Coach Joseph ‘Zico’ Egbu is a household name in the country’s youth football fraternity. The former Iwuanyanwu Nationale Football Club of Owerri player is not just a regular face amongst participants of the Annual Airtel Rising Stars, ARS, U-17 tournament; Egbu has led kids from the Southern Region to win several laurels in the youth empowerment programme. Coach Ziko guided the South Zone teams to dominate the first edition of ARS tournament in 2011, by wining most medals such; as Coach of the Tournament, Best Female Goalkeeper, Most Valuable Player (Male), Tournament Champions (Female) and Bronze Medallist (Male-Third Place Winner). The astute grassroots tactician, fondly called ‘Ziko’ by his admirers, speaks about what the telecommunication giants are doing right with ARS, which provides a platform for upcoming U-17 boys and girls in Africa to display their football skills to scouts and coaches from across the world.
Q: This is the third consecutive seasons you’ll have led finalists from the Southern Zone to feature in the national finals of the 3rd Airtel Rising Stars U-17 tournament held in Lagos. You must be proud of this achievement?
A: Yes, I’m glad about what we have done for the past three years with the sponsor of ARS. We are proud to associate with the programme. I will also say it’s really fulfilling for me to have tutored hundreds of young boys and girls in Rivers State from the grassroots to football stardom. Having said that, I think credit should go to Airtel for sustaining the ARS and I hope the company continues. First is the fact that the company has been resolute in its plan to discover young football talents everywhere in Nigeria. Secondly, Airtel has moved a step further by helping to expose the players identified from the zones through competitive tournaments at the national and international levels. I believe the youths are happy about the opportunity offered them and I’m very pleased with the programme. The secret behind the success of Airtel Rising Stars is the continued sponsorship and commitment of the sponsors. The competition is getting keener and stronger with every edition, and I salute the company for keeping faith with the talent hunt initiative. It is a good programme that has started yielding positive fruits already. I’m sure many of the players discovered from the ARS will soon flood the national teams of Nigeria.
How would you describe the whole screening exercise for this year’s edition in your zone?
Having coached the kids through screening, elimination and competition in the previous two editions of ARS in 2011 and last year, I will say there was much pressure on me and other coaches during our screening which took place at the Liberation Stadium in Port Harcourt recently. We had more participants who came from far and near to feature in the programme this year. I think the pressure was much because this zone has produced quality products who have been champions in the ARS national championships. I’m not saying this to boast about our performances, but the Port Harcourt Zone has been a strong centre, where future champions have been discovered. Our boys and girls teams won bronze and gold medals respectively in the maiden edition in 2011, and we came back stronger during last year’s championships. Our girls retained their gold medal in the female edition at the national level last year, while our boys won silver medal. So, the steady progress of our teams has given the zone more recognition, and I can understand why we had more than enough kids to screen this year.
The screening was very challenging. We had about 60 squads who made the cut to compete in the boy’s category, while we selected 10 teams for the girl’s category. That did not include the players that we screened out before we commenced the elimination series. What we did that helped us was that we mixed all of them who came from Warri, Bayelsa, Owerri, Port Harcourt, Akwa Ibom and other states in the zone. After the selection, we tried the players in their various positions; and started to select the potentials and eliminate not very good ones. We knocked out at least half of the teams on ground at that stage, and continued with the process until we came out with the last 18 players in the boy’s category, while 17 girls made it to the national finals.
We observed that three of the finalists from your zone this year played in last year’s national finals, are they still within the age limit?
Oh yes, they were far below the age limit when they qualified among the finalists in 2012, and are still eligible to feature in this year’s edition. Don’t forget that FIFA and CAF allow players who fall within the age bracket of a youth tournament to participate twice in such competitions.
You won the Best Coach of the ARS last year, this must put more pressure on you?
Well, our teams from the Port Harcourt zone always come tops during the national finals, we play good football that’s why we win trophies and awards. Interestingly, the other coaches confronted me at a seminar in Ibadan not quite long, and told me to prepare for a tough competition anytime we meet again. But honestly, the trophies we won in the ARS came through hardwork. However, there is an appeal I want to send to Airtel, the sponsor of ARS. The company needs to do more by allowing all qualifiers from the zones to have at least one to two weeks camping/training before they go for tough competitions such as the national finals. This will allow the teams to really showcase what they have in stock. That is how the company’s investment can make much impact, as the world would see a very competitive tournament, where a pool of talents would be tapped.
You led the ARS female team to represent Nigeria in the ARS international tournament in Kenya last year, but your team were not spectacular. ?
Yes, we tried our best in that tournament, but we can do better. That is why I’m sending a passionate appeal to Airtel to allow the teams have about two weeks training before any competition. I can recall that we had only two days to train before the 2012 teams travelled to Keya for the international tournament. We did not have enough time to tutor the players, and that affected their overall performances. It’s very important that we camp and train our teams, especially as Nigeria is currently hosting the ARS international tournament in Lagos. We need to represent our sponsors well.