In an exclusive interview with Pulse Sports, Esiti talks about the World Cup, his experience of playing for Nigeria, adapting to Europe at the tender age of 18, and playing for the biggest club in Hungary.
At the time, the Super Eagles were coming off a third-place finish at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations and, on the basis of that friendly against Ukraine, looked to be moving into a bold new era with an exciting young crop.
That promise never quite flowered; in fact, the first 45 minutes in Dnipro was arguably as good as it got under erstwhile boss Gernot Rohr. The German stayed two years more, but his popularity dwindled with every successive outing and, by the end, (even though the timing was unwise and widely criticised) few tears were shed upon his dismissal.
It was also as good as it got for Esiti, who went on to play for PAOK before moving to Hungary, where he currently plays for reigning champions Ferencvaros. The Green Eagles have won the title four times on the bounce, and are top at the midway point of the 2022/23 season.
In an exclusive interview with Pulse Sports, Esiti talks about the World Cup, his experience of playing for Nigeria, adapting to Europe having left Nigeria at such a young age, and playing for the biggest club in Hungary.
You signed for Ferencvaros last February. Did you have any idea what kind of team you were signing for before you arrived in Hungary?
I knew that I would be signing for a team that had won back-to-back championships and (was) regularly playing on the international stage. Fortunately, I have an Austrian friend who knows the teams in the region well, and when the offer from Ferencváros arrived, I asked his opinion. He didn't hesitate much, he told me to accept the offer because I was signing for a very strong team.
I believed him, and it turned out in the first training session that he was right. There are great players in the team, but I came here to help the club to go even further and reach the next level.
In my first half season, I won the first trophy of my career with the Hungarian championship title, and I will never forget the Hungarian Cup victory, because my family was also there in the stands of the Puskás Arena in the final against Paks. For now, everything is great, but we are working very hard to keep it that way in the future.
Aissa Laidouni played brilliantly for Ferencváros and after his outstanding performances at the World Cup, he moved to the Bundesliga. How important is it that teams from top leagues recognize and appreciate the level in Hungary?
It is, very. It also shows that it is not an empty word when we talk about Ferencvaros being a quality team with quality players.
Many people say that we stand out from the league, but just look at the first spring championship game against ZTE, in which we (both) played an open game from the first minute to the last, with a high tempo. We work hard every day for the results, during the pre-season we never relax for even one minute. We have to work extremely hard to maintain or raise the level.
Were you aware of Laidouni before you signed for Ferencvaros?
Not personally, but I saw him play in a Nigeria v Tunisia Africa Cup of Nations match. (Editor’s note: Nigeria suffered a 1-0 defeat at the hands of Tunisia in the Round of 16 at the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon). When Ferencvaros contacted me, I looked at the squad and remembered his name. Even in that match, it was evident how dynamic and how skilled he was.
In Ferencvaros, he proved this day after day. We play in a similar position, but he was more involved in the attacks. I'm glad that he can now prove himself in the Bundesliga, I wish him the best.
With Morocco's World Cup semi-final appearance, the African continent produced its best ever World Cup, while Nigeria missed out on the tournament for the first time since 2006. When watching Moroccan, did you think that the surprise team could have been Nigeria?
I insist that there is enough quality in the Nigerian squad, but after the lost World Cup qualification match against Ghana, the whole country was in shock. Everyone in Nigeria loves football, playing in the World Cup means a lot for the whole nation, so it was so difficult to digest that the World Cup was held without us.
Since I didn't play in the qualifiers, I only watched the team from the outside, but of course, sometimes it crossed my mind that the world could be talking about Nigeria right now. But this was not given to us now, that's how football is.
Morocco's performance proves that football is developing at an amazing speed and if you don't train as hard as your opponent, you will find yourself on the losing side. Being in the semi-finals shows that football is getting better in Africa as well. I am sure that the continent's teams will play better and better in the next tournaments.
The last time you played for the national team was in 2019, in a friendly match against Ukraine, when Gernot Rohr was still the national team head coach. What was your impression of him and his methods?
I played two of my three national team matches under his guidance, both times I came on as a substitute. The team qualified for the 2018 World Cup with him, and there were several footballers in that team who then proved themselves in top leagues as well. He did a good job with the team and his motto was: believe in yourself and play good football.
We haven't spoken much since his departure, but I consider him a good professional. But the association (NFF) decided for some reason that they wanted to see someone else on the bench.
Did you speak with him after your debut (in 2016 against Zambia)? Did he communicate to you clearly what he thought of your performance?
We didn't talk after the game.
However, at that time I was playing in Belgium – in Gent – and he called me up after one of the games. He asked why I ran forward during one of the counterattacks, and why didn't I stay behind to support the defensive line!
At the end of the conversation, he reassured me that he knew our head coach Hein Vanhaezebrouck, that he knew I was in good hands, and that he would contact me soon.
After that, I waited two and a half years for the next national team appearance. However, I was in really good form in Belgium. The games went well week after week, but I was never invited to the national team again.
The others (international teammates) reassured me not to be nervous, just to prepare as before, that the coach didn't forget me. But, while I was playing in Gent, I didn't get an invitation anymore. I accepted that it turned out that way: my conscience is clear, I always trained with full dedication in order to get the best out of myself.
Then, in July 2019, I signed for PAOK, and in September I received an invitation to the national team. But only once, only for the match against Ukraine. Based on these, I might have received another invitation when I signed for Ferencvaros last February, but Gernot Rohr was no longer the national team head coach.
In your opinion, why are your international caps for Nigeria so spaced out? Do you think players in your position – defensive midfield – and with your skill set are harder to appreciate?
No, I don't think so. There are very good defensive midfielders in the Nigeria national team. When someone performs like Claude Makelele or N'Golo Kante, it stands out for everyone. Every team needs a defensive midfielder, a box-to-box football player. In the Nigeria national team, there are usually two defensive midfielders on the pitch in front of the back four, so that cannot be the reason.
Anyone who plays in the Nigeria national team deserves to be there, but I feel like I would have deserved it too. I didn't really get a chance to prove myself. (At) both Gent and PAOK I was invited only once.
What would you say is the best thing about international football? What do you miss the most about it?
The pride of representing my country.
In my first national team match, my sister, my youth coach and my manager were sitting in the stands. On another occasion, my father and mother were also watching from the stands, and these moments are priceless.
Listening to my country's anthem is like hearing the Champions League or the Europa League anthem. In fact, maybe even better, because you represent the country where you grew up. If you play only one minute, you can still call yourself a national team player, and no one can take that away from you.
The President of the United States is respected even after he leaves office, the same is the case with the national team players. (Whoever) puts on the crested jersey one time will always remain a national team player. And this means happiness and pride at the same time.
You moved to Europe at the age of 18. What was your experience adapting to European football, and what was the biggest challenge you faced?
In Nigeria, I never played football for a club where I got (a) salary. To be honest, as a teenager I never thought to play in Europe one day, as a child I would have been fine with playing in strong Nigerian teams.
Then suddenly the Portuguese opportunity came. I joined Leixoes in the second division, but at first I only trained with the under-19 team. We got breakfast, lunch and dinner at the training centre, but I didn't have enough money to buy myself some snacks between meals. My first salary was 250 euros, which I sent home to Nigeria immediately.
For this reason, I tried to eat a lot at the training campus, but it still happened sometimes that I went to the late afternoon training session hungry.
At the same time, I believe in God, and I also believed that if I gave everything in training, if I stayed on the right path, I could reach my dreams. I was watching other players, I saw how they played football on the field, and I told myself that I can do that too. If they can reach that level, I can reach it as well.
I was confident that by time I can climb more and more steps, but at the same time, the career does not always depend on the player. If the club, to which you would like to go, has interest in you but cannot come to an agreement with your team or your agent, the business will go down the drain.
What player did you model your game after?
Yaya Toure. I watched a lot of videos about him, I really like strong and fast players like him. Anyway, when I watch a game, I usually pay attention to the defensive midfielders. I try to learn as much as possible from their game.
When you joined your previous club PAOK, you said the fans were a major factor in your decision to move there. How important is that for you as a player to have the fans on your side, especially when moving to a new league?
I said this because we once played a friendly match with Gent against PAOK, and the match was uploaded to Youtube. Since I often watch my own matches, I looked for the uploaded video, and in the comments I saw that the Greek fans were saying “come to PAOK, come to PAOK, come to PAOK!”.
I only found out later that the Greek team was already interested in me, they (had) wanted to sign me in the winter of 2019, but Gent wouldn't let me go. When I signed for PAOK half a year later, the staff members and other crew members immediately responded by saying that they remembered me from that friendly match and they were happy that I was finally playing for them.
I didn't even plan to change clubs any time soon, but then suddenly the Ferencváros offer came out of nowhere. I talked to the sport director (Tamas Hajnal), I talked to the head coach (Stanislav Cherchesov), they showed me the training centre and the Groupama Arena, and I watched several videos about the Fradi fans on the Internet. After that, I decided to go for it, and I haven't regretted it for a second. In fact, I trust that the best is yet to come.