Tijani Babangida grew up in the same neighbourhood with Daniel Amokachi and Garba Lawal in Kaduna. The trio played childhood football together and years later, found themselves playing for Nigeria. They were discovered by the same man, Sani Nagogo, who nurtured them in the backsreets of Kaduna before they shot to national and international limelight.
Babangida spoke with us on his childhood dream, journey through life as a footballer, his fears, achievements and how he broke into the national team. Babangida spoke with Jacob Ajom. Read on.
By Jacob Ajom
How and when did you start playing football?
I grew up watching DIC Bees, Kaduna Rocks and UNTL Football Clubs in Kaduna at that time in the 1980s and early 1990s. I developed a lot of interest in football when I saw most of my idols play. I made up my mind that I wanted to become a professional football player. Even when we were playing as children, watching the big players and the great Pele of Brazil on videos, it encouraged me more to go into football.
Another thing was that I heard that Pele and other international stars were being paid for playing football. And I was wowed by that piece of news because I thought they were having fun on the field and making money at the same time wowed me. For me that sounded like a bonus because I thought playing football was fun. That attracted me more to football.
About what time was this? When did you actually start playing football and who discovered you as a player?
There was this man who was playing with UNTL called Sani Nagogo. He was wearing jersey number 7 at that time. His game inspired me. From there I signed with Arewa Textiles, playing in the state league at that time.
I came to limelight through the Manua Adebajo Cup, when Kaduna State won it for the first time. I played a major role in the cup triumph where I emerged the Most Valuable Player of the tournament. We also had Daniel Amokachi in that team. From there I signed for Arewa Textiles. At Arewa Textiles Niger Tornadoes spotted me. I moved to Tornadoes where I played for two seasons.
While at Tornadoes, I was invited to national U-23 camp by coach James Peters. At U-23, we went to Holland on a training tour, after which we attended the 1991 All Africa Games in Cairo, Egypt. At the Games, Amuneke and myself emerged as the shinning stars. After the Games, Amuneke found himself signing for a club in Egypt, while I moved to Holland.
Fantastic. Your rise was meteoric indeed. In Holland, you replaced your compatriots, Nwankwo Kanu and George Finidi at Ajax?
I played with JC Rhoda first. When I got to Holland I signed a contract with JC Rhoda but the club loaned me to VV Venlo, where I played for one and a half seasons before I went back to Rhoda. I played three seasons with Rhoda because I had to justify myself. It was after Rhoda that Ajax finally signed me.
Yes, like I said before, you went to Ajax after Kanu and Finidi. Did you feel any pressure in terms of expectation, particularly after the exploits of the two Nigerians there? How demanding was it at Ajax?
One thing you must understand here is that when they take you from Africa to Europe, it takes sometime before you can adapt to their system. But my case was different because I was already in Holland for over four seasons and they had seen me as a good replacement for Finidi George, which was, of course, very difficult. It was hard to find a good player of that calibre because Finidi was a phenomenal player.
So that was how I found myself because they had already checked and found me worthy of being a good alternative to Finidi, even if I was not exactly like him, I was still good enough to fill that gap and be part of their team. That was what happened.
Going to Ajax had its own challenges. It was challenging because Finidi had done so much; they won the Champions League, so you could see how he made it difficult to find a good replacement who would be as good as himself. Anyway, I did my best; he was a winger and I was a winger who scored a lot of goals. You noticed I scored a lot of goals at Ajax, more that any Nigerian that was in Holland. That year we went up to the semi final of the Champions League. I scored in the quarter final against Athletico Madrid in Spain to take Ajax to the semi final of the Champions League after extra time.
After the semi final, what happened? You didn’t get to the final?
We lost to a Zinedin Zidane-inspired Juventus side. That was the first time I was seeing him and he did not disappoint as he was playing fantastically. We drew in Holland and lost 3-0 in Turin. Juventus got to the final to face Borussia Dortmund. Dortmund defeated them in the final.
You mentioned Zidane who was a fantastic player, today he is a fantastic coach. It is not common to find good players becoming good coaches. What is your thought on Zidane?
Even before we played against them, we had a player who had played together with him in France. He warned us about a certain Juventus playmaker called Zidane and that we must watch him closely. It was very unfortunate because on the match day, he caused us a lot of havoc and emerged Man Of The Match. Zidane was a very fantastic player, you had to see him play because no description could adequately capture his enormous skill and displays.
As a coach, he is doing marvelously too, because when he left Real Madrid, the club was dropping like a plane that was being pulled down by the force of gravity. And when he returned to the team, he succeeded in taking the club back to ascendancy and won the La Liga title. He has done very well as a coach and a player, which you already pointed out how difficult it is to find a good coach who was also a good player. Most times you don’t find good players transforming into good coaches, who can teach younger ones to become better than themselves. Zidane has proved beyond doubt that he is as good a coach as he was the player everybody loved to watch play.
Back to yourself, you had a glowing career in the national team. After your 1991 All Africa Games medal, how was your progress to the Super Eagles?
It was very difficult because in Nigeria, players graduate from one stage to another. If you did well in U-17 you would be moved to U-20, from U-20 to U-23 and so forth. And very few players find themselves in the Super Eagles. After Cairo ’91, I went back to my club and I was doing very well. Westerhof at that time did not invite me to the national team for the 1994 Africa Cup of Nations.
After the Nations Cup, there was a lot of pressure on coach Clemens Westerhof from the international press. They were wondering how I could not make the national team, despite my great form at my club. It was the international press that forced him to invite me to the 1994 World Cup, although before my invitation, he had made up his mind that I was not going to the World Cup. Eventually, I made the 23-man squad as one of the alternate players because I was young and doing very well.
If I had played in the 1994 World Cup, I would have given Nigeria cause to cheer because I had all it took to have made that team; I was young and a natural predator who was always hungry in front of goal. I ended up watching the World Cup from the tribune because I was not registered for the tournament, so I couldn’t play. But after the World Cup, I found myself in the Olympic team, the Dream Team, under Coach Jo Bonfrere. We went to the Olympics and you already know the story, we won it. It was a fantastic outing for Nigeria and Africa.
From the Olympics you knew then the team was a dream team. From the technical crew to the last man in the team were automatically promoted to the Super Eagles. . I was part of the qualifiers for 1998 Nations Cup, scoring some fantastic goals as well. We went to the World Cup and at the World Cup, I scored a goal but it was a very boring game because we were losing 4-0 before my goal. However, it remains my greatest goal because it put my name in the history books of the World Cup.
How was it like, scoring a World Cup goal?
I told you it was a boring game because we were losing. But for me, it is the best goal in my career because it puts me among World Cup goal scorers. It was historic. So, that goal is very important to me.
I was happy but I could not celebrate much because of how the game ended.
After the World Cup we came to the Ghana/Nigeria 2000 Africa Cup of Nations where I started as a bench warmer and then became a regular from the semi final when I scored two quick goals against South Africa. Those two goals enhanced my CV to a high level as they catapaulted Nigeria to the final of the tournament which we lost to Cameroon.
From there we started qualifiers for the Korea/Japan 2002 World Cup. We had a very difficult game against Ghana in Port Harcourt, where I also scored two great goals that qualified Nigeria for the World Cup.
After that we went to the Nations Cup in Mali where we won a bronze medal. Unfortunately, that was where our problem started. We lost the semifinal match and had problems with the officials. It was unfortunate that barely two weeks to the World Cup, many players in the squad were dropped. It was a big joke. The problem was so unfortunate because I don’t think there is any country in the world that can try such a joke and succeed.
Nobody can imagine such a joke even in countries with developed and sustained football traditions. That was my story with the Super Eagles. I did not play in the 1994 World Cup. If I had, I would have played in three World Cup tournaments but I only played in two – 1998 and 2002.
Let’s go back to that AFCON 2000 semi final match against South Africa in Lagos. We all knew you as a winger who, originally, operated from the right but on that day, you were played from the left. What did coach Bonfrere tell you before that match?
Well, it was a strategy by the coach, which I found very difficult to accept. We had some issues but the coach insisted I must play from the left and I had no choice but to obey the coach and do his bidding. I couldn’t do otherwise because he was the coach and luckily, I went in and did my best. I had a memorable game, scored two fantastic goals that are still being talked about in world football today.
That was the first time I was seeing a natural right-footed winger operate from the left side, but it is common today in modern football.
At that time, the system wasn’t regular for you to see something like that. But at the end of the day it paid off. That is where you could see the ingenuity in Bonfrere Jo, who introduced such a system as far back as year 2000. Indeed, it was my first time playing from the left and the first time I saw a ringht winger playing from the left wing. (Babangida did not know that Bonfrere acted on a technical report from a group that went to Kumasi to monitor Ghana/South Africa match which Bafana Bafana won.
In the match South Africa’s right back, Mark Fish appeared slow and was always overlapping but with slow recovery rate. The group recommended that a very fast attacker be played on the left. That group included late Coach Amodu, Joseph Erico and Saturday editor of Vanguard, then sports editor, Onochie Anibeze)
You were an assistant coach to Sunday Oliseh at the national team. What really happened to those Eagles because everything just crumbled?
It was because of the system the NFF are using which is not good. You can see that when they want peace, they try to find peace for themselves. The peace they are enjoying now is because they have not been able to bring the technical committee together to vet the team and disrupt the coach’s team selection. During Oliseh that was exactly what happened. Oliseh wasn’t happy with that because he was not in the same line with members of the technical committee. That was why things fell apart.
You can see that Gernot Rohr doesn’t have such problems because I am sure he must have given them some conditions that he wouldn’t want such a thing (like picking players for him) to happen. So, they allowed Rohr some freedom which they couldn’t do for Oliseh? Instead they were busy talking about the mentality of Oliseh that Oliseh is different, Oliseh is this and that.
Now Rohr is as free as a bird; no technical Committee to disrupt his team and nobody is concerned about team selection. Why don’t we encourage our own to excel?
With your experience as a member of the technical crew of the national team under Oliseh, would you accept another offer to coach the national team again, if called upon?
You can never say no to your country when they call on you. Why did I accept to lead the players union? It is because I realised the union needed someone to lead them. It is your country. Whenever something like that comes up, you never can say no.
After such a glorious career, both at club and international levels, what does Tijani Babngida do today?
I am still into football. I am the President of the Players Union, the National Association of Nigerian Professional Footballers. I am here to see how we can help the younger ones and see how we can influence a change for the system to work for the benefit of the players.
How have you been able to tackle the problems since you took over?
It is almost two years now. I have seen the problems and I have known the problems. One needs to have the political zeal and power to resolve the issues at stake, and they must trust you. You know it is one union broken into two, trying to do the same thing. They have been rumblings and fighting for over twenty years which are affecting the welfare of the youths and footballers of Nigerian now.
Luckily for me, Harrison Jalah is a very nice man, I have spoken with him. I think we are all the same thing and I see a thin line between him and the other side. He has agreed to come back so that we can set the structures right. If nobody does anything, history will not forgive all those involved in this problem. I hope that we will be able to work together with Jallah hand-in-hand, so that we can push the union and also help the system. Because right now, the system is not working. We will have to force the system to work. It must work. It is not a small thing; it’s a big issue.
How soon should we expect to see the two unions collapse into one?
Very soon because we are already talking about the roadmap, how we will be able to work together and make it work. We have gone beyond talking about the individual, we are now talking about how to help the system work. We are not going there to talk about Tijani Babangida but about the union of players who are still active in the game like Mikel Obi, Ahmed Musa, Victor Osimhen and their likes.
The question is, how are we going to use the system to reach them? How does the system assist them? Do they have, for instance, health insurance? There are a lot of things to put in place for our players, so that they won’t become laughing stocks after their football careers.
If you recall, when you played in Nigeria, the home-based players were better catered for than the situation is today. Most of them are being owed salaries for months. What plans have the union put in place to see to the improvement of the welfare of players in the the domestic league?
I have already told you that everything has to do with the system. When the system starts working everything will fall in place. We have to assist the system work and once it starts working it will reflect in all aspects of the game like salaries, match bonuses and every other benefits due to the players.
Recently, the world football governing body, FIFA released $1 million(American Dollars) to the NFF and CAF released $500,000 as relief funds to cushion the effect of coronavirus pandemic. Is the union in touch with the NFF on the sharing formular of these palliatives?
We are not involved but our appeal to the NFF is that there should be openness and fairness in the manner they carry out the sharing. Ghana have done their own, Zambia too have done theirs. The NFF can follow what the others have done and do same. All we can do now is wait and see what the NFF wants to do with the money. It is in your place (the media) to continue to ask the NFF how they intend to share the money. We are not involved and have nothing to do with that money. Our only concern is how it will affect the lives of our members, particularly, players who have been owed salaries and match bonuses for months; we want to see if this money can help them ahead of the new season, we will be happy.
How do you see the Super Eagles under Rohr?
Rohr has done well. He has chosen to work with youthful players. Nigeria is having a batch of young generation of footballers in the national team. Very soon, with this Rohr formation, we should be able to get the best out of our team. All we need is somebody who can push them to the next level.
The appointment of Yobo?
It is a good one but I feel the NFF should have put more on Yobo’s training and some intellectual courses. But no matter how you look at it, Yobo is going to be of positive influence on the young players in the team because of his experience as a former top class player.