Engineer Segun Odegbami (MON) is up there with the best of them whenever the greatest Nigerian footballers are mentioned. Nicknamed ‘Mathematical’ by Nigeria’s foremost football commentator, the late Ernest Okonkwo, for his prowess on the pitch in his playing days in the 70s and 80s, Odegbami went on to win local and continental laurels with both his club, IICC Shooting Stars, and the national team, the Green Eagles, winning the first African Cup of Nations tournament on home soil in 1980. Now a football administrator, he unsuccessfully ran to be NFA chairman and FIFA president at different times. In thus interview, he speaks about his playing career, combining sports and academics, the sleaze in COJA, Super Eagles, Russia 2018, and many more.
How did you start playing football?
As a little boy on the streets of Jos where I spent the first 17 years of my life. Football was introduced to the city by the large expatriate population that made Jos home because of its rich mineral deposits (tin and columbite – the largest deposit in the world at the time) as well as the cool all-year-round weather. Rugby and football were extremely popular in Jos. So, I joined the street matches that took place on our street on a daily basis in the absence of anything else to do in Jos.
You combined football and academics, rising to be one of the best footballers in Nigeria and a graduate of Engineering from The Polytechnic, Ibadan. How were you able to combine both?
I never thought of it as easy or difficult. I was in the Polytechnic team representing the institution in NATS and later NIPOGA (Nigerian Polytechnic Games Association) games. I accepted the responsibility to combine both and it did not affect my studies in any way. I was very active in college sports and was still a first class student.
You played a very vital role to help Nigeria win the first Africa Cup of Nations in 1980. Can you recall how that magic moment came to be?
I was fully in the national team since 1976 and for four years had been doing extremely well. Nigerian football was also in the ascendancy with the national team consistently doing well and qualifying for major international events – All Africa Games ’78, narrowly missing the World Cup in ’77, Nations Cup in Ethiopia and Ghana in 1976 and 1978 respectively and winning bronze medal both times. Nigeria had also qualified for the Montreal Olympics in 1976. By 1979 the team was a major threat in Africa and it went on a three months training tour of Brazil before the 1980 Nations Cup. That trip and the experience garnered by the players were the factors that made all the difference. The team was confident and had good players that were well honed. It was no miracle therefore but a result of planning, hard work, playing on home turf, and some good luck that the team eventually won.
You played for IICC Shooting Stars of Ibadan and yet made a huge impact on the national team, which you also captained. That can hardly be said of many local players today. What has gone wrong?
The mass exodus of the best domestic players to Europe on an endless stream, the poor grounds that do not help proper football development, the politicization of football management and administration, poor funding by the club owners (in this case the state governments) and the advent of satellite television that provided alternative friendly-to-watch matches involving the world’s best players all added to the dwindling fortunes of Nigerian football.
Your team, Shooting Stars of Ibadan (now 3SC) once dominated the football scene in Nigeria and was prominent in Africa in the 70s and 80s, but from 2006 to 2017, it has been relegated from the Nigerian premier league twice; how do you feel about this?
I feel very sad. Those that have been in charge of the team for sometime are all ‘foreigners’ who do not know the genesis, the philosophy and the spirit that created Shooting Stars and made it a movement of the Yoruba people and not merely a football club. The club is now treated like a bastard child with no parents and no family, drifting as an ordinary club and considered a nuisance and drain pipe by the sponsoring state government. What a shame. It is a sad commentary on the state of domestic Nigerian football. The disease that is ailing Shooting Stars is also what has affected teams like Bendel Insurance, Calabar Rovers, and even Rangers of Enugu to some extent, even though unlike Shooting Stars, Rovers and Bendel, Rangers have never been relegated to a lower division in the club’s history.
What could be the problem with the team?
I have no idea. I have not been close to the team in years. I guess I am also not wanted or needed.
The Nigerian Super Eagles have qualified for Russia 2018. Did you fear at any stage that it might not happen again?
No, Nigeria hit the ground running when the group stage matches started. Winning their first match away to Zambia made all the difference. The other teams cancelled each other out and Nigeria had a smooth sail, and with one match still to be played the Eagles had sailed comfortably to Russia 2018. I never had any fears after the first set of matches.
In April last year, you told PUNCH that you will resist a foreign coach for the Super Eagles. Has Rohr’s performance with the Super Eagles changed your mind about that?
Yes it has. He has done extremely well considering the circumstances he met the team. Technically, he has impacted the team and this is evident in the rapid recovery of the team to winning ways shortly after the loss to South Africa. It serves now as a constant reminder that focus should be maintained at all times.
You spoke about the demons in our sports sector that made COJA a complete mess. If you had your way, how would you tackle the demons differently?
I would get the organizers of COJA to come and render a proper account of COJA and I will publicize the names of all those that participated in the brazen looting of our common wealth. It was done so blatantly and arrogantly that even the elements were angry. No single sports hero in our history has a monument named after him in that edifice. There is a curse hanging over that stadium; it is the tears and blood of ordinary Nigerians and the thousands of sports heroes that were never acknowledged and never rewarded for their contributions to sports. Instead they turned the entire COJA project into a bazaar for politicians and businessmen and women. We built one of the most expensive stadia in the world and today it is desolate and idle. There is some serious cleansing in Nigerian sports to be done for sports to achieve the potential the entire world knows Nigeria has.
Two years ago when you made a bid for the FIFA presidency, you failed to get the backing of the NFF or CAF. They said you did not stand a chance. What happened?
That was myopic and degrading. So, who now won the election? Is he some superhuman from outer space or just another human being with a background in football like mine? Does he have a monopoly of ideas and good intentions? The NFF president was slow to act. The CAF leadership at the time did not like my face because I was the most virulent critic of a man who wanted to remain in charge of African football forever. Deep down in his heart, the NFF president had his own secret agenda that did not include me. Were it not so, he would have done a lot more and a lot quicker to get the endorsements I needed to get closer to the corridors of the FIFA power base.
Did Africa put its best foot forward in that contest?
No. I would rather not go into the background of those that represented the continent in those elections. It was an excellent time to defend an African as president of that body, particularly someone with clean records, excellent credentials and unadulterated by FIFA’s immediate past misdeeds and scandals.
Apparently, even at FIFA level it is all down to politics and Africans are no masters of that game.
Ernest Okonkwo used to call you ‘mathematical Odegbami.’ What inspired that nickname?
I don’t know. I never got to ask him when we met on a few occasions later before the man died. Probably it has to do with the precision of my playing along the touch line, or with the precision of my crosses a few of which were converted to goals. We will now never know. I am glad the nickname stuck.
Footballers are faced with different pressures from ladies. How did you handle this pressure during your career?
I did not handle it well at all; a bush boy coming from out of ‘bush’ Jos City and becoming a local hero, I succumbed to the vanity of it all. I need not say more.
Which defender gave you the toughest time on the pitch of play in your football career?
I do not know. They were all so difficult, trying to stop me by all means. Forwards were not as protected then as they are now by referees. The brutal tackles then by defenders made life difficult for the best forwards. I surely recall a few of them.
Share with us the best moments of your football career.
Winning the Africa Cup Winners Cup in 1976 was awesome. It was the first time a Nigerian club would win anything on the continent. It created the mental impetus needed to challenge for and to win the 1980 African Cup of Nations. Winning the 1980 African Cup of Nations was also another memorable event. The streets of Nigeria erupted into an orgy of unprecedented excitement and celebration following that victory. Probably that would be the brightest day in my short career.
Who was your best friend on the pitch of play?
Christian Chukwu. We were very close outside the field and on it. He knew me like the back of his hand and how to float those long, high balls behind defences that released me to race towards opposing goals and defenders. Beyond that, we shared great moments together, with Emmanuel Okala who was my roommate through most of those years. We have remained the best of friends till now.
George Weah could win the presidential election in Liberia. What will his victory mean to sportsmen and women in Africa and around the world?
It will be the manifestation of the beginning of a new world order where sports will rule with its power of followership, passion, discipline and the winning spirit. Very few people in the world combine power, popularity and prosperity. With Weah acquiring all three under a possible Weah presidency, a new realm of possibilities has just been born. Nelson Mandela’s words will resonate around the world: ‘Sport has the power to change the world’. George Yeah reflects the start of that tradition and era where the sportsman will be king.
Are you nursing any political aspiration outside sports politics?
No, but I am working with people in my community and in the Afenifere Renewal Group, ARG, a pan Yoruba socio-cultural and political group, driving the Yoruba Agenda in contemporary Nigerian politics. But I seek no political office that will require being voted for.
Messi and Ronaldo, who is your favourite player?
I admire both of them very much for their different strengths, but give it to the greatest player that ever lived – Lionel Messi – by far!
A number of European Clubs are setting up camps/partnerships in Nigeria. Given their financial muscle, does an academy like yours stand a chance to compete, or do you think you’re offering different services?
I do not run a professional football academy. Mine is a secondary school that devotes more hours of sports than the twice every week practice in conventional schools. I am not in any competition with the professional football academies. The Segun Odegbami International College and Sports Academy encourages and prepares student athletes to combine their passion for sports and their need for a proper grounding in education to enjoy the benefits of both worlds down the line of life. We do not encourage children to go into professional football from secondary school. That route is too difficult and filled all the way with minefields of disappointments. We have been sending student footballers to colleges and universities both here and in the U.S.
How far do you think Nigeria will go in Russia?
I hope, at least, to the second round.