By Abiodun Adewale.
At the age of 17, former Nigeria U-17 goalkeeper, Abdulbasit Abass, has handled situations higher than his age in the quest of fulfilling his dreams of becoming a world-class goalkeeper. He has seen his dreams come alive at the brightest light and has also struggled to keep the fire burning, against the pangs of a wrecking COVID-19 pandemic which crippled everything worldwide.
Like every wannabe, Abass started out as an outfield player on the streets of Zaria in Kaduna state. Good for him, the urge to play football didn’t come with a reprimand as he even got more chances to play in school and after school.
Maybe he knew little about what he was doing, but his involvement in football was going to change, and it was going to be for life. As he grew, Abass switched from being a running outfield player seeking praise, to the most unwanted position by a boy on the pitch, a goalkeeper.
“I started playing football when I was in primary school as an outfield player. It was when I got admission into secondary school that I switched to goalkeeping. I was very good as an outfield player then, even though I didn’t have a specific wing, I just enjoyed playing. But when I became a goalkeeper, the essence of playing became clearer and I saw it as a duty for the rest of the team. So, I took interest in goalkeeping and began to improve every day,” Abass told PUNCH Sports Extra.
In the early days of his boyhood, Abass had to move from north to south in search of opportunities, which surely had its effect on the lad, but going for clinics and playing at academies was the turning point for Abass, as he met one of Nigeria’s best shot-stoppers, Peter Rufai during a football clinic, strengthened his orientation about being the man between the sticks.
“While I was in secondary school, I got the opportunity to go for Milo Football Clinic with Peter Rufai in Abeokuta and I also took part in the Channels Kids Cup in 2015. I also played for an academy in Abeokuta as well as FC Barcelona Academy in Lagos.
“Peter Rufai actually inspired me to be a better goalkeeper because I met him when I was switching from an outfield player to a goalkeeper. So we went through screening, he took us through some training and drills and he began to encourage me during the training.”
Having acquired the fundamentals of goalkeeping from one of the best names to have done it in the country, coupled with his exposure at different academies and age-grade competitions, Abass was getting prepared for the next stage and that opportunity came with the national U-17 team.
“Joining the U-17 team was a long road. I went through a lot of test games and screening before I was invited to camp to prepare for the WAFU B U-17 championship in Togo. The moment I was invited, I knew my dreams were beginning to come true,” Abass beamed with excitement as he recalled the moments.
But as promising as the opportunity to play for Nigeria was, Abass did not envisage what eventually prevented him from showcasing his talents for Nigeria.
“Unfortunately, I didn’t play any competitive part in the WAFU B tournament in Togo because I tested positive for COVID-19 on arrival. I was in isolation with one other player and two other officials for about ten days. Mustapha Benjamin and our assistant coach, coach Nnamdi were also in isolation.
“I was shocked and couldn’t even express myself. It was a very sad time for me because my expectations were high during the preparations. I didn’t notice any serious symptoms; it was just cough and catarrh,” he mumbled.
While Abbas was in isolation, his teammates did the job by reaching the final of the competition in Togo. Although they were beaten 3-2 by Ivory Coast in the final, being a finalist was enough to secure a spot at the CAF U-17 Nations Cup scheduled for Morocco between March 13-31, 2021.
That was another chance for Abass to revel, but COVID-19 wasn’t done with the world as the tournament was subsequently cancelled on March 8, 2021.
“Three hours before our flight to Morocco, that was when we heard they’d cancelled the tournament. They first said they postponed our trip before they said it had been cancelled. We were in the hotel room, waiting for the bus to come and take us to the airport in Abuja so we can go and connect our flight to Morocco in Lagos. It was as if the world ended,” Abass bemoaned.
A passage through that stage would have meant that Abass might also be part of Nigeria’s squad to the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Peru, but that competition was also struck out by the world football governing body over concerns about COVID-19.
Abass was helpless as the dreaded pandemic dealt a blow to his aspirations, but he had since taken control of his dreams again as he continued training in his base in Zaria just as he had managed to complete his secondary school education.
“I’m looking out for a club to continue playing actively and I’m hoping that another opportunity will present itself to represent the country again. I already have my SSCE certificate. I am an art student and I will love to go further to study accounting someday but for now, I am not giving up on playing for Nigeria again.”
Born to Kwara parents in Zaria Kaduna state, the lad lost his father in 2009 and had since enjoyed the support of his mother. For him, it is football or nothing, and whatever happens eventually, he says he will never forget 2021.