier League champion and two-time CAF Champions League winner, Enyimba. This 24-year-old midfielder has also been named in Lars Lagerback’s 44-man provisional list for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa following an explosive performance at the just-concluded West African Football Union (WAFU) Nations Cup in Ogun State. Some people prefer to call him Bartholomew Ibenegbu while others fancy addressing him by his Igbo first name, Ikechukwu. The midfield enforcer, who played an instrumental role in Heartland Football Club’s run to the 2009 CAF Champions League final, is hitching to impress Nigeria’s national team selectors including Lagerback in order to make the final 23 to the Mundial in June. If that happens, Ibenegbu would have ended the lack of belief often exhibited by most ball fans and enthusiasts on home-based players. But the midfielder in this interview with reveals more.

Few weeks ago, we spoke to you while in Israel following an invitation from one of the clubs, Bnei Yehuda, in that country. What is the latest on that deal?
Well for now, nothing is concluded yet. I believe like I told you earlier that my present club (Heartland) are still talking to them, and hopefully I believe that something might happen soon. May be it could be before or after the World Cup when the transfer window opens in Europe. For now, I can’t say that a deal has been agreed.

Since you travelled to Israel, did you agree personal terms with them (Bnei Yehuda) while you wait on Heartland to make its own decision on a transfer fee?
Like I said nothing has been concluded yet. If everything is agreed, you will be the first to know.

Now that you’re back in the country and would join Heartland again in a matter of days after the WAFU Nations Cup, do you think your club’s title ambition or continental ambition is still intact?
The league is still open for us though the gap between us and the leading clubs is plenty in terms of points. Realistically, we cannot start saying that we will win the league at this stage, but mathematically we have a chance of doing so and that is if teams like Kano Pillars and Enyimba start losing their remaining games and we win our own. But that does not happen all the time in football. So, the only thing we will be looking forward to now is to play ourselves into a continental place.
Considering the current position of Heartland on the Premier League table, many followers of club football in the country believe that your club’s precarious position on the table is as a result of players leaving for foreign clubs or going on trials.
To some extent I will agree with them. But again, there were several of our top players still with the club. I think the problem goes beyond players that left for offers outside the country. Like every football club in the world, I think Heartland is passing through its own problem on the field right now. But I am confident that things will improve by God’s grace before the end of this season.

Realistically what is the target you have in mind with Heartland in what might likely be your last season in the club?
My brother, that is a difficult one now because this question would have been easier at the start of this season. But to be realistic like you said, I would love to be part of the side that would win the league and then the CAF Champions League after we missed that opportunity last year when we came close to winning it against TP Mazembe. And talking about this season being my last with the club, I pray to God that it happens because like every professional player my dream is to take my game to the highest level.

Talking about the CAF Champions League, you should be part of the side that faces SuperSport United in the first leg of the last playoff round before the group stage this weekend. No doubt, it is a familiar competition for you, so what are we expecting?
It is going to be a tough game because matches involving teams from Nigeria and South Africa is always difficult. We will go out there and do our best so that we will keep Nigeria’s flag flying in the CAF Champions League this year. But ii foresee a difficult game and I am sure that my team-mates know how important it is for us to qualify for the group stage of the competition because it will help our own careers and also boost club football in Nigeria.

As a major actor in the Premier League in Nigeria, I am sure you can comment on its standard in terms of playing styles, quality of players and even officiating and others.
The league is better now than few years ago. At least we play on better pitches now and officiating has improved a bit. But there is still more to be done to make our league become one of the best in Africa or the best. Leagues in countries like South Africa, Egypt and Tunisia are popular because they are on television to their people. The same cannot be said about our own and may be that is why most of us in the league are not known. I hope that things will improve a lot more next season. But it is better now and I think that is why we have a number of foreign players in our league from other African countries. I believe that we will get it right in future.

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