Ajegunle-born Falconets striker, Chinwendu Ihezuo, tells ’TANA AIYEJINA about growing up in the ghetto, reaching the U-20 Women’s World Cup final and life at her new Kazakhstani club BIIK Kazygurt
How are you looking forward to the U-20 Women’s World Cup this year?
I am hoping to win the cup this time around. I was at the last edition where we reached the final but lost to Germany. This time, I want to win it with my teammates.
What is the quality of players in the current Falconets squad?
They are very good; we have a very good understanding as well as very experienced technical crew. There are no more pushovers in football though but all we need is to work very hard and we can win the U-20 Women’s World Cup for the first time ever.
How did you feel when the Falconets lost to Germany two years ago?
I was very happy when we got to the final because it was not easy reaching that stage in my first experience with the Falconets. But I felt sad when we lost the final game against the Germans because that cup should have been Falconets’. It’s just that we made some mistakes, which handed the trophy to the Germans but that is football for you.
What are the mistakes you are talking about?
One of the mistakes was a chance we had to score in that final game. I headed a ball that was goal bound but one of our strikers, Loveth Ayila, was offside. She tried to kick the ball inside the net and the assistant referee raised the flag for offside and the goal was disallowed.
So you feel the Germans were not better than the Falconets?
No, they were not better than us. In fact, we should have won the game right from first half but (Asisat) Oshoala missed a lot of chances, which cost us dearly.
You were just 16 when you played at the 2014 U-20 Women’s World Cup. Was it easy breaking into the squad?
It wasn’t easy because the squad had very good players but I received a lot of encouragement from them. They made things very easy for me and I blended perfectly with everyone in the squad. We were like one big family. And because I wanted to play, God made it easy for me to be part of the team.
Now, you are one of the senior players in the squad. How do you hope to carry the younger players along in Papua New Guinea?
It’s surely going to be by working together and giving them words of encouragement like the seniors did to me at the last World Cup.
As a female child, did your parents support you when you started playing football?
Yes they did. They always wanted the best for me. I loved football right from when I was a little kid and my mother always got me jerseys from the market. My parents tried their best for me to get to where I am today. We are not a rich family but I appreciate the efforts of my parents in ensuring that I became a successful footballer.
You were born in Ajegunle, a Lagos slum reputed for producing some of Nigeria’s best footballers, Did it influence your choice of playing football?
Of course it did. I started by playing football on the streets with boys and it made me fall in love with football the more because they made me enjoy the game. I felt happy playing football and they really made me improve. I still train with boys.
What were the major challenges you faced while growing up as a footballer?
I didn’t face any challenge while growing up. I always believed in God and it has kept me going.
What impression do people have of you when they see you playing football and doing what guys do?
Some people say I look like a boy; that I’m very strong. Some pray for me to get to the highest level as a footballer. I don’t train with my fellow girls, I like playing against the guys.
Ajegunle is seen as a dangerous place. How did you survive staying there?
That is what people think but the place and people have been nice to me. Personally, I don’t see anything dangerous about the place. Anyone who wants to be a criminal will end up being a criminal irrespective of where they live but my parents trained us very well and I’m grateful to them for that.
What do you hope to do when you quit football?
I will get married and start doing another business. I don’t have any business in mind at the moment because I’m still very young and want to get to the peak of my career. I also want to go to school and further my studies.
You scored a goal against South Korea at the 2014 U-20 Women’s World Cup…
(Cuts in) I felt very happy; my coach was happy too. It was a sweet goal. Our right-back Ugo Njoku made a long pull out from the right side, which beat several Korean defenders. I then applied my speed, got the ball and controlled it midair before I flash it inside the net (laughs).
Some of your mates at U-20 level are now playing for Falcons. Why are you still with the Falconets?
I’m with both teams because I’m still eligible to play for the U-20 team. I’ve learnt a lot playing for the Falcons; the players there inspire me. I was part of the Falcons squad to the 2015 All African Games in Congo.
Falcons didn’t win a medal in Congo. How did you feel?
I felt sad but its part of the game; you win some and lose some.
You joined BIIK Kazygurt from Delta Queens in January on a one year deal. Has it been easy settling down at your new club in Kazakhstan?
It’s not easy because this is my first time playing abroad but God made it easy for me. I had never experienced snow before in my life but this year I did and I thank God that I did not fall sick or feel weak but I felt very cold. It was God that really protected me.
What are your ambitions in Kazakhstan?
My ambitions is to motivate myself; I know I can do it, and to work harder to get to the top because I’m not there yet. The season hasn’t started yet but we’ve been playing friendly games and I’ve been scoring goals. I want to win the league in Kazakhstan as well as the Uefa Champions League.
How are you hoping to achieve that when your team is not among the big sides in Europe?
(Laughs) There is nothing God cannot do for my sake.
Having played in Nigeria and Kazakhstan, how would you compare women football between both countries?
You can’t use a European country to compare Nigeria’s women league, it’s very different.
They don’t value our league in Nigeria and that’s why players travel outside the country. No matter how small they are paid abroad, they will manage it because Nigeria is not encouraging at all; it’s very bad. We have very good players in Nigeria but they don’t care about the females.
What is your advice to up-and-coming female players?
My advice is that they should be focused and be determined to play; they should work very hard and always put God first because without Him, they can’t achieve success. They should not give up in anything they do; they should keep working hard because hard work pays.
Most footballers wear tattoos and flashy hairstyles. Why are you different?
That is how my parents trained me and I choose not to do it. It’s a matter of choice.