Nigerians woke up to a rude shock Wednesday morning, when news of the passing of one of the country’s most gifted football players of his time, Yisa Sofoluwe broke out. He died Tuesday evening at the age of 53.
As a defender, the late Sofoluwe was a striker’s nightmare. When he led the lines, the Green Eagles defence was impregnable. His reputation bellied his smallish stature as he was so good that late ace sportscaster, Ernest Okonkwo nicknamed him, Defence Minister.
His ability to read strikers movements in the vital area and timely tackles, separated him from the rest. Yisa was a delight to watch as he made defending looked easy. He gave his all at both club and national levels.
Yet, Yisa was grossly under-appreciated, under-valued and under rewarded. By dint of luck, Yisa Sofoluwe came at the wrong time in the nation’s football history. Unlike their successors who won the Africa Cup of Nations in 1994 and went ahead to represent Nigeria at the 1994 FIFA World Cup, Yisa’s group remained largely unsung, despite their sterling record in Africa.
Two consecutive AFCON final appearances and two silver medals in 1984 and ’88 are still not considered good enough by an unappreciative nation, to give them their due honour. This awkward but prevailing situation has made it look like administrators of the game in the country are making deliberate efforts at obliterating one of the finest chapters in Nigeria’s football history.
Despite not having been appreciated, Sofoluwe bore no grudge against any individual or state as he remained ever grateful to his fatherland for providing him the platform with which he rose to stardom.. “No matter what, I still thank God and Nigeria for making me who I am today. I am a happy man because from nowhere, I became a national and international figure, with lots of fans. I am happy,” he told Sports Vanguard’s Jacob Ajom in an interview soon after the two friendly games involving Nigeria, Algeria and Tunisia.
His impression after Nigeria lost 0-1 to Algeria and drew 1-1 with Tunisia in the international friendly matches played last year:
Looking at the current national team, Sofoluwe said the problem with today’s Eagles was the continuous changes in the team. “Too many changes to the team and this can cause a problem, especially, in the defence.
I don’t think the whiteman(Rohr) knows these players much. Maybe by changing the team frequently, he believes he might one day get it right. I did not enjoy the match they played against Algeria. But I think the Tunisia match was better.
“My fear is in the World Cup qualifiers. We don’t have time for too many changes in the team. He can start working with the players he has already identified. All other teams are looking at us, Everybody wants to beat Nigeria. That is why we have to be very careful.”
Before the double-header against Sierra Leone, Sofoluwe warned against underrating opponents in the qualifying group:
Aware of the threat posed by Lesotho, The Republic of Benin and Sierra Leone in the impending AFCON Qualifiers, the former defender warned that there were no longer minnows in world football. “Those teams are very strong,” he said. “To avoid disgrace, we must tighten our belts very well”
On grassroots football development
He, however, expressed concern over the quality of players available for national team selectors. Sofoluwe said, “It is what we have that we are using now. We need to go back to grassroots football. That is what football playing nations are doing at the moment.
In England, Holland, Germany and other nations with football cultures that is what they are doing; developmental football. They train their youths to become good footballers. That is the only way we can help our football.”
In as much as he frowned at Gernot Rohr’s penchant for over dependence on foreign-based players, particularly, players from the diaspora, Sofoluwe sympathized with the German tactician because, in his words, the domestic league which should be producing players for the national team was not functioning.
He reasoned, “I believe Rohr is using the best Nigeria can offer for now. The league is not okay. No coach would invite a player who has not kicked a ball for more than six months to the national team. It is not done. It will be very difficult for players in the domestic league to feature in the national team because there is no football here at home.”
Humble beginning and the role of SWAN
He recalled his humble beginning. “I started playing football at St Jude’s Primary School, Lagos Mainland. After my primary school, I went to UTC Training School where we were taught different trades like painting, internal decoration and the like. I was detected by scouts from ITT Football Club of Lagos. I played there for two years,1981 and ’82.”
Yisa’s lot rose in bounds when he was identified by sports writers as a player with a lot of potential.”I was recommended by members of SWAN (Sports Writers Association of Nigeria, Lagos chapter) to coaches of the U-20 national team. They were playing qualifiers for Mexico ’83 FIFA U20 World Cup.”
He grabbed the opportunity with both hands and when he reported to camp, the team had Ivory Coast as the last hurdle to the World Cup. He impressed the coaches so much that he made the team that travelled to Abidjan for the first leg.
“We held them to a 2-2 draw and when they came for the return leg, we beat them 2-1 at the Nnamdi Azikiwe Stadium, Enugu. With that victory, we did not only emerge as African champions but we also qualified for the Mexico ’83 tournament.”
At Mexico the Flying Eagles, under the guidance of late Coach Chris Udemezue, and parading the likes of Ali Jeje, Paul Okoku, Amechi Otti, Patrick Udoh, Wilfred Agbonivbare, Benson Edema, Tarila Okorowanta, among others could not get past the group stage. They lost 0-3 to Brazil, drew 0-0 with the Netherlands and defeated USSR 1-0.
With that encouraging outing, some of the players, including Yisa Sofoluwe were promoted to the senior national team.
He recalled, “When we came back from Mexico, six of us, including me, were invited to join the senior team, the Green Eagles who were preparing for the 1984 Africa Cup of Nations in Ivory Coast.” Coach Adegboye Onigbinde was in charge and was assisted by coach James Peters
“In Ivory Coast, we played to the final but we were beaten 3-1 by Cameroon. We were a young, promising but inexperienced side. Basically, we lost to a more experienced Cameroon team.”
On their return from the tournament, Yisa was snapped up by one of the glamourous clubs in the country at the time, Abiola Babes Football Club of Abeokuta, owned by billionaire business mogul, late Chief Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola.
At the club, Sofoluwe said he enjoyed his best football as it marked the high point of his career. “We were playing both the Challenge Cup and the League simultaneously. We won the Challenge Cup twice and were runners-up on two other occasions. We lost the FA Cup in 1984, won it in ’85 after beating IICC 2-1 in Kaduna in the semi final.
I scored the opening goal, they equalised and Rashidi Yekini scored the winning goal. Chief Segun Odegbami was the Team Manager of IICC, while late Best Ogedegbe was Team Manager of Abiola Babes. In 1986 we lost the final to Leventis United and won the FA Cup again in ’87.”
He said the defunct Leventis United were the only club that gave Abiola Babes the toughest competition. “Only Leventis United gave us a tough time. They defeated us in the 1986 FA Cup final at the national stadium Lagos and the following weekend we defeated them in Ibadan in a league game. It was a tough match. We beat them 2-1. They were other teams though, but Leventis United were the team to beat,” he said.
Nineteen-Eighty-Eight was another AFCON year and Nigeria qualified for the tournament with Sofoluwe being a prominent member of the squad. With a squad that was largely comprised of players that prosecuted the ’84 tournament, Nigeria entered the competition as one of the favourites. The Eagles did not disappoint as they clawed their way to the final.
Again Cameroon stood between them and their second AFCON trophy. It was a match most Nigerians would hate to remember. “We played out our hearts in the final and scored what we thought was a good goal but the centre referee disallowed it. We lost 0-1 and everyone in the team felt we were robbed.”
Denied a spot in Olympic team
After that tournament, Yisa Sofoluwe was again called for yet another international duty, this time, qualifiers for Seoul ’88 Olympics. In the final qualifier, the Eagles lost 0-1 to Algeria at away and won the second leg 2-0 in Enugu to bag the ticket for the Olympics.
After qualification, Sofoluwe and a number of other players who participated in the qualifiers were dropped by the new coach, Manfred Hoener. Sofoluwe said, “at Seoul, the Eagles did not do well because Hoener scattered the team. A number of us, including me, were dropped. I am sure that was why they didn’t do well.”
And that marked the unceremonious retirement of Sofoluwe from the national team.
Despite the sudden manner he left the national team, Sofoluwe still held fun memories of the Maroc ’88 final. “That remains my most memorable match in Nigeria colours,” he recalled.
“Even as we lost that match, it still doesn’t matter to me today because one of three things manifests at the end of each game; a win, a draw or a loss. Whatever happens after that day is forgotten after some time. That is football.”
How it felt losing two consecutive AFCON finals to the same team, Cameroon?
“I believe in 1984 we were inexperienced. Cameroon used experience to outplay us. In ’88, it was a different ball game. We were robbed, and everybody saw it.
During the medal presentation, the Prince of Morocco told us that it was not possible that we lost that game. He blamed the referee for our loss. But the deed had been done.”
We sought to know who, among the senior players gave him confidence in camp?
Sofoluwe said, while in the national team, he had no special attachment with any particular teammate. “For me, I didn’t believe in any guardian in the national camp. You play your game and I play mine. All I require of you is respect.
“You give me respect, I give you respect in return. I had no problem with anybody. Once I play my game, I go my own way. Keshi was my captain as we started football together, we used to talk very well. I didn’t have a problem with anybody.”
Sofoluwe’s sojourn abroad did not give him the desired breakthrough. His dream of making it big in Europe was truncated by the dubious manipulations of a greedy manager. From Abiola Babes, Sofoluwe went to Belgium to join Genk. But that was never to be.
He told us his story: “The manager who took me to Belgium disappointed me because of the money he envisaged he could make out me. When we got there, Genk had already travelled for their pre-season. The manager then took me to another club, Diest Football club, owned by his friend. I stayed with the club for one year and after that one year, he wanted me to remain with that club but I refused.
At the end, I had a problem with the club. I had to go on radio and television to talk about it. I left the club but couldn’t secure another one because when a new club wanted to sign me on, the manager would give them negative information about me and that discouraged them from signing me on. He did everything to frustrate me.”
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.
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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.
Relationship with late Chief MKO Abiola
Sofoluwe also recounted the personal relationship he enjoyed with proprietor of the defunct Abiola Babes, late Chief Abiola. “He was my second daddy. He was always inviting me to his home and he even attended my engagement with my wife. The moment I told him about the occasion, he immediately informed his first wife, Alhaja Simbiat Abiola of blessed memory, that ‘look..look, Yisa said he will be doing his engagement on Saturday.
We have to be there.’ And on that day, even though he had planned to go for one event earlier, he sent his wife to the other event and made sure he came to my event first, before going to meet her at the other event.”
After his sojourn to Belgium, Sofoluwe returned to Nigeria and signed for Gateway Football club of Abeokuta. He ended up as a coach with the team. He left Gateway after the entire team and the technical crew were sacked.
He was then engaged by IGI, an insurance company that ran a football club in Lagos. “It was IGI that sent me to NIS for my coaching course. I was also into sports marketing with Gbenga Moses. I have also handled youth teams.
“I led a Nigerian youth team to win the Pan-African Copa Coca Cola Cup in South Africa and as head coach of NATS Boys, we won the Lagos Junior League. I do consultancy and hold clinics for various groups and organisations.”
Despite his fluctuating fortunes, Sofoluwe said he is a happy man. “I am happy that I am still alive today, telling my story. Some of my contemporaries have since left this world. I thank God for what he has done for me. I remain grateful to the Almighty.”