Chaves midfielder, Obiora Nwankwo, helped his Portuguese club gain promotion to the elite division for the first time in 17 years. In this interview with JOHNNY EDWARD, the former Inter Milan, Parma and CFR Cluj man, a 2013 AFCON winner, talks about how Rafa Benitez influenced his career when he arrived in Europe and more
How does it feel helping Chaves gain promotion to the elite division for the first time in 17 years?
It feels really great. Just having that sense of accomplishment after a long and difficult season means a whole lot to me and I feel delighted to be part of history last season.
What does it feel like playing in the topflight division again?
Well, I can’t say for sure because as of this moment, I haven’t renewed my contract yet.
Could you share with us the challenges you and your teammates faced during the promotion battle?
There were lots of challenges. Some of the notable ones were sometimes when we had to train with only 10 players due to COVID-19.
Now that Chaves will be playing in the Portuguese first division, what are the club’s immediate targets?
Like I said, I’ve not renewed my contract yet, but I’m guessing the target will be to stay in the topflight.
Having played in Italy, Spain and Portugal, which of these leagues would you rate as the toughest?
Playing in Italy was the toughest for me, for sure. Football in Italy was very tactical (at the time), especially for me because Inter Milan were my first European team. Looking back, it was a great experience learning from the big stars at the club back then. It could have been better though, but it was still a great experience.
You are one of the few Nigerians to have played for Inter Milan, what was the experience like being a Nerrazurri?
The experience was fantastic. Coming from Nigeria and finding myself playing for one of the best teams in the world, was everything. I made my Champions League debut with Inter and it was a wonderful experience for me as a young player coming all the way from Africa back then to play and be involved at a major club like Inter. I enjoyed every single minute of it and every bit of it. I have lots of special memories during my time there, but the most special one has to be my first Champions League match against Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane in London. That certainly is right up there in terms of highlights of my career so far.
Having played under top European coaches, which would you say made the most impact on your career?
It’s definitely Rafa Benitez, the man who took me from the Inter youth team to the first team. He taught me many things and gave me lots of good advice in such a short period of time too. The things that he taught me are always in my head and I have brought them with me throughout my career. Of all the big managers and good coaches I have encountered in my career, he has certainly played a key role in my development.
At club level, you won the Supercoppa Italiana and the FIFA Club World Cup with Inter while with the Eagles you won the 2013 AFCON title, which of these medals do you cherish the most?
Nothing beats winning a major silverware with your country’s national team, so definitely, it’s the AFCON title. I have lots of memories and special times. That for me is the most memorable highlight of my career so far.
At 29, are you done with the Eagles or you still dream of a return to the national team under Jose Peseiro?
No, I’m not dreaming of a return to the Eagles as it is not a priority for me. If the new gaffer (Peseiro) feels I can help the team in any way, I’ll be available to make a return.
What sort of coach was the late Stephen Keshi?
He is the kind of man that knows what he wants. He was a good coach. The late Keshi was a great coach and even a better man. I was shocked when I learnt of his death. It remains a big loss to the country.
There were reported issues during the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations in South Africa on the team’s way to the title, including officials buying flight tickets for the players before the game against Ivory Coast, thinking the team was no match for the Ivoirians. Could you tell us what really happened?
Well, I can’t tell you for sure if someone bought tickets before the game or not, but what I know for certain is that nobody, even and mostly the officials, didn’t think we’d make it past Ivory Coast, let alone go ahead and win the tournament. Most people thought we would lose to the Ivoirians, especially after how badly we started. The Ivory Coast game was a big game, but thankfully, we had a technical crew that was experienced enough to transmit calmness and positive energy to the players. And we ended up surprising the bookmakers going all the way to win the trophy after 19 years of waiting.
Can you share your best AFCON moment with us?
It was when we won the title. We won the tournament against all odds and I’m happy to have received a national honour afterward. The late Stephen Keshi remains my football hero for selecting a player like me for the tournament. I played one game (against Zambia in the group stages) in the tournament and I still have fond memories each time I watch the tournament.
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