Tijani Babangida exudes as much energy off field as he did on field as a player. This much was evident at the Lekki Resort camp of the Glo Soccer Academy players, where he is one of the instructors. Barring some extra bit of weight he has added on, little has changed about the gifted winger. He speaks with KUNLE ADEWALE about his new passion and the state of football in Nigeria
"We have been here for some time now and after selecting 33 players from across West Africa, we camp them at the Lekki Resort to train and make stars out of them. Week one was all about physicals; that entailed the boys were physically fit. Training commenced in the morning and evening and it was at this point that it dawned on many of the boys how serious this whole project is.
"Boys that were used to playing for 30 minutes in their various clubs now had to train for hours, day and evening. You can imagine the toll that took on their physical strength. At the recommendation of our in-house physiotherapist, some of the boys who couldn't keep up as a result of cramps and minor injuries were advised to take to the bench."
Speaking on the elimination of some of the players, T.J as he is fondly called stated: "It's hurtful to watch some of the very good players leave the academy, but someone has to go. These boys are like products where you juxtapose quality and quantity. After exhaustively comparing them against one another, we unanimously decide on the best. They are all good but the best stays."
On tips to employ to stay ahead of the game, he said: "During my time there wasn't a platform such as this to discover me. I couldn't even afford a football boot or a trip to Lagos. My inspiration simply came from watching clips of the likes of Pelé and Segun Odegbami. I wanted to be like them. But now football is about the money. My advice to all the boys is to first have an undying passion for the sport before honing their talent," he said.
He admonished the boys in the camp to always have a plan of being a step ahead of their fellow team mates. "That was my strategy all through my career. Look at me now and perhaps emulate that. Also, don't joke with your education. Even when you become that big shot you will need adequate academic knowledge to read your contracts and other legal documentations," he said.
Many Nigerians will not forget in a hurry that sunny afternoon in the main bowl of the National Stadium, Lagos, when the Super Eagles confronted the Bafana Bafana in the semi-finals of the 2002 Africa Cup of Nations jointly hosted by Nigeria and Ghana. In the end, it was the Roda FC of Holland's diminutive winger, Tijani Babagida, who emerged the hero of the day. "It was one game that made everybody to be scared even before the match day. You can feel the tension everywhere, from the players to the fans, the tension was very high and I thank God we overcame the South Africans at the end of the day. It was a special day for me because I scored the two goals that sank the Bafana Bafana. Special mention must also go to the then Super Eagles Coach Bonfere Jo for the tactics he adopted. He was quick to notice that Mark Fish, who was then the bedrock of the South Africans defence, was lacking in pace and he asked me to take him up using my speed. The result was the two quick goals I scored to subdue the threat of the South Africans," the former Ajax Amsterdam player recalled.
Baba, as some of his fans love to call him, berated the present Super Eagles players for lack of commitment, saying that in their days they were very committed to the national team even if their various clubs had important matches. According to him, the national team comes first; but the reverse is the case now. "It is very sad that the present crop of players are no longer committed to the nation. A player will say he is sick or injured when the national team is engaged in a crucial game and in three days later you will see the same player donning the shirt of his club. It is a very sad situation. During my days in Ajax, no matter the importance of the game my club was involved in, if it clashed with the time the Super Eagles was having a game, the club's game would always be secondary. That is why people still refer to and reflect on our days. It is therefore the duty of football administrators to take urgent steps at organising themselves well to be able to arrest the current woes befalling the game in the country. It was not surprising that the Eagles have lost their invincibility due to the current mentality of the players. I still find it difficult to believe that Nigeria was not at the last Africa Nations Cup in Gabon and Equatorial Guinea. But the truth is that we left a lot of things undone," he said.
The chairman of Taraba Football Club also berated football administrators for abandoning the traditional wing play, which, according to him, was the country's strength to concentrate on midfield play, which he said was not suitable for Nigeria's football. "In the days of Segun Odegbami, Adokie Amesiamaka, Friday Elaho, Humphrey Edobor, Finidi George, Emmanuel Amunike, Victor Ikpeba and myself, opponents would always know they had a lot to do to curtail our speed from the wings. But that has since been overshadowed by bite-less midfield play," he said.
Reflecting on the rivalry in the Super Eagles during his time, most especially the one between him and Finidi George, the former Niger Tornadoes of Minna player said: "The rivalry brought out the best in every player then, knowing there was always someone that will take your shirt if you didn't live up to expectation. Though the rivalry was keen and competitive, we still operated under a very friendly atmosphere. For instance, I always looked up to Finidi for inspiration because I see him as a big brother and I knew I had a lot to learn from him, so each time I came in to substitute him I knew I had to be as great as Lionel Messi to surpass what he had done. He was one of the best Nigerian players because he was very brainy and calculative not to talk about his near perfect crosses delivery. So there was always pressure on anyone coming in to substitute him.
"On several occasions, I had to try as much as I could to play close to what he had already done each time I came in as a replacement for him, because fans would be expecting me to do as much or even better than he had done. That was the kind of situation I found myself in the national team. But on the whole, they were great moments which I still cherish up till now."
Babangida whose international chances in Eagles were partly limited due to the fact that he often found himself behind Finidi in the pecking order, however, played an important role in the team's Olympics triumph in Atlanta in 1996, a feat he said was the height of Nigerian football. "I was in USA for the1994 World Cup, though I was not a registered player, I still recalled how highly the team was respected after the Mundial and how strong football nations all over the world were struggling to play friendly matches with the Super Eagles. But nothing can still be compared to winning the football event of the Atlanta Olympic Games. The memory will linger for as long as I live and in the minds of many Nigerians too," the football administrator said.
Babangida advised Nigerian footballers to always plan well for life after football, just as he advised the football authorities in the land to be involved in organising a pension scheme for players. "Players should hold themselves responsible for anything that happens to them after their football career. You don't have to hold anybody responsible for your adversity. That is why you have to plan for life after football. You have to take the initiative and get something to fall back on after leaving the game," he said.
TJ is of the opinion that the Super Eagles will do well at the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations slated for South Africa. "We have a good chance like every other team that will be participating in the competition and if Stephen Keshi and his players can approach the games right and put their arts together, Nigeria can win the trophy," he noted.