Striker Victor Ikpeba is one of Nigeria's best footballers and has been playing for European clubs for over ten years now. In this interview he talks about losing in the final of the African Cup of Nations, African footballers in Europe, his past, and his future.
FIFA Magazine: Have you managed to get over losing that African Cup of Nations final against Cameroon?
Victor Ikpeba: Yes. Overall we had a lot of fun but losing was a sad moment. Having my goal disallowed during the penalty shoot-out and losing to Cameroon is the kind of thing you have to live with. You can't always win, and this time it was the referee that caused the problem by not counting my goal. But we players also make mistakes. On the whole I enjoyed the African Cup of Nations in Ghana and Nigeria a great deal, and it was a chance to see my family again. It was the first time for five or six years that I have been at home for as long as three weeks.
How could such problems during a penalty shoot-out be avoided in the future?
By using a goal camera that could tell definitely whether the ball had crossed the line or not. I am in favour of having professional referees.
Do you think Nigeria would now be African champions if a goal camera had been used?
You know what the funny thing was? An assistant referee and the referee himself were there, and they couldn't say they had not seen what happened. Of course it all happened very quickly, the ball bounced off the bar, came down behind the line and then out of the goal again. Our goalie, Ike Shorunmu, said immediately that it was a goal, but the referee did not change his decision. That evening Lagos was a dead city. We are capable of beating the best teams in the world, but there is still a lot of work ahead of us.
It seems as if Nigeria always have problems with their mental approach. In the World Cup quarter-finals in 1994 they were 1:0 ahead and lost 1:2, and in France 98 after a strong first round they went out in the next stage with a pretty weak showing against Denmark.
We had this up and down kind of progress in the African Cup too. Against Tunisia we had a great game, but then the match against Togo was not so good. After that we were in form again against Morocco, but bad against Senegal. Then we dominated South Africa, only to have a weaker day against Cameroon. I think that Nigerians have a lot of fun when they play - something you don't see very often. But it pleases the fans. Often we are criticised for not being strong enough tactically, but I don't really believe that. For us having fun is more important. Of course we want to win, but we also like to put on a show.
What would it take for Nigeria to win the World Cup?
A generation of footballers. At the moment it is the same players in the team who were there a few years ago. That is the problem. At the moment there are no youngsters coming through.
You have been a regular member of the national team for a number of years, although some people see you as a bit of a problem.
They say that about me, but I am not really a problem. I worked with Jean Tigana in Monaco for four years, and they were not easy ones. Ask a French reporter and he will tell you that Tigana is not an easy man. I never had problems with his predecessor, Arsène Wenger, nor with Robert Waseige in Liege. I always say what I think. And if journalists ask me something I will always tell them if I am not satisfied. I am not one who talks behind the coach's back. So I also criticised Michael Skibbe in Dortmund. He did not give me enough time to show my talent. In Monaco I was given the time.
You came to Europe when you were sixteen. How did you manage to make the breakthrough when lots of others from different continents have failed?
I was lucky; I went to a club where there was no great pressure. I was very motivated to make a career for myself. I also had a good coach in Liege, Robert Waseige, who is now in charge of the Belgian national team. I had a contract as a professional, but I had to play a lot in the second team or with the juniors in order to get used to playing in Belgium and to the climate. I did not live in a hotel but with a family, so I did not feel alone. That was the best thing that could have happened to me.
In Italy there is talk of a new law preventing young Africans being enticed into the country with big promises who then end up on the street when they do not make it.
What happens in Italy is a scandal. I would advise young African players not to go there. Maybe to a smaller club. In the big clubs they have no chance. They would do better to go to countries like Portugal, Belgium, Switzerland or France. Of course, it is the aim of every player to get to Europe. But you cannot just arrive thinking about the money, only about playing. It all goes step by step. My brother, whom I got to join me in Liege, thought everything would go quickly and he'd become rich. But he did not make it and went back to Nigeria.
What would you have done if you had not become a professional footballer?
I went to a polytechnic school, but I would have gone to work in a bank. That was my childhood dream. I lost my father when I was four years old - there was a gas explosion in our kitchen. So I grew up with my grandmother and later with my uncle, and he particularly did not want me to become a footballer. There was no money in it and no security. From that point of view he was right. But when I played in the FIFA U-16 World Championship in Scotland I saw what things were like on the outside.
So far, the World Cup has never been held in Africa. Now both South Africa and Morocco have applied for 2006. What is in favour of your continent?
The rotation principle. Why should the World Cup always be held on the other continents? Africa is ready. And a World Cup in Africa would give the game a huge boost. It is rather a pity that there are two countries from Africa applying. It would be better if there were just one candidate.
Will you still be playing in 2006?
I never think of things like that. I just want to enjoy my football. So far I have had a good career - and I should be good for another four or five years.
Do you think you might like to become a coach one day?
No; at the moment, no. I also think that a black trainer in Europe would have a hard time.
Tigana is also black...
Yes. In France a black trainer is possible, but I am not sure about other countries.
You think Europe is racist?
There is no hiding it! It's true, racism is widespread. Perhaps less and less but it is present in football too, often in choosing players. There are some coaches who do not want black players and who will not let them play. On the other hand there are some coaches who are in favour of black players. Arsène Wenger for example; he has helped a lot of black players to develop. But ask players like George Weah or Julio Cesar, they will tell you the same thing. They have even been barred from discos because they were black.