Dr. Rafiu Ladipo
Scrambling for a seat in a capacity crowd stadium led to Dr. Rafiu Ladipo being thrown down from the terraces whereupon he became unconscious. That near fatal incident did not dull his love for football. He went on to join the Nigeria Supporters Club and brought colour and order into the once drab outfit, writes KUNLE ADEWALE
Rafiu Oladipo’s passion for football began quite early as a primary school pupil. The passion grew as he moved to secondary school and beyond. But injury soon put paid to that dream. But in his quest to still be relevant with the beautiful game, he joined the Nigeria Supporters Club Association.
“While playing for my local club I had an ankle injury on my left leg which cut short my football career. However, because I still wanted to be involved in football I decided to join the Nigeria Supporters Club Association. I became a member after watching the semi-finals of the 1978 Challenge Cup involving Bendel Insurance and IICC Shooting Stars. When I got to the stadium there was no seat for me as the stadium was filled to capacity. In my attempt to get a seat I was thrown down from the terraces and I was unconscious and did not regain consciousness until after the first half. It was fans that came to the toilet during the first half break that bought me a drink and snacks and a Good Samaritan also provided a seat for me. However, it was the sad news I received after I got home that 32 people lost their lives in the melee that ensued after the match that really prompted my joining the supporters club,” Ladipo said.
PG, as he was fondly called said the supporters club has affected the development of Nigerian football in no small measure.
“Football in Nigeria has enjoyed great benefit from the supporters club. Footballers are expected to be supported especially when they are down and the game is not going well for them. It is the supporters club that boosts their morale. They need to be gingered and encouraged and members of the club have always been there for the national teams and today we have become a role model all over the world. We don’t just go to the stadium but we are also ambassadors of Nigeria. The Nigeria Supporters Club single-handedly changed the negative perception of the world about Nigeria.
“Today many people at the stadium paint themselves, dress in their national colours, singing and dancing. It was as a result of the influence of the Nigeria Supporters Club. Even FIFA voted us the best supporters club in the world in 1994 and in 2001 FIFA President Sepp Blatter said he would for members of the Nigeria supporters club to be present at all FIFA organized competitions. And it only goes to show that apart from supporting, we also bring glamour to the game. We have tried in our own little way to reduce crowd violence at the stadium, because we don’t get angry and when we are angered we don’t lose our heads. This has gone a long way in reducing crowd violence inside our different stadia. We have succeeded in encouraging and educating fans of other countries worldwide,” he said.
Reacting to the criticism that his club only operate at the highest level but does not contribute to the growth and development of the game at the grassroots, the President General of the club responded thus: “That is an erroneous belief because we travel everywhere and with branches all over the world. I personally travel to all these countries to launch the clubs and chapters, but we are not supposed to be seen with the various clubs in the country except for those that are flying the colours of Nigeria in international competitions. We have encouraged the local clubs to have their own supporters club and when it comes to the national level the Nigeria supporters club then take charge. For instance do we go and support 3SC against Rangers or Kano Pillars against Lobi Stars? No. We cannot support one local club against the other,” he said.
On Nigerian football’s dwindling fortunes, Ladipo traced it to the country’s refusal to defend the Africa Cup of Nations it won in 1994 in Tunisia in South Africa.
“It all started in 1996 when we failed to take part in the ‘96 edition of the Nations Cup in South Africa. That was when the fortunes of our football started going down. As a footballer you have to be up and doing and be playing all the time, but that two years break affected Nigerian football. After the 1994 edition of the Nations Cup what have been our achievement? At the 1998 World Cup in France we were humiliated in the second round, at the 2002 edition hosted by Japan and Korea we did not qualify from the group stages and in 2006 Nigeria did not even qualify while we did not win a single game at the South Africa’s edition in 2012. Something must have been responsible for these poor results. And the reason is that we failed to take part in the 1996 Nations Cup. That was when our fortunes started going down,” he recalled.
As far as the President General of the Nigeria Supporters Club is concerned hope is not completely lost if the country is ready to go back to the basics, which is reviving school sports.
“We forgot that before we got the likes of Stephen Keshi, Rashidi Yekini, Daniel Amokachi, Austin Okocha and the rest of them that took the 1994 Mundial by storm, there were certain things we did. They were mostly products of school sports. They emerged from their various schools and went on to play for different clubs in Nigeria before travelling abroad in furtherance of their football career.
“Also, then there used to be different level of football competitions amongst the states coupled with the fact that the youths were always engaged in one competition or the other. But where are these competitions today? We had the states academicals competition; in the western part of the country there was the Termogin Cup. Where are those competitions now? We relied so much on the Keshi, Amokachi, Kanu Nwankwo, Okocha for several years forgetting that age will catch up with them. Sport is about being young and agile. A man of 20 and a 35 year old man cannot run the same distance at the same pace.
“Having realized this, all we had do was to go back to the schools and rejuvenate those competitions; but we didn’t do that and it’s affecting our sports so much, coupled with the fact that the facilities on ground are not maintained. The National Stadium that used to be our pride has become a shadow of itself and has become a ‘no-go area’ for footballers. Under that circumstance how do we develop football? Have we forgotten that in Europe and other leading countries of the world there are unlimited facilities where athletes can train to develop their skills?”
Continuing, he said: “Even our coaches are not being developed, the Nigerian coaches as good as they are can be developed if they go overseas and acquire more skills and experience. Most of them still carry the same certificates they got many years back without proper retraining and the government is not there to assist them, forgetting that it is the same football that gave Nigeria a good image to the outside world. It is the same football that unites the three major tribes in the country and even unites the politicians. Because when it’s time for football they put behind them their party affiliations.
“Football is an employer of labour and if football is encouraged and supported there will be less of youth restiveness, kidnapping and violence. Football is one umbrella that can unite Nigeria, therefore anything that could be done to keep Nigerian football growing and developing should be done. We must not just develop the players but the game in all its ramifications: coaches, facilities and even the supporters club. It’s time for us to do something fast before our football nosedive completely. In 1994 we were rated the fifth best team in the world but today we are rated fifty-seventh; this is not a good story to tell.
“In a country of over 150 million we still find it difficult to present 11 good players and one tiny country will just come and embarrass us just because we failed to do the necessary thing, which is tapping the budding talents, nurturing them and supporting them to become stars and in turn they will give Nigeria that good image we all crave for internationally.”
Ladipo was indeed very bitter with the performance of the Super Eagles in the last round of the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against Liberia in Monrovia in which Nigeria was forced to a 2-2 draw. He blamed the players for not living up to expectation against the Lone Stars. He particularly blamed Vincent Enyeama for conceding what he called ‘two cheap goals’.
“Enyeama was not at his best. He has not been playing regularly for his team and when a player does not play regularly he becomes match rusty, especially for goalkeepers. Their reflexes should be sharp all the time but when you are on the bench for your club most of the time there is no way you can be at your best for your country. The coach should always select the best players at every point in time. My appeal to Stephen Keshi led technical crew is that only players that are in form should be fielded against Liberia in the return leg in Calabar because we cannot afford not to be at the 2013 Cup of Nations in South Africa.
“They must give us a national team of tested players who feature regularly for their clubs. If you are not playing for your club you will be match rusty and when you are asked to play for the national team it will definitely show. Keshi should know that if he fails to qualify us for the African Cup of Nations, nobody will be happy with him.
“The Liberia I saw in Monrovia should not be the kind of team to give Nigeria any problem, but our players were not just there at all. Everything was wrong with us and we failed to utilize the few chances that we created while our opponent buried theirs. How long will we continue to concede cheap goals at the tail end of matches?
“However, I know that come October 13 in Calabar, with the backing of all Nigerians and the supporters club, the Eagles will pick the ticket to South Africa,” Ladipo, who is also the head of the African Football Supporters’ Union, assured.