Yisa Sofoluwe is one of the most talented defenders Nigerian football has witnessed. He played delectable football and was one of the finest of his era. In his hey days, Ace broadcaster, Ernest Okonkwo named him Minister of Defence. Two Nations Cup silver medals, two FA Cup trophies and two FA Cup silver medals were just some of the rich credentials this humble servant of Nigerian football has in his cabinet. Sofoluwe spoke with Jacob Ajom in a recent chat. Excerpts:
Your career in football: Tell us how it all started.
I started when I played for a club called ITT. I was very young then. This was about 1981/82. I joined them from my area because the coach was living around our area, Ebute Metta. The coach’s name was Cesi Asenna; he played for NEPA and played for Nigeria too. It was from there that I was invited to the Flying Eagles in 1983. That time we were playing a league here in Lagos., LADFA League. From there they invited me to the Flying Eagles.
After making the camp, our team(The Flying Eagles) travelled to Mexico in 1983. When we returned from Mexico, they invited about six players from the Flying Eagles to the Greenb Eagles. Then we had coach Adegboye Onigbinde and James Peters. I was among the six picked and I played for the team in the 1984 Nations Cup and I played to the final where we emerged runners up. Cameroon beat us 3-1. We had also Muda Lawal(late), Henry Nwosu, the only two members from the 1980 squad that won the trophy in Lagos. Our team was very young as we had the likes of Chibuzor Ehilegbu, Paul Okoku and we did very well.
In 1988 again we played to the final and lost again to Cameroon 1-0, a penalty. After that, I also played for Abiola Babes, 1984, ’85, ’86, ’87. We played the National Challenge Cup, we won it twice and were runners up twice also. We won it 1984 and ’87, while ’85 and ’86 we were runners up. I was in the national team that qualified Nigeria for the Seoul Olympics. But the engagement of Manfred Honner scuttled my going to the Olympics because he came and scattered the team. So that was the last time I played for Nigeria.
Best moment in your playing career?
It was when I was playing in the national team and Abiola Babes. Then I had a lot of fans and everybody enjoyed my game and they wanted to see me play everytime. That is the only time I enjoyed my game most.
Late ace broadcaster, Ernest Okonkwo called you Minister of defence. Why was he calling you that name?
It was in Morocco ’88 when I saw the man, we met at a hotel lobby. He just called me Yisa, please come. I went to him. He asked, “Do you know me?” I told hem no. And he said, “I am Ernest Okonkwo,” and I was shocked. The same Ernest Okonkwo that gave me the name ‘Defence Minister’? I then asked why he gave me the name. He asked me, “don’t you know the way you play? It is because of the way you play. That is why I gave you the name. He told me it was the way I played in our match against Ghana in Kaduna the following day I saw in the papers and everybody began calling me that name. I was so happy but I didn’t allow that go into my head. I remained calm and humble and I always strived to put in my best everytime I was called upon by the coaches to play either in the national team or Abiola Babes.
My happiness is that throughout my career, I never had any serious injury that kept me out of the game but my biggest regret was my brief sorjourn in Belgium. I had a problem with my coach. But I am happy I am still alive today.
You talked about Belgium, which club did you play for?
RSC Namur. It is in the capital, like we had Super Stores in Lagos, everybody liked the club. The fans liked me very well. But I wanted to move on. The manager and the management of the club wanted to hold me down and never wanted me to leave. When I realised they didn’t want me to move forward, I had to return to Nigeria.
When you returned to Nigeria, which club did you play for?
I played for Gateway Football Club, that was in 2000. I captained the team and won the state challenge Cup with them. When we were to go for the National Challenge Cup the governor then did not give us the money required and they scattered the team, I moved on to work with IGI. It was at IGI that they gave me the chance to do a lot of other football related programmes with Coca Cola and other developmental, grassroots programmes. When the IGI Chairman died, I had to move out of that place and have been working with grassroots clubs like Nath Boys, Future Stars and righ now, I work with a club called Rivers FC, here in Lagos. It is just like a part time job.
After your playing career, you attended a coaching course at NIS?
He cuts in: I also went with NFF to England for capacity building course. Then, the NFF promised to make us back room staff of national teams. This they are yet to do.
But you once worked with the national team?
Yes under coach Alphonsus Dike U-17. It was when we lost in Benin that they asked us to go. They did not give us the chance to make any amends. But I know I am a good coach, because all the places I have worked, Gateway, Nath Boys, etc they know I am a good coach. I still thank God that I still see programmes like the GTBank Principals Cup, Coca Cola Cup, like this one now with Chevron football team for the Nigeria Oil and Gas Industry Games where we have qualified for the final.
What is your immediate plan for the future?
I want to also coach any of the national teams and after that I can become a team manager or somewhere in management where I can do something good for the team.
Do you feel like taking up a coaching job with a club, may be outside Lagos?
No. I don’t like all the problems associated with working for Nigerian clubs. Managements are overbearing and they owe a lot. Even as we speak, Gateway are still owing me so many months salary. I have been trying to get my money but to no avail. I am not alone in this. They are owing many of us. On my part I have done my best. I have the state and I have served the country.