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I played street football in France after my agent abandoned me – Stephen

One-cap Super Eagles midfielder and former Valencia forward, Sunday Stephen, tells JOHNNY EDWARD about his experiences journeying to Europe as a teenager, his national team debut and more in this interview.Information Guide Nigeria

Not much has been heard of you lately, Stephen. What have you been doing since you retired from football?

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Since I retired two years ago, I decided to stay closer to my family and support my wife, Mirian, to bring succour to the less privileged in the country and Africa as a continent through our NGO Mirian & Stephen Charitable Trust Foundation. I know how tough it is at the moment in Nigeria and considering the fact that it was not easy back then while we were growing up as well.

My family often struggled to find the basics. I know what it is not to have food to eat and I know what it is not to have water to drink. When I was little, sometimes we couldn’t afford bread and we never could afford table water. Life was tough. It didn’t give me everything at first. It made me suffer, it made me fight for it. So, when an opportunity arose to leave and chase my football dreams, I jumped at it. We have over 40 kids we are taking care of and over 15 in hospitals needing medical attention. I want to help and this is the best possible way for me as I’m now an orphan.

You began your career in Spain and went on to play in Israel, Bulgaria, Turkey, US and Cyprus. Where did you enjoy playing football most?

It was in Spain, but the Major League Soccer also gave me something to cheer about. The LaLiga is a league every player wants to play in and its something to be proud of. I made my name playing for Poli Ejido but it was with Valencia I won a title – the Copa del Rey in the 2007/08 season. It was a remarkable feat for us young players in the team at that time. Juan Mata and Fernando Morientes were my teammates at that time. I had fond memories at other leagues but the LaLiga remains the best for me.

You represented Spain at youth level but only made one appearance for Nigeria at senior level in an AFCON qualifier against Guinea in Conakry in 2010. What was it like making your first appearance for the Super Eagles?

Yes that’s very correct. We lost that game by a lone goal, which was the only sour part for me, but playing for Nigeria was my biggest dream and I’m happy I achieved it even though I feel I could have earned more caps. I was fortunate and privilege to play for Nigeria. It is the best feeling a player can get. Representing your national team brings prestige and earns you respect from your club’s teammates.JAMB portal

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Did you regret pledging allegiance to the Super Eagles?

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I never did for once. Just like I said earlier, I could have earned more caps but there are also lots of talents out there hoping to get a chance. If you are out of the team, work hard to get back in because the person who stepped in won’t give his position out easily.

You arrived in Europe at 15 from Lagos. How tough was it for you as a teenager living abroad?

The beginning of my journey is a sad one. The agent that approached me in Nigeria and told me if I could get a visa and make my way to France, he could find me a spot on a team was never seen again when I got to France. I called him several times but he never took my calls, which left me frustrated. I was in France for three years, staying with old friends and playing street football. This happened until I reached out to some people I knew in Spain and they offered me a place to stay, provided I could make my way there. So, I moved into a room with eight other boys and began living life the best way I could, just to survive. Hunger was not nice at all. Sometimes we wouldn’t have anything to eat. Even at that, I would still train in the winter but I was hopeful that I would succeed and it came when I played in a tournament for immigrants in Spain. I met an agent who introduced me to a team, and in 2005 I signed my first professional contract with Poli Ejido and the rest they say is history.

Did your parents support you playing football?

They were never in support of my decision to play football, let alone my move to France. They always referred to teenagers who played football as ‘idiots’, but I’m happy I was able to change that impression when I was successful at it. All the while, I had difficulties in France and Spain at the beginning of my journey, I never called my family, because I didn’t want to make them cry. They already knew that I left, but they didn’t know the situation. Of course, they were worried about me as I was unreachable at that time. I vowed I won’t call them until I made it and I didn’t call until I had a professional contract. When I eventually called my mother, she was so happy and from that point, our lives changed for good, which is why I want to help as many kids as I can to get a better life. They apologised to me, admitting that football was my calling.NYSC portal

What’s your impression of the current Eagles under Portuguese coach Jose Peseiro?

He needs time to bring his ideas to the team. We have good players scattered across Europe and what we need now is a coach who will blend them into a good unit. If we can achieve that, the Eagles will be unstoppable again.

Do you think he is the right man for the job?

Well, time will tell, so far he has won the most important matches, which are the Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers. We wait and see.

Why did you opt for Nigeria despite the chance you had to play for Spain?

Nigeria is my fatherland and I won’t have turned it down at that time when I was invited even if the Spanish senior team came for me. It was my dream as a kid when I started playing football and I’m happy I achieved it.

Would you say you fulfilled your dream as a footballer when you retired?

Of course, I’m fulfilled because I’m able to help people through the fame and wealth football has brought me.

Not playing at the senior World Cup, is it something you regret?

Of course, I regret it because it’s something I believe I would have achieved if I played more games for the Eagles. A lot of great players never played at the World Cup and some won’t still play in it. When I look back at my career, I’m always thankful, regardless.JAMB Result

What would you say is the highlight of your career?

Playing for Nigeria has to be the highlight but also winning the Copa Del Rey.

What about your lowest?

Not playing enough games for my country certainly hurts but one has to accept fate at times.

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Emediong Silver

Emediong Ekpe is a graduate of English. A professional Sports journalist/analyst, and a spoken word artist. He is passionate about decimating information and putting smiles on people's faces via news writing.

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