Former Super Eagles winger, Tijani Babangida, talks about his new role as a football administrator and his time as a player in this interview with ’TANA AIYEJINA
Are you enjoying your tenure as Chairman of Taraba United?
It’s a very different experience from being a football player. It’s great to be in the administrative aspect of the game. It’s a completely different challenge but it’s fun and I am enjoying it.
What is the difference between being a football player and a football administrator?
There is a big difference. It’s like you have a child and then he becomes a father. At a point, he is a child who is taken care of; but later in life, he has a new responsibility of watching over his child. Now he has to take care of his own child.
Would you say you are happy with the state of football administration in Nigeria?
You see, there are a lot of challenges but you have to fight on. It’s not only about the financial aspect but about the main aspect of the team; how you make your staff, how they need to think about football and not about the money issue, how to make your footballers better and how you as an administrator can defend your players so that they can get all their entitlements. So there is a lot of work still to be done.
What is your opinion on the League Management Company’s stipulation of N150,000 minimum wage for players in the Nigerian Premier League?
Almost all the clubs in the Premier League are owned by the government with the exception of just two that are owned by individuals. I said in a meeting that if LMC are going to give between N10m and N15m to each club that is sponsored by government, they are supposed to make more money available to the privately funded clubs. If the private clubs can get N20m, that can help them finance their themselves. It’s very difficult for a privately funded club to pay a minimum wage of N150, 000 to players, and you have about 30 of them in number. That’s a huge sum of money every month, without match bonuses and allowances. It will be very difficult for a private club to do that in Nigeria.
When you played in the league for Niger Tornadoes, there were large crowds at match venues but today, footballers play before empty stands. How do you think we can bring back the fans?
By what LMC is doing, you can see that many clubs are getting better. Like in Taraba, I can tell you that when we were in the Pro-League, we had between 50 and 100 people watching our home games. But now, the gate takings have increased, and hopefully before the middle of the season, we should have about 20, 000 fans coming to watch our home games. The referees too have to do justice to the game by staying neutral. With that, many people will come and watch. It’s not a do-or-die affair. If the home team has to win always, then there must be some criminal acts going on there, but if they (refs) are 50-50, things will be okay. Like my team’s game versus Nasarawa; they gave a penalty against us in the first five minutes. This is something that has never happened since I became Chairman of FC Taraba. Now, Enyimba can lose a game at home and referees are improving. LMC is doing very well in this regard and clubs have more to do to boost the morale of the supporters by advertising in the media; people will definitely come and watch. Maybe, like the LMC is doing, if the league games don’t correspond with European leagues, we will get the fans back. Probably Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday games will attract people. People watching Arsenal or Manchester United will never come to the stadium to watch the local league games. They prefer watching English football. So we have to take the game away from English football and play on days they are not playing.
You came to the limelight in 1991, after an outstanding performance at the All African Games in Cairo, Egypt. How would you describe the competition that brought you to stardom?
I went to Cairo as a nobody. But all my prayers when I was young was to become a superstar and represent my country. When I first got the chance to represent Nigeria at the AAG, I wanted people in Nigeria and Africa to know my name. I felt, “If I make it, I had already made my life.” That was the truth. By playing well, everybody knew me in Africa and Europeans even came to buy me thereafter.
You joined Roda JC in 1991…
When I joined Roda, they loaned me out to VVV Venlo; they (Venlo) were in the relegation zone at that time and they were eventually relegated to the second division. In my second year at Venlo, I did so well and I was named the Most Talented Youth Player in the country in that category. We were promoted to the Eredivisie and I went back to Roda.
In 1996, coach Louis van Gaal brought you to Ajax to replace your compatriot, Finidi George, who had left for Real Betis. Were you under pressure stepping into Finidi’s shoes?
Yes of course. To be called in to replace Finidi was a very difficult situation. We are talking of playing in a team that won the UEFA Champions League and most of the players were leaving; Finidi, Nwankwo Kanu and others. All the big players were leaving, so the pressure on me was very high. I tried to do the best I could and God willing, everybody was satisfied with the way I played.
In your second season at Ajax, you won the double and even scored in the KNVB final. What was the motivation for you?
It was a dream come true. In the 1990s, Ajax were the Barcelona of today. Everybody wanted to watch Ajax, every good player wanted to play for them and I found myself there. Being in the first 11 of the squad was a fulfillment and I fought as much as I could to win the double. That same year, I went to the World Cup with Nigeria and for me, there is nothing more I can ask for.
Despite doing very well at the time, you were not included in the Eagles squad to the 1994 World Cup…
I was part of the team; I was taken along. I was there as the 23rd player. I was so good that they had to drop one player. The problem came when they wanted to drop (Victor) Ikpeba for me. They said they won’t drop Victor, that they will drop (Michael) Emenalo. There was a lot of problems about who to drop. I didn’t participate in the games in the World Cup but I was training with the team and I got all the entitlements that every player got. I feel I could have made an impact at the 1994 World Cup if I had played because I was of age.
Four years later, you got your chance to play at the World Cup and the Eagles reached the second round in France. How were you able to beat Spain in the group stage and top the group?
I will say determination. After the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, we had a very strong team. We could have won a lot of trophies for Nigeria, which we did by starting with the Olympics. The bad story was that Nigeria was suspended from playing at the Nations Cup at that time. We missed two tournaments. If we had participated, we could have won one or the two of them. So we came all out at the World Cup to show the whole of Africa that we had a team. So, we did all we could except for little loss of concentration and that cost us against Denmark.
You scored a goal in the 4-1 defeat to Denmark in the second round. What happened?
Loss of concentration like I said earlier was the reason behind the defeat. We were already looking at playing Brazil in the quarter-finals, instead of concentrating and beating Denmark first in the second round. If we had concentrated more, we would have definitely beaten Denmark but we underrated Denmark and we got whipped four times. I scored that day but it was not the right moment for me. It’s the dream of every player to score a goal in the World Cup though; it gives you a feeling you never had in your football career.
In 1996, you were part of Nigeria’s squad that won the gold medal of the football event at the Atlanta Olympics. Can you recount memories of that tournament?
It was great being a world champion and representing not just Nigeria but Africa; and winning the gold medal. We defeated a Brazil side that had Bebeto, Rivaldo, Ronaldo and the big stars. We also beat an Argentine side that had Hernan Crespo and others. Africans were happy with our triumph.
You were played out of position against South Africa in the semi-final of the 2000 AFCON but you replied by scoring two goals for the Eagles, which helped Nigeria reach the final…
Playing in a tournament for Nigeria, I always I have it in mind that, “You can do anything but you must find the moment to score, that will make Nigerians from generation to generation, to always talk about you.” When they told me I was going to play against South Africa but in a different position, I wasn’t happy. But my prayer was to score in any major game I was going to play at the tournament . Against Bafana Bafana in the semi-final, I told myself, “If I score, Nigerians will never forget this, even the new generation.” God helped me and I scored two great goals that got Nigeria to the final and I was so happy. I can’t describe that happiness till now.
Then in the final, we lost on penalties to archrivals Cameroon on home soil. How did you feel that night?
With due respect, we had some of our players that made one or two mistakes that made us concede two goals in the first 20 minutes. Cameroon had a very strong team with a young (Samuel) Eto’o and old and very experienced players that should have stopped playing but were still playing. I think with the cheap mistakes we made, Cameroon had an edge over us and we had to fight to level 2-2 and we took the game to extra time. If we didn’t commit those errors, we could have been two goals up. I don’t believe Cameroon beat us on that day. It’s only a mistake from the referee (during the penalty shootout) that cost us. Without that mistake, Nigeria could have won the cup. My biggest regret is not winning the AFCON with Nigeria.
You scored two goals against Ghana to help Nigeria qualify for the 2002 World Cup but you were excluded from the trip to Korea/Japan…
I said earlier that I always wanted to play a game that Nigerians will never forget. And I can tell you that they will never forget my performances in the matches against South Africa and Ghana. The game against Ghana took Nigeria to the 2002 World Cup but not taking some of us to the World Cup is politics in the football world. I can’t mention names but there were people who wanted to dash Nigeria’s dreams and they succeeded. They made sure that about eight superstars didn’t make the World Cup. They were just lying when they said that we were dropped because we did not report to camp. I don’t really want to talk about it because it pains me.
How did you feel watching the Eagles crash out in the first round of the 2002 World Cup?
Everybody knew that they were going to crash. It pained me watching Nigeria at the World Cup with tears in my eyes because I knew I was supposed to be there.
Some players complained that a mafia in the Eagles kept them out of the national team. Was it true?
That is the story we heard before we came; that (Stephen) Keshi and others were mafia, that Keshi and the others picked who was going to play or not. Well, I don’t think I experienced anything like that. Of course you always get a group of old players that speak for the team; that is normal and I think people call these players, who decide for the team mafia. In everything in life, you always have a group of people who take certain decisions. But about not letting some players play, I don’t think it’s true.
Some members of the US ’94 World Cup team complained that the Atlanta Olympics players didn’t want them at the 1998 World Cup…
Players cannot decide who they have to call or not. It’s a generation of young talents coming in while the old and tired legs are leaving. Everybody knew that after the ’94 World Cup, a lot of players, Keshi and others were leaving. Ben Iroha and Peter Rufai, who were part of the 1994 team, followed us to the 1998 World Cup but they were not part of the team from the beginning.
When were your best and worst moments as a footballer?
My best moment was winning the football tournament of the 1996 Olympics. Individually, scoring at the World Cup was a fine moment for me. When we lost the 2000 AFCON in controversial circumstances to Cameroon was my saddest moment.
You probably would have won a gold medal in the 100m at the Olympics. How were you able to develop your running talent as a footballer?
It’s a talent; it’s something you are born with. You can never learn how to run. You can only learn the tricks of running. I was born naturally fast and I used it to overcome my opponents and I am happy with that.
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