Lukman Haruna, a midfielder, led the Golden Eaglets to their third U-17 World Cup victory in 2007. In this interview with JOHNNY EDWARD, the 31-year-old, who also played in the 2009 U-20 World Cup and the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, discusses his encounter with Argentine megastar Lionel Messi, his regrets not playing in Europe’s top leagues, and more.
What have you been up to lately?
I’ve been training in the hopes of finding a new team before the transfer window closes. In Lagos, I train with my former academy.
You captained the Golden Eaglets squad that won the 2007 U-17 World Cup in Korea. As a young player back then, what was the feeling like?
It was a dream come true for all of us in the team. We all came from poor backgrounds and we both knew that in Nigeria only winners are cherished. No room for the second best here.
After that triumph in September 2007, you signed for Ligue 1 side, AS Monaco. That must have been one of the biggest moments in your career at that time, coming from a poor background?
You can say that again. Coming from a country like Nigeria, it was not easy to get a deal to a top club like Monaco because it took time and hard work. I think my hard work paid off and things started booming for me. As a young chap then, I only trained for two weeks with the second team before I was drafted to the first team. It was a rapid rise I must say because things started going on well for me.
So where did it go wrong?
Injuries basically slowed my progress at some point.
You are one of the Nigerians on the exclusive list of players who featured at the U-17, U-20 and the senior world Cups. How does that make you feel?
I’m just lucky to find myself in this category. That’s all I have to say. I’m grateful to God for what He has done for me in my career so far.
You played at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. What was it like coming up against Lionel Messi – a Ballon d’Or winner at the time – during the group clash between Nigeria and Argentina?
People talk about Messi a lot, but I must tell you he is from another planet. It was a great moment for me. Seeing him walk down the tunnel that day, I won’t lie; I lost my confidence as a player that moment because he is a player capable of singlehandedly destroying any team. But I overcame it after our anthem was rendered but unfortunately we lost that game. I still have pictures of that game in my gallery where I came up against him. Each time the Eagles take on Argentina and I see those pictures, it rekindles old memories of my time in the Eagles.
Would you say featuring at the World Cup was your best time with the Eagles?
Of course, it was. It’s every player’s dream and I had that experience. Players that never played at the World Cup are never fulfilled. But I’m lucky to be part of the team. It was a great moment and a good feeling. It’s the dream of every player to represent their country at the World Cup. I was very fortunate to make the squad. I played two games, though we lost those matches, it remains a fulfilling moment for me.
You have played for several European clubs. Which of these teams did you enjoy playing for the most?
I had great time playing for all the teams I starred for from Monaco, Dynamo Kiev, Anzhi-Makhachkala, Astana and Palanga. I never expected I was going to play for Monaco, neither did I believe I would make a mega move to Ukraine then as well. So, I had good times at the clubs I played for before COVID-19 struck. I was not short of offers each time the transfer window reopened then because I was playing well.
Do you regret not playing in Europe’s top leagues like the Premier League, Serie A or the Spanish LaLiga?
Of course, I do regret that. and I’m not always happy when I remember that. I received an offer from Arsenal while I was playing for Monaco then but they turned down the offer. And after the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Inter Milan came calling, but Dynamo Kiev also rejected the deal. Bordeaux and Olympiakos also made offers but they were all declined by Dynamo Kiev then as well. I got stuck there for a while due to injuries before I fought my way back. But I had good times at the club. Aside from that, injuries was one of the biggest regrets I had.
How do you cope with your female fans?
I’m used to them a lot. I don’t run away from them. I respect them a lot. My fans understand that I don’t run away from them.
Most sportsmen live a luxurious lifestyle. Are you different?
It depends on how people see me. I don’t think I live flashy, but I do what I want. I work hard, so I deserve to live the kind of life I want. Some footballers live very extravagant lifestyles, but I am different. I am just that normal guy who loves looking good always. I love my jewelry on me always. I have a lot of them in my wardrobe. Yes, they are expensive. I work so hard so I deserve to buy something good for myself.
What’s your assessment of the current Super Eagles under new coach Jose Peseiro?
The current Eagles are doing their best but they need more experienced players to guide the young team. I always use Argentina as an example, at 34, Angel Di Maria is still playing for them, likewise Lionel Messi, who is 35. They equally have young players in their squad, but these older players are in the team. So, we also need a few experienced players in the team, around the current crop of players because not qualifying for the World Cup is not a good thing at all.
How did you feel when the Eagles missed out on Qatar 2022?
I’m not proud to say we didn’t do well during the two-legged play-offs. We were lacking in so many areas during both games. The midfield could not create chances for the strikers. All we did was just play the ball to the spaces for our forwards to chase down because we believe we had a striker that could leap high to head the ball into the net. We need midfield players with great confidence like Mikel Obi, who can send good passes to the strikers to score. The players in the team are good, but they still lack some elements, like confidence. They don’t want to take risks and life is all about risk. I understand why some of them are scared of taking such risks. It is because they are being called out for mistakes. They use it against you.
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