By TANA AIYEJINA:

Atlanta ‘96 Olympic Games gold medallist Abiodun Obafemi is unhappy about the state of football and sports in the country, reports ‘TANA AIYEJINA.

Abiodun Obafemi is one footballer who in his playing days did his job on the pitch for both club and country without being noticed. Strikers who took his boyish look and quiet mien for granted while with Stationery Stores of Lagos had themselves to blame after any game they played against Obafemi.

Calm and always carrying a smile, the Kogi-born player outwitted strikers with relative ease while with Stores in the early 1990s.

With dedication and hard work, he achieved football heights after leaving Stores – playing in the tough French Ligue One and the German Bundesliga and helping Nigeria win the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games gold medal.

Although now back to the country and into business after retirement, the former Toulouse of France defender still monitors Nigerian football closely but is unhappy with the present situation the game finds itself in the country.

”I am not impressed with the current situation football has found itself in Nigeria. I‘m a proud Nigerian because we are gifted; talents abound here. I once visited Brazil and from what I saw, I don‘t think they are better than us but they are doing everything right while we are mixing sports with politics.

”There are lots of people who have the love of the game at heart; they spend their money and time for the game but they are schemed out of the system. Those there are just there for their pockets; they don‘t have the love of the game. I think we should go back to these people and beg them to come back. We need square pegs in square holes.

”We have the talents and we should channel our resources here instead of using it to travel all over the world doing nothing,” he told our correspondent at the Ojodu Local Council Development Area, where he is helping the LCDA to groom young football talents.

Barely two months to the commencement of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Obafemi believes new Super Eagles coach Lars Lagerback, is capable of helping the team post a good performance at the Mundial despite the short time to prepare for the tournament.

”When do we really prepare for competitions? It‘s the Nigerian mentality; we are now used to not preparing for big competitions because even when we prepare, we don‘t perform well at the competition proper,” he said.

Fourteen years after helping Nigeria and Africa to its first gold medal in the football event of the Olympic Games at Atlanta ‘96, the former Reutlingen player still finds it difficult describing how he felt after the achievement.

”Winning the gold medal is not something I can explain. Nobody gave us a chance but then we believed in ourselves. It was heavenly. I thank God everyday for His grace. You need luck in everything you do and we had it in 1996.”

Despite being a key member of the Dream Team during the Olympic Games qualifiers, he only managed one game at the tournament proper – the 1-0 defeat to Brazil in the group stage – in the team‘s six games on the way to winning the trophy.

He admitted that the arrival of Uche Okechukwu, who came into the team as one of the three over-age players stipulated by FIFA, hindered his first team chances.

”The Mauritius ‘93 U-20 national team, which I was a member, formed the nucleus of the Atlanta squad. I could actually play anywhere in the defence and during the qualifiers, I played with Taribo West. We had been together since our U-20 days but when the over-age players were brought into the team, I had to drop for Okechukwu. He‘s a complete gentleman and a good player, so I had no problems being dropped for him. What mattered was that we won the gold medal.”

After the ‘96 Olympics, every football follower expected the Atlanta squad to progress to the Super Eagles and form the bulk of the team for a long while but the likes of Obafemi, Teslim Fatusi, Emmanuel Babayaro and Kingsley Obiekwu never actually made the cut at senior level.

He denied any insinuations that the ‘Eagles Mafia‘; a set of players who reportedly dictated who was invited and who played then, may have kept him out of the team.

”It‘s the usual Nigerian style where Hausas, Yorubas and Ibos form cliques. But whatever name they called it, it never affected me. I grew up in the North, so I speak Hausa fluently and (Nwankwo) Kanu and the other guys from the East were my very good friends. So I don‘t think that was a problem.”

Then why was he unable to make a name at senior level for Nigeria?

”I remember I played the Eagles last France ‘98 World Cup qualifier against Guinea in Conakry and I was a member of the Eagles that played the LG Cup in Tunisia. I was in camp ahead of the ‘98 World Cup; the then coach, Bora Milutinovic, invited me when the Eagles came to Cologne for a friendly. Injury actually hindered my progress with the senior national team,” he added.

Obafemi is still very passionate about Stores despite the problems that have bedevilled the club over the years. Along with the likes of the Ghanaian striker Arthur Moses, Edward Okoyomo, Ike Shorunmu and other great stars, Stores was one of the country‘s greatest football sides in the then newly established Nigerian Professional League, but the club collapsed due to an ownership tussle in the 1990s.

However, there have been calls for the Lagos State government to revive the team leading to the official re-launch of the club in 2009.

”It‘s a sad development that Stores collapsed due to the politics that has destroyed sports in general in Nigeria but when I met the Sports Commissioner recently on the issue, he said government was working to make sure the club came back. Stores was the pride of Lagos. In fact under Shola Lawrence, Stores was a model club. We used to travel with chartered flights to play matches in nearby towns like Benin.”

But he insisted that his best moments were not at Stores alone.

”Throughout my career I was successful in every club I played. I played for Dusseldorf in the German top division the very first time I travelled out to play professional in Europe. But unfortunately we came down to the third division but in quick succession, we returned back to the Bundesliga. At Dusseldorf, we are classified as heroes because of that feat.

”At Reutlingen, a small city, they were very adventurous. The people wanted to write the city‘s name in the annals of sports in the world; so they brought in Mercedes Benz and Porsche and these two companies pumped money into the club and we gained promotion into the top division. Because of that, we were given honorary citizenship of the town,” Obafemi said.

But he still remembers vividly his worst moment and it was while playing for his darling club Stores in 1993.

It was the semifinal of the CAF Champions Cup (now CAF Champions League) and Zamalek had taken a 3-1 lead in the first leg in Cairo, Egypt. Stores needed a 2-0 win in the second leg to advance to the final of the competition.

With the Nigerians leading 1-0, they were awarded a penalty which if converted could have seen them advance to the final but Obafemi missed the penalty to break Stores supporters hearts at the Onikan Stadium, Lagos and end their trophy quest.

He said, ”It was a bad day for me because if I had scored, we could have qualified for the final and probably would have been the first Nigerian team to win the trophy.”

Who was his best coach in all the clubs he played for in Nigeria, France and Germany?

”It‘s definitely Roland Kubis, my coach at Toulouse. As far as I am concerned, he‘s one of the best coaches in the world. I played under very good coaches, Nigerians inclusive but Kubis touched me like none of them did.”

However, he refused to admit if he would go into coaching soon but says he‘s using other ways to touch the lives of people through sports.

”I don‘t see anything wrong in that (coaching) provided you have something to offer. We are working with the Governor of Kogi to help develop sports in that state and also with Ojodu Local Development Council, where we are trying to raise a true U-17 team.”

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