Former defender Abiodun Obafemi, one of Nigeria’s heroes at the Atlanta 96 Olympics, exclusively shared with Sportmasta great memories of how his team overcame all odds to nick the first African Olympic Men's Football gold at Atlanta '96, while unearthing the several untold stories of their success two decades after.
The 42-year-old, who featured once at the competition, revealed his aspiration of venturing into football administration as well as dreams of heading the football secretariat.
Goal: It's 20 years after the Nigeria U23 team won Africa’s first Olympic football gold, what feelings hit you being a part of such great history?
Obafemi: I feel privileged because first of all, it is not all good teams that are successful. We cannot be called a lucky team as the success was a reward for all we put in. What people saw in 1996 was a product of what we had been putting in since 1993 because majority of all those players who formed the nucleus of Atlanta '96 were part of the Mauritius 1993 African U23 Championship. That's why I feel happy and elated to have been part of that team.
It was just like yesterday, the memories are still fresh in my head. Nobody gave us a chance; we never even gave ourselves the chance. Remember the last friendly we played against Togo in Lagos, though ended not in defeat but people expected us as the Dream Team to spank Togo. But that match was an eye-opener for us to get on our toes. We were not really under any pressure after that game. When we got to Atlanta, it seemed everyone thought they overrated our team and we were like underdogs. That really gave us an opportunity to put our acts together and helped us talk to ourselves and it motivated and determined and we thank God for fortune. In that team, from number one to 22, each of us was simply the best in the country. We went with the best legs in the country. In training, every onlooker watching us could testify that these were a bunch of uniquely talented players.
Goal: 20 years on, what is Abiodun Obafemi doing now for a living?
AO: I'm happy I love doing what I’m doing, that is by impacting the knowledge we got into youth from my long years of experience and training in football. I'm the head coach of the fastest growing football academy in the country, Youth Sports Management. We have some players in the present U17 Golden Eaglets, some in Nigeria Premier League sides like Ikorodu United. We also have some players heading to Europe in coming days. And our academy partners with some clubs in Europe.
The president of the academy is the father of Liverpool youngster Sheyi Ojo in England. There are lot of unfulfilled dreams and those who run Nigerian football do not respect contracts, though I’m not earning millions here the most important thing is enjoying what I do and the environment is conducive. My Academy is not playing league football in Nigeria but I have a good understanding with my players. I hope to further my education in football administration. I really don't know why we must all be clamouring for a coaching job. Why can't an ex- international be the president of the NFF? I will hope to see myself as the secretary general of the NFF. I believe we should aspire to take over Nigerian football in the nearest future so that all the hiccups will be a thing of the past.
Goal: Though many thought the team was lucky, how will you compare the Olympic winning squad to the current squad?
AO: I remember that most of my colleagues at youth level, we were at the U20 together, most of us entered the camp with the likes of [Nwankwo] Kanu, the Babayaros, Teslim Fatusi. We were first friends and understood ourselves very well. So there were no issues in the dressing room and when we met eventually, we were looking forward to seeing one another in camp.
I was playing for one of the biggest teams in France, Toulouse, Kanu was in Inter, Taribo was in Auxerre, we were fully prepared and were not overrun or intimidated by the super stars paraded by the Brazilians or Argentines. We were playing for big teams in Europe and week-in week-out for our various big clubs in Europe. We had a multitude of fans coming to watch us not compared to the majority of the present crop of players who are not playing for big teams. Stage fright will be there. The experience is not there for the present players, which was really what helped us the most as a team.
Goal: Playing against strong opposition at the competition - how did you and your defensive teammates cope with all your foes at the football event?
AO: I remember the last friendly games we played in New Jersey against the Mexican and American senior teams. We practised a lot of experiments. The coach was just trying to get the right formula, especially in the defensive set-up. You have Mobi Opkaraku on the right, Celestine on the left. In the center, you have me and gentle giant - Uche Okechukwu. One of the best methods for setting up a central defence is having a cool headed-player paired with an aggressive player. In most cases it works like you have Pepe as the aggressive one and Sergio Ramos as the cool head in Real Madrid. One is a sweeper and the other will be a man-marking defender. Tarabo [West] was the aggressive type and Uche was the man covering all his tracks and doing the clearing. That's how we played in Mauritius. I see myself in Uche Okechukwu - he's calm and I'm too. I feel I’m more skillful and youthful than him, but then you can buy his [Uche] experience in the market. It was the formula Bonfrere Jo explored and I think it is the best the defensive pairing in the history of Nigeria football. And it was a key in our success to winning the gold. In our first match, we didn't get our bearing although we won. As we progressed, we strategized and practised alternative strategies too. At the group stages, the way we approached the first game was different from how we took the last game. Because, already we had both qualified, though we wanted to win the game but we were satisfied with the 1-0 result because they were lucky to get their goal. But when we faced the Mexicans in the quarterfinal, it was for me one of the toughest matches. People might not have record of that match, but for me [it was] our toughest. We played against the Jorge Campos - one of the most colourful goalkeepers in the World at that time. The Mexicans paraded a wonderful collection of talented players. Everyone knew Babayaro was a skillful and counter-attacking player but in the game the coach asked him not to overlap. We won 2-0 but it was one of our toughest, even tougher than our game against Brazil in the semis. Our strategies continued to change and our game plan was not to concede any goal. When we met them, we knew it was going to be a fight. And we were defensively solid and our strategy was not to concede any goal because when you allow an attacking team to score you first, the tendency of taking more is very high. So our strategy really worked for us when we got the first goal and sat back waiting for them to attack us and got our chance to score the second. Anyone who watched the game and competition again we accept the fact that that team [Mexico] was one of the most complete team in the competition. When we played the Brazilians, then with the best players in the World in Ronaldo - though we lost to them in the first game but we prepared to avenge the defeat, which we did before the final against Argentina to win the gold.
Goal: What is your greatest moment of joy during the Altanta 1996 Olympics and regret in your career?
AO: My greatest Olympic 1996 moment was during the qualifier. People thought we had it easy, but our road to Atlanta was really very bumpy. We had to overcome the almighty Egyptians who we drew against in Nigeria. We had to go there and it was a must-win game. I had been away for quite sometimes and a lot of people wanted to see me play. When I remember it was like yesterday. It was one of my greatest moments putting on the green-white-green. Under a very hostile environment, we were there in Egypt and were able to overcome the Egyptians. For me, it was the decisive match for us. If we had lost the match in Egypt, we may not have been in Atlanta. That will be the match I will forever live to remember and while people were celebrating our victory in the final against the Argentines; I knew that was the match [against Egypt] that got us to the final and eventually gave us the gold. For regrets, I would have loved to play more before my retirement from international duties. I remember the last game I played was in the Olympics against Brazil and we we lost 1-0. I deputised for Celestine Babayaro as the left-full back despite being a centre back. Uche Okechukwu's addition to the squad required that I sat out games to give respect to who it’s due. And there was no regret because in training, Uche really acknowledged my quality and encouraged me telling me that 'You’re a wonderful player and I know you deserve to be in the team because you're as good as I am'. And that was what saw us through - one spirit.
Goal: How well did the then football administration contribute to the Dream Team VI success and what advice do you have for those in charge now?
AO: I must commend the administration in charge of football in those days. They did not only do well, but everything we needed was provided on time. We had it so nice. [Sports Minister Emeka] Omeruah was a wonderful man. And that's why we need the right people to manage our football to know how footballers think. Something you want to do tomorrow, make sure you've perfected it today. We are always ready but the recurring logistic problems have always been the main challenge. So sad, money is not everything because I know players are committed. In most cases, it has never been the players’ problem. I believe these players have ambitions and most of them are looking for jobs. And those that have a club they want to use the championship to look for a better club. We are diligent servants; tell us to come by 3am and we're there, but if you wait for four hours for one 'oga' [administrator] it amounts to lack of seriousness. I pray we can learn how to project and plan ahead of events and be more organized. The current government and football administration are making efforts to develop and run football smoothly. I know this problem is beyond them at times but I still believe these problems are avoidable. In those days, we have a lot of football persons in the business and that were ready to spend their money and get it back when the government released the funds. That's why I believe the involvement of the private sector will go a long way to help us. But there is a lot of politics in play that is ruining the game and killing our performances at major tournaments. It is unfortunate, when you're going for a championship with poor preparations and low motivation. When we even prepare well sometimes, we don't do well. I pray these current boys would take the bull by the horns and do themselves and the country proud.
Goal: Though you're widely regarded as a Lagos-born footballer, can you tell us more about your background?
AO: I was born in Kogi. I'm from Ekirin-Adde, Ijumu Local Government Area in Kogi State. I attended Baptist High School in Ekirin-Adde. I did not play football back in school but I featured prominently in Table Tennis and Volleyball. But when I moved to Kaduna, I was selected to represent the state in an U18 national championship and that was where I realized that I could have a good career in football after receiving positive feedback from people. At the U18 Championship, I never knew I had what it took to play football and Nasara Press was the first organised football team I played for. I owed all I achieved in football to the chairman of the club because he encouraged me and urged me. Later, I moved to Lagos and upon my arrival though as a young boy joined Agip FC before I left eight months later to team up with Eagle Oil, which had the likes of Nduka Ugbade and others. Fortunately, I didn't last more than a year at the club before joining NEPA FC.
Thereafter, I was recruited by current Dream Team VI assistant coach Fatai Amoo to First Bank, who was in charge then. There I helped First Bank to win the league title and Challenge Cup in the same year. And that was when Stationery Stores came calling for five of us, where we won the league too and got to the final of the Federation Cup before losing to El-Kanemi Warriors controversially. I was voted back-to-back as best defender by the Sports Writers in 1992/93 and 1993/94. I received a double national team call-up in 1993, first to the Five-A-Side national team going to Five-A-Side World Cup by coach Tunde Disu. I was in the camp when the second call-up came from the U-20 team led by coach James Peter in preparation for Mauritius 1993 Fifa U-20 World Cup. I resolved to join the U-20 after my chairman's advice. Though we did not win the championship due to ill-luck, we were one of the best teams. If you look at the roll call of players in U-20 squad, I think 95% of us made the Altanta 96 squad. That explained how the cohesion and understanding was so easy and we were successful to win the Olympics.