A former Spain youth international, Sunday Stephen, who plays for Real Salt Lake in the MLS, shares his thoughts on the Super Eagles chances at next year’s World Cup, a return to the national side and more in this interview with ’TANA AIYEJINA
How would you describe your season so far at Real Salt Lake in the Major League Soccer?
Absolutely, it has been one of my greatest seasons with lots of fun. I’m enjoying my football in the US, I must confess.
If your club beat Sporting Kansas City in the final game of the season, they could qualify for the playoffs. How are you looking forward to that game?
Definitely, we need to win and at the same time, it depends on the results of the other two teams – Dallas FC and SanJose Earthquake. If they draw or lose their games, and we win, then we will advance to the playoffs.
You moved to the US after playing for European sides like Valencia, Real Betis, CSKA Sofia amongst others. How has playing in the MLS and Europe made you a better player?
In fact, it has been globetrotting for me, playing in so many clubs and countries in my career and at the same time getting to meet and also play against a lot of top-class players along the line. Personally, I think my journey as a footballer has exposed me to the outside world. If I could succeed in all these countries, it really means a lot.
You’ve been left out of the national team since your debut in a 2012 AFCON qualifier against Guinea. Are you eyeing a return to the Super Eagles?
Of course, I always wanted to return to the Super Eagles ever since my first cap for the team. But I could not figure how to go about it. I had a chat with the team’s former coach, the late Stephen Keshi, (concerning playing for the Eagles) but I believe there’s a reason for everything in life.
Captain Mikel Obi, Wilfred Ndidi and Ogenyi Onazi hold sway in the Eagles midfield. Do you have what it takes to battle for a place with these players?
I want to tell you authoritatively that we are not in a battle, neither are we in competition with one another. Rather, we have to work together for the entire good of the team, against our opponents in big tournaments like the World Cup, Africa Cup of Nations and even friendly matches. I think we can all work together to achieve our utmost goal, both individually and collectively as a country.
What can you bring to Gernot Rohr’s midfield, if you get an invitation to the squad?
Firstly, I always play to my manager’s instructions; so, it has to be playing to Gernot Rohr’s instructions and putting in a lot of hard work in terms of versatility, dynamism, strength of character, professionalism and discipline in getting the job done.
Do you think the Eagles can be counted among the favourites at next year’s World Cup in Russia?
Of course, yes. We’ve got the tools, by this I mean quality players, who can hold their own against the very best in the world.
With the right preparations and players, do you think the Eagles can reach the semi-finals in Russia?
We all know the consequences when it comes to players and preparations towards the World Cup because this is not the first nor the last time we’ve been in this scenario. I believe Nigeria will go places in Russia 2018.
You played for Spain at youth level. Can you recount your experience playing at that level?
That was one of the biggest opportunities and experience I have achieved because it brought me to global limelight even before playing in the UEFA Champions League.
Your Spanish teammates at youth level Gerard Pique, Juan Mata and others have won virtually everything at club and national team levels but you are not an established international yet for Nigeria. How do you feel?
Sincerely, I’m happy for them and also proud to call them my friends, but at the same time, we should remember that our destinies are not the same. But I promise you that I have come to stay with the Nigerian national team, once I get my chance. Wearing Nigeria’s green and white colours is a huge prestige for me too.
Your followers thought you were going to bide your time with La Roja after playing for Spain at junior level but you preferred a switch to the Eagles. What informed your decision to switch allegiance to your fatherland?
I must tell you that it wasn’t an easy task for me to switch allegiance so easily because it took me a lot to decide back then.
The Champions League is the biggest club football event globally and you played in the competition against the likes of Chelsea while at Valencia. What was the experience like?
I feel so happy that I accomplished such a big dream in my career. For me, it gave me the opportunity of playing in the world’s best club tournament as a player and I’m forever glad it happened.
What impact did the big players at Valencia have on your career?
In fact, playing along the big names at Valencia really made me more mature and stylish on-and-off the pitch
You played at CSKA Sofia under Hristo Stoichkov. Did you enjoy your time under the iconic Bulgarian?
It was a privilege to be around such an iconic player. I still remember vividly when he called me on the telephone when he got the job to handle Litex Lovech; that was when I was playing in Spain. But my club refused to release me at that moment, though we later met when I joined CSKA Sofía and he (Stoichkov) reminded me about it. I enjoyed playing under him.
What are the highlights and low points of your career?
The climax of my career was when I was in Valencia playing in all big tournaments and my low point was when I went to Bnei Sahknin in Israel.
Who has played a major role in your career?
My parents have been kind of awesome and supportive in my career. My wife is taking over from them since we got married, she’s always praying for me without ceasing.
All rights reserved. This material, and other digital content on this website, may not be reproduced, published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed in whole or in part without prior express written permission from PUNCH.
Contact: [email protected]