Dr. Felix ‘Owoblow’ Owolabi spoke with Jacob Ajom on NFF’s contract extension with the national team manager, Coach Gernot Rohr, and the role of the media in the revival of sports in Nigeria.
Coach of the national team Gernot Rohr, whose contract has just been renewed has consistently maintained that the local league was poor and players from the league could not fit into his team. Do you see it the same way?
If I were the Nigeria Football Federation, his employers and somebody told me that I would sack him the next day. I would sack him for saying that. I wouldn’t know in the first instance, maybe that was why they decided to add some clauses in his contract. In the first place, before you contract the services of any foreign coach, that means you must have noticed you have some challenges local coaches could handle, so based on that you would tell the man look, these are the challenges we are facing and we want you to come and see how we can turn things around.
If the man is now saying the local league is not good, then of what use is the LMC, the NPFL, why do you need to have the Nigeria Football Federation as an association? Why do you then have the LMC as a body controlling the league? In my own way and by my own understanding and estimation, he has rubbished the NFF and the League Management Company. He is telling us that they are not doing anything because they don’t know anything.
Perhaps in the best way possible, the NFF has responded by inserting some clauses in the Rohr’s new contract that players from the domestic league must form part of the national team, he must live in Nigeria to monitor the local league and some other terms that appear nationalistic. Don’t you see this as a pathway to progress?
In the first instance, they have shot themselves in the foot. I think you can now understand what I am saying. For the man to say categorically that there was nothing to write home about the local league, he has told them that there was nothing on ground at all.
Now that the NFF has come out, maybe they are becoming a bit serious – I’m not too sure. I think they know what they are doing and what they are going to do, if not, they wouldn’t come up with the new clauses in the new contract. It shows they are becoming serious-minded people. But for the previous contracts, I see them as novices. I saw them as people who did not know what they were doing or what they wanted.
And I don’t think Rohr’s contract was renewed because the man has been able to do anything tangible on ground. What informed these new clauses was because you(the media) and me have been shouting and yelling at them, that is why they are making things look more reasonable. They may have just decided to listen to what the people are saying
It is just a common sense. For sometime we were not on the same plane with them. What they have just done is like an afterthought, otherwise, it is common sense that a man who called on another person to come and help him must get something helpful from the helper. Whether you like it or not, the local league is the panacea to the growth of any national team. As an individual, that is the way I see it.
Now that they have come out to acknowledge their deficiency, we want to see how they will go about it. How can you be the coach of a national team and you won’t go round the league venues and scout for players? What the NFF needed to have done was to make use of the man’s wealth of experience, from day one. With the intervention of the COVID-19 Pandemic, we cannot follow the schedules of all the foreign clubs where we have players and the very many restrictions of going abroad in place, it is no longer easy to depend on the foreign-based players. This is the time to look inwards. Get him at least some five coaches who are conversant with our league to be moving round the league venues and get players for the national team.
Are you advising that the NFF should recruit local coaches for Rohr to be going round for him?
Not just one, at least five coaches to work with him. I know he has Yobo as assistant, he would need more.
Yobo is still a young coach who is just cutting his teeth with the national team.
Yes I agree, but he has wealth of playing experience. Remember Frank Beckenbauer, he never coached anywhere before, when the German Chancellor called on him to lead the national team. He took Germany to win the World Cup. Let Yobo be there. But they would need more coaches for different roles.
In our days we used to have team A(the possibles) and Team B(the probables). When something happened to one team, there were ready substitutes to fill in the gap. It was elimination by substitution. We were the youngest team at the World Cup in Russia 2018, we might not be in the next two years with some of them are aging.
For some of others, their forms could drop; we are human beings. In the course of having Plan A, you must not forget to have a Plan B in the event that one plan fails, the other could work. In the alternative, the two can work together.
If you are paying a man huge amount of money, you should also get something from him. And in the course of working for him, those working under him would also attain some form of expertise as benefits we could derive from him.
Nigeria has some very young prospects like Victor Osimhen, Wilfred Ndidi and Samuel Chukwueze, who incidentally plays like you, among others. Which of these young lads should Nigeria pin her hope on for a brighter future?
Let us concentrate on them. You have just mentioned their names and they all are Nigerians. The only thing is that the coach should give them a level-play ground to express themselves. Who is a good coach? A good coach is one who sees the potential in a player and gives him the template to excel.
A good coach is one who identifies a good player and makes the best use of his potential. If you are able to do that, the best would come out of a player. A player would tell you use me, it is left for you to know where and how to use him to his full potential.
What does Dr Felix Owolabi do today, for a living? I am a retiree and a farmer. I have a small farm at the back of my yard. Even when I was playing, I was into Animal Husbandry. I used to rear cows and at a time I used to have piggery farm. I went into Fish pond business when I was a member of the Nigeria Football Federation.
You know I was a member of the first Premier League Board under the chairmanship of late Onyuki Obaseki, all those years, I was not concentrating on any federal or state appointment because I knew that one day, I would retire and would be on my own. That is exactly what I am doing now.
Did any of your children take after you, sports-wise?
Yes, they are into sports as well but I made them concentrate more on their studies. All of them went to private schools which exposed them more to their studies than sports. Like I said earlier, all these private schools are jeun jeun schools. Just to make money. Private schools don’t have all the facilities and are more interested in academics.
But my children have interest in sports. They keep me informed about all the developments in sports. If we took education seriously and the public schools still have the standard they had in our time, who would go to private schools? We are all suffering the decadence in our school system. I made this point before.
How was madam coping with your life as a sportsman?
She is also a journalist. She is used to me. Before you pick on somebody to be your life partner, you must have got background information about the person. But then, by the grace of God, it is one thing having a wife and another thing having her behave in consonance with your expectations because in some cases, you find her becoming something else.
I just have to thank God that my wife is a very quiet woman. She has also been a great support, a sister, a mother, so to speak.. She has been a companion. I don’t see her as a wife. I don’t have a father and I don’t have a mother anymore, so I had to look up to somebody who could fill that gap and she is the perfect fit for my mother.
Gratitude I want to use this opportunity to thank Nigerians for the love they have shown me over the years. I remember the 1980 Nations Cup – they asked Salisu Abubakar during an interview, what he could say about Felix Owolabi, and he said, he didn’t know what Nigerians saw in me. He observed that among the whole players in the team, once we were coming out of the tunnel onto the pitch, the entire stadium would be echoing in unison ‘Owo…Owo…Owo, as if Owo was the only person that was going to play.
I appreciate Nigerians, I appreciate everybody. I only hope and pray that Nigerian sports will continue to wax stronger, particularly Nigerian football, at this time that Rohr has been told to monitor the Nigerian league. It gladdens my heart and that is why I am having that confidence to talk now, otherwise, I have been sad, I have not been feeling fine because of the attitude of the Nigeria Football Federation towards the local league.
In our days, between 2006 and 2010, the Nigerian Premier League was rated the best in Africa but immediately after our board, it became a different story. Some of the players late Keshi took to the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations were the products of our league. I want the same scenario to be captured from the local league. It is when players from the local league play for the national team that fans will have the courage to go and watch matches of the domestic league. Right now it is difficult to get fans to go and watch matches, even they practically beg fans to go to the stadium to watch players that they do not know.
Another area is live commentary, I want you to tell your colleagues – especially those in the electronic media – because commentary plays a major role in the development of sports, particularly football. It helps in attracting fans to the stadium. Commentary on radio makes fans want to go and see that player or those they have have been hearing about. Let us see what we can do to bring back the old days of Sebastian Oforum, Ernest Okonkwo, Ishola Folorunsho, Tolu Fatoyinmbo, among others.
In your time as a player, fans went to the stadium with radio sets. As they watched they also listened to commentaries.
Exactly, because it added flare and excitement to the whole thing. It was magical the manner Ernest Okonkwo, in particular, ran commentaries. He always found words to describe how a defender tackled or stopped a striker from advancing with the ball towards his goal area.
He also had a way of giving players acronyms that best described their style of play. Allosious Atuegbu, for instance, he called him the Blockbuster; the Mathematical Odegbami, Chukwu was Chairman, while Adokiye who was a law student at the University of Lagos, was called “Chief Justice” and Okala was Man Mountain because of his height.
The media generally has a big role to play. The media has to let Nigerians know the truth about the Nigerian league. The way sports is run in Nigeria is defective. We are not developing sports in the country. What we do here is we organise competitions. We have to develop first before competitions. Competitions should be the last thing.
Competition should provide an avenue for one to test what the athletes have been learning. It is like examination, you don’t set examination when the pupils or students have not been taught anything.