Ex-international Segun Odegbami was so adept and calculative with the ball on the right flank that he was nicknamed ‘Mathematical Odegbami’. He was a member Nigeria’s 1980 Nations Cup winning squad. As he launches his memoirs, Odegbami, an engineer, newspaper columnist and businessman talks to KUNLE ADEWALE on a number of issues concerning Nigeria’s football
Despite his busy schedule, Segun Odegbami was still able to put together a book about his life, his football and many more, titled ‘Me, Football and More’ which was launched at the Anchor Event Place, Ikeja Lagos on Thursday.
“When I started to write in a newspaper as a footballer in January 1979, little did I know what I was getting into. From 1979 till date, except for a break in 1980 and 1982, I have been writing and maintaining columns on an almost weekly basis in several publications and literature.”
He said further that he was motivated to write the book to reawaken the reading culture of Nigerians and he is of the opinion that the new and the older generations will benefit from the book based on the historical insight it offers.
Odegbami is among the very first set of prominent Nigerian footballers with a decent education. He is a graduate of Engineering from The Polytechnic, Ibadan.
The history of Nigerian football will not be complete without a mention of his name. He was part of the IICC Shooting Stars team that won the African Cup Winners Cup in 1976, which was the first continental trophy to be won by any Nigerian club side.
And since breaking into the Green Eagles (as the Nigerian national team was then known) in 1975, he commandeered the number seven jersey for a number of years and went on to captain the team until his retirement from the national team in 1981 after the botched attempt to grab the ticket to the 1982 World in Spain. Even after his retirement, the marriage between the ‘Big Sheg’ and football is yet to be put asunder.
“Winning the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time for Nigeria was one great moment I cannot forget in my football career. It was a day over 60,000 fans at the National Stadium, Surulere and millions of fans watching on television lifted us up and made us believe we can win the trophy and we did not disappoint. We still refer to it and still celebrate it up till now. We had the opportunity to shake the hands of the president of the nation and he did so much for us, very much that some of us will forever thank him and I believe so many Nigerians still live with that fond memory of March 22, 1980,” Odegbami said.
After 1980, it took Nigeria another 14 years to taste another Nations Cup glory. The Eagles won the biennial competition in Tunisia, beating the Zambians in the final. After the feat in Tunisia, it took the country another 19 years to lift the trophy. Odegbami blames the abandonment of wing play, which he said was Nigeria’s natural style of play, as being partly responsible for the dwindling fortunes of the country’s football.
“The neglect of wing play has affected our football very much because we have not used the natural gift of Nigeria to great use in our football. Nigerians are very strong, fast and skilful and if you add all these together, you need the wings to be able to exploit them on the field of play. This is why our football best suits wingers and we were so successful while we were adopting the wings style of play. We won several trophies. But the moment we started concentrating on other styles outside the wings, we started looking ordinary and we never succeeded. So we need to go back to our wing play and concentrate on players that have speed, strength and can go through one or two defenders and then they are in front of goal. That was what made me a bit special. People thought I was great but it was because I had only one or two defenders to beat and I am in front of the goal post.”
The former Eagles captain is of the opinion that for our national teams to return to the standard Nigerian football is known for and to be able to match other great footballing nations, the country needs to produce more and better players. He said, “Nigerian players these days are ordinary, which shows that the foundation of our football is not really solid. We need to start producing very good players that can start to represent the very best of Nigerian football. Right now, our footballers are really ordinary and we need to do something about it. And one of the biggest problems confronting Nigerian football is the artificial pitches everywhere now. They are only good for viewership and television but they are not good enough for football and football development. With artificial pitches you cannot play attractive football and you pick injuries very easily. If we don’t go back to the days when we have good lush pitches, which allows for good football and go back to secondary school football, which allows administrators of football to pick from the very best, I’m afraid Nigeria will continue to struggle against small football nations. Look at the best football nations in the world today, you don’t find artificial pitches all over like you see here in Nigeria.
“After the Moscow Olympics in 1980, then arose some avoidable and unnecessary developments which occurred that started to rock our football’s solid foundation. It all started with the unceremonious removal of Mr. Isaac Akioye as the then Director of Sports. He was the one with the training skills in sports that established the solid foundation and around him he trained and hired people who were to sustain the development.
“So, when he was removed in 1981, a crisis situation set in and those who took over from him, though tried to sustain what was on ground but the turnover of personnel in the administration of sports especially football in Nigeria became accelerated and it became more watery. By the time we got to the early 1990, it was so watered down, though the effect of that solid foundation was still strong to sustain sports development. But by the 90’s, it became less in terms of human capacity.
“Though, we were still winning laurels but the fact remains that the administrators that came in after did not have the original vision of the initial founders. And by the time we got to the late 1990, the new administrators that succeeded came in with their own shallow vision and so the quality of the game started to drop, so much so that we no longer could recognize the original foundation. There is no longer any connection between the original foundation and where we are now. We are just drifting; there is no clear vision and direction again. All the things that were initially built are now lost.”
Soccer fans will not forget in a hurry the day Nigeria was just one step away from hoisting her flag at the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, but an own goal by Godwin Odiye in Green Eagles last game against Tunisia killed that dream.
Reacting to a question on how he felt when Nigeria failed to qualify for the ‘78 Mundial, the former national team captain said: “There was really no major consequence of not going to the Argentina Mundial aside from what we would have achieved if we had gone. Definitely, we would have overcome that psychological barrier of not being good enough; the fact that some players from some Europeans countries were better and superior would have been overcome. But by not going to Argentina, we were still condemned to our state of complex; almost an inferiority complex that we cannot be champions in Africa. Getting there then was very difficult because only one country from Africa would qualify and it was tough and because we had never achieved that level before and we needed to achieve it to build up confidence that Nigeria had arrived and we could do it.
“And it really took us a couple of years before we could achieve that and we have now gotten to a state where we believe we can win any competition, including the World Cup. If you ask the young players on the streets now he would tell you he wants to play at the World Cup. So, not going to the ‘78 Mundial slowed down what we would have achieved faster if we had gone.”
On why he did not play professional football in Europe in spite of his brilliant play, Odegbami said: “It was not fashionable then and we don’t have Nigerians playing in professional league in Europe except for Christian Nwokocha, who was in Portugal and we didn’t really have a clear knowledge of what he was doing there. Moreover, we did not have the benefit of live television coverage, internet and satellite that will make the leagues of Europe attractive, achievable and profitable to us.
“Also, the Nigerian economy was solid and we were living well here and the reason to play in Europe was not really there. Moreover, we did not have much information about European football. If it were to be now that there is so much information and football agents are swamping around you, one will have the confidence to want to play in Europe, maybe I and some other players would have made attempts.
“I indeed had offers to go to England, Greece and some South American countries. I actually went to England in 1981 when I was invited for trials by Tottenham Hotspurs, but I never attended the trials, I was just having fun in London. And when we went to Brazil in 1979, I was invited by the President of Fluminese to come back for trials but I never went back because it was not really fashionable.”
One moment of football Nigerians would love not to remember was in 1981 when the Algerians shocked the Green Eagles 2-0 on home soil in the first leg of the last qualifier to the 1982 World Cup just few months after Nigeria walloped them 3-0 in the finals of the 1980 Africa Cup of Nations and different stories and reasons were attributed for the loss to Algeria, the ‘Mathematical’ gave his own account thus: “We lost as a result of politics. It was purely political. We had a team after 1980 that started the campaign for the 1982 World Cup and the team was doing well.
“Some young players like Stephen Keshi, Franklin Howard, Tunde Bamidele and Felix Owolabi were coming into the team very well. We were winning our matches until we got to the very last match against Algeria and that was where politics now set in. Going to the World Cup became a big deal at that time; we missed out in ‘77 and here was the second opportunity and it looked as if we were going to win it anyway, because we had beaten Algeria hands down some few months ago. It was assumed we are going to beat them again and they started bringing their own people to come into the team. That was how players that had retired were brought back to represent certain interest groups in the country and it affected us seriously.
“Before we knew it, we were two goals down in Lagos before Coach Otto Gloria now started to bring in players that started the campaign instead of listening to sentiments and dancing to the tune of politicians who wanted their own people in the team and that was the prize we had to pay.”
In spite of passing through many great coaches in his footballing career, Odegbami could not really pin down a particular coach that had the most influence on him.
“They all influenced me in different ways. Alan Hawks gave me my first major opportunity when I was at Shooting Stars and he was the one that took me to the national team. Father Tico turned me to a full time winger from where I excelled and Otto Gloria, who had the greatest experience of the trio was the one that made me understand the knowledge of the game very well, the ability to know what the opponent is doing and what your team is doing and not just about you. They were all great expatriates and in different ways they all influenced me.”
Chioma Ajunwa remains the first Nigeria Olympic gold medallist and she might not have achieved the feat if not for the efforts of the Mathematical one who supported her with everything including his money during her trying moments.
On what influenced his decision to support Ajunwa during her trying moments, Odegbami said: “She had just done the fastest time in the world in 100 metres and I did some work on television with her when her ban was announced. I was working with the BBC on outstanding Nigerian athletes who were preparing for the ‘92 Olympic Games in Spain and Ajunwa was the focus of the world. BBC was doing a documentary on her preparatory to the Olympics because they were thinking she could win the 100 metres gold at the Olympics.
“So, I worked with her at that period and that was when I got to know her closely. It was after that, that the ban came and my friends in BBC now called me to say that the Chioma they visited in her house would never use drugs. That they did not believe she used drugs, based on the premise that she was too naïve to go into that kind of a thing. That she wouldn’t recognize one if she saw drug and that was their own feeling.
“So, that kept me thinking that if white people could feel that way, then something must be wrong and I invited her to my office and she told me her own side of the story and I believed her. That was how I took up her cause. I started with the Nigeria Athletics Federation, then took the case to IAAF in London and read all the rules and at the end of it all, it was Nigeria that actually made the ban to stick by their reaction, condemnation and not being ready to listen to her. I really felt sorry for her because I believed she was not involved. That was when I decided I was going to support her throughout her ban which lasted about three and a half years. She was training privately and I was funding her and the rest is history.”