I kept my Olympic gold in Germany to avoid being stolen – Obafemi


Atlanta ’96 gold medallist, Abiodun Obafemi, talks about his experience at the Olympic Games, his time with the national team, racism in Europe and more in this interview with EBENEZER BAJELA


How has life been since you quit football?

I won’t say it’s easy because I wasn’t just ready for life after football. I never thought I would retire when I did because I knew I still had a lot to offer the game. At least that was what I thought, despite the fact that I knew that the law of diminishing return had set in because you can’t cheat nature. I wanted to keep playing but then it dawned on me that there was nothing I could do due to injuries. That was when life after football stared me in the face, even though it wasn’t easy. The first thing that came to my mind was, ‘what was I going to do?’ A part of me felt I should go into coaching, but I wasn’t ready for that. Before retirement I had discussed with my wife that I would love to start a school. We had to set some money aside so that we could invest in it because my wife is an educationist. That was how I developed interest in teaching and it helped me to cool down a little bit. My mind is always with the game, and that explains why I started my own football academy. That’s why I advise my players to always be ready and manage themselves properly.

What was the experience like playing at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, when the football team won the gold medal?

Playing at the Olympics was the zenith for me. After the World Cup, the Olympics is the next. Initially, during the qualifiers, where I played in almost all the matches, we didn’t know how big the Olympics was until we got there. It is very difficult for me to find the word to describe how I felt, but that was the height of my career. We were on top of the world because it wasn’t what we expected.

How do you feel when you look at your gold?

Immediately after the semi-final victory over Brazil, reality dawned on us and I started having that feeling that our dream could become real. When I got the gold, I hung it on my neck and slept with it. It was like if I put it elsewhere, it was going to disappear before daybreak, so I hung it around my neck. It was a dream come true.

Do you still have your medal?

I still have my gold medal and it’s not even in Nigeria, I kept it very well somewhere safe in Germany. I cherish it and whenever I travel I check up on it and I feel good that it’ s safe because I read that of one of our athletes was robbed and his gold taken away. I don’t want a story like that.

At the Olympics, you didn’ t get much playing time. How did this make you feel?

Honour must be given to whom it is due. The guy who played in my position is good and we are not even rivals. I am not ashamed to be a back-up to Uche Okechukwu because he is a giant and up till today he is one of the few Nigerian players that I respect so much. He is so humble and such a wonderful human being.  I remember one day he came to me after one of our trainings and said, ‘Obafemi you a wonderful player and you are as good as anybody here.’ He is one of the few you want to understudy and not playing at the Olympics doesn’t mean I wasn’t good. I remember my versatility in training was one of the reasons the coach played me at left-back in our first match against Brazil. I covered for (Celestine) Babayaro because I am comfortable using both feet. I could have played in one of the other games but we conceded while I was warming up and the coach needed to bring in Garba Lawal instead, so we could equalise.

Is it true that the players were sent parking from their hotel in the US because the Nigeria Football Federation couldn’t pay for the hotel bills?

I always like to stay away from football politics but during that time I didn’t get involved. It almost affected our preparations, but back then we had wonderful administrators who made sure that the situation didn’t stay out of control. Truth is we experienced it, but thank God for the understanding and maturity that the players exhibited and that was why it wasn’t a big issue.

Also, how true was the report that the players washed their clothes and kits themselves?

That is very true but the level of commitment in the team means we hardly complained about it and we were focused because we didn’t allow it to affect our performance. The truth is it happened but we didn’t really read any meaning into it.

What was going through your mind in the football final, when the Argentines were leading?

Looking at the quality of players they paraded, one would not like to face them because they made our job very difficult and losing 1-0 made it even worse. But with the tenacity of our players, we were unruffled because that spurred us to life. Immediately they scored, our attitude changed because we knew it was a very big opportunity for us to make history and we raised our game without waiting for the coach to motivate us. Psychologically, we were also ready for the game and we wanted the game the most. We already talked about how to react to every situation we found ourselves on the pitch. Even before the game we made up our minds that even if we were going to lose at all we will let the whole world know we were a highly competitive team.

How did you guys celebrate after Emmanuel Amuneke’s goal gave Africa its first Olympics gold medal in football?

The celebration in the dressing was indescribable because we all practically went crazy. We wanted to do so many things at one. I wanted to scream, I wanted to dance, I wanted to roll on the floor. It was chaotic because we all went crazy, especially Taribo West. We were all happy and the truth is, the celebration was beyond what words can describe.

You also played roles for the Super Eagles…

(Cuts in) I met a Cameroonian reporter in Frankfurt, Germany during one of our friendly games and he recognised me the moment he saw me. He said the problem Nigeria has is managing our team because back then the coaches focused their attention on the starting XI, while the rest could go to hell. That is why there was no transition. I would have stepped in when Okechukwu left the scene, but every coach invited their own players. Unfortunately, I had a serious injury because I would have been in the France 1998 World Cup squad. I was part of the team that played the last qualifiers in Conakry and that was when I got my first and second caps for the senior team. Philippe Trousier invited me and I was part of the players that played against Guinea. However, when the World Cup was getting closer, I had a terrible hamstring injury that ruled me out for six months and I didn’t manage it very well. That was the reason why I didn’t feature much for the Eagles, but it doesn’t take away the fact from the statement of the Cameroonian reporter that the difference between the Nigerian national team and theirs is transition. It is still happening today.

A lot of Nigerian players like Abebowale Ogungbure were targets of racists in Germany. Did you suffer it too?

I experienced it once and it was an away match where I even captained my team. We scored the first goal and the fans were making monkey chants but as a Lagos boy who had seen it all, hostility means nothing to me, especially as a former Stationery Stores player. I was not moved by their chants; rather, it gingered me to punish them more. That was the only time I experienced it and I think I was lucky. It is going to be difficult to stop it because you can’t change some people’s mentality. They have made up their minds that their fathers and forefathers are superior to blacks. The best way to deal with them is to ignore them because you are not responsible for people’s action, but you are responsible for your on reaction. If they choose to be stupid, let them continue, we have to show them maturity.