From Chandigarh to FIFA World Cup, Nigerian Emeka Ezeugo traces his journey
For Indians, playing in the FIFA World Cup stays a distant dream but there’s a Panjab University alumnus who has featured in one. That gave him the opportunity to be part of a tournament that also had Roberto Baggio and Diego Maradona. Step forward Emeka Ezeugo.
Ezeugo, 51, played in the 1994 World Cup in the USA for Nigeria. He came on as a substitute against Bulgaria in the 77th minute helping Nigeria win 3-0. Nigeria topped a group that also had Argentina, Bulgaria and Greece but were eliminated by Baggio’s Italy in the round of 16.
Ezeugo graduated from DAV College (1983-86), Chandigarh What’s more: He was also part of the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
He was also part of the Panjab University team that won the All-India Inter-Varsity Football Championship in 1985 before leaving for Kolkata’s East Bengal in 1986 and having a career as a professional for them and Mohammedan Sporting. Ezeugo returned to Kolkata in 1997 to play for Mohun Bagan but fell out with Amal Dutta, the club’s then coach. Till date, Ezeugo said he feels Kolkata hasn’t given him his due in terms of recognition.
Ezeugo remains the only footballer to have played in India in his formative years and then a World Cup. Ezeugo played 11 times for the senior Nigeria team between 1992 and ’94.
“I love Chandigarh, Punjab and Haryana where it all began for me. I still remember participating in tournaments in Ambala, Patiala, Ludhiana, Jalandhar, Hoshiarpur, with a Chandigarh XI and Panjab University teams. Those were great years, unforgettable for me. I used to play with former India player Harjinder Singh and got a chance to be guided by the legendary Jarnail Singh. We had great moments,” said Ezeugo who lives in New York and is working on a charity project in India and Bangladesh, raising funds for Rohingya refugees.
“The city is quite precious to me. I came here as a 15-year-old and did my graduation from DAV College. I had access to the PU ground for my morning training and DAV College ground for my evening training. From here, I got a chance to play in Kolkata and rest is the history,” said Ezeugo.
Kapil, an inspiration
At DAV College, Kapil Dev’s name being inscribed on a big wooden plaque for representing India in the World Cup was Ezeugo’s biggest inspiration.
“I used to tell everyone, who cared to listen, that one day I will play in the World Cup and the Olympics so that my name will be right there along with Kapil Dev,” said Ezeugo.
Remembering Ezeugo’s time at DAV College, Ravinder Chaudhary, head of physical education department, said: “He was so passionate about the game that he used to carry a football with him and whenever he got time, he would start training. He was very particular about fitness and every morning he used to pedal a rickshaw to college.”
Inter-varsity title, the first big break
“He was the star of our university team. I still remember his 30 yard free-kick against Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, in the final of the North Zone in 1985. It was such a powerful kick that the goalkeeper reacted only after it had landed in the goal,” said professor NS Mann, the former head of the physical education department of PU, who was the team’s manager then.
“There were three Nigerians — Emeka, Christopher Kem and Chibuzor Nwakanma —in the university squad and all were extraordinary players. Our team scored 52 goals and conceded only one in the entire All India Inter-University championship (1985). Emeka was the player of the tournament.”
Ezeugo’s grades fell in the second year making him ineligible for the inter-university meet in 1985. In order to get him in the side, a supplementary test was taken and its result declared the same day.
“The university officials submitted the name of 15 players for the inter-university meet and kept one slot vacant. He appeared for the exams and the same day, his result was declared. Had it been delayed by one day, Emeka would not be able to participate. We won the championship,” said Mann.
Durand Cup, a step towards professional league
In 1985, Chandigarh got an opportunity to field a team in New Delhi’s Durand Cup. The three Nigerians played and Ezeugo’s performance helped him get a call from East Bengal.
“We made it to the quarter-finals and defeated some of the top teams of the country. As we were debutants, our performance got more attention. Emeka’s performance during the Durand Cup earned him pan-India recognition and got him a chance to play professional football for Kolkata clubs,” said Harjinder.