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I was with a Brazilian beauty day we defeated Brazil at Olympics – Emmanuel Babayaro

Celestine Babayaro

Retired goalkeeper Emmanuel Babayaro opens up on life in retirement, why he didn’t play in Europe, winning Olympic gold in 1996 and more, in this in this captivating interview with PETER AKINBO

ow are you enjoying retirement?

Retirement has not been bad. It is never that good at first when you decide to stop playing football. You miss the glitz and the razzmatazz, the profession and the fame at that time. It’s insane and you start moving into other aspects of life because life is big, and there is so much to do. Thank God I’m blessed with special attributes that helped me to quickly embrace my humanitarian profession after football. I’m more engrossed with my humanitarian works, I support a lot of charitable organisations, both in and outside the country, and I own an NGO myself. I also own my football academy, so life is very good and to be honest, I can’t ask for anything better.

What will you define as the highlight of your career?

It’s the blessings, goodwill and accolades that came with it, that is what I use in teaching the youngsters. The goodwill that comes with the fame, for me that is the highlight; the accolades, medals and championships were also the highlights. I’m sure you would expect me to say the Olympic gold medal was the highlight of my career, yes those moments were all part of it but for me, the most beautiful moments that come from those things is when I am walking down the road and someone sees me and says, ‘Oh Emmanuel Babayaro, God bless you.’ You can’t quantify those moments with money and for me that is the greatest. Doors open just by recognition; doors of presidents, governors and ministers, both locally and internationally. For me, the highlight is the attendant goodwill and perks that come from the fame because today, my life is far better even though I never played to the levels of Nwankwo Kanu, Austin Okocha or my brother Celestine, but I’m still eating off the glory till forever. The game was the game when I played it. Football was not necessarily my first love, so to speak, I am more of an entertainer. Growing up, I thought I was going to be a musician or an actor, football was accidental, it just so happened that I was so good at it. There are things that happened around football, and I just found myself excelling, but my mind was not really into it. At one point, all I wanted was to be a reverend father, but football just kept on growing and growing. In fact, the very first kobo Celestine and I ever made was from entertaining people, we would do comedy skits and dance for people at their weddings and parties and get paid, but once football started, we just kept growing. Celestine and I actually got suspended from the seminary because of a few pranks back then, and during that period of suspension, I started playing football tournaments, and within that period, I was taken out of the country. I found myself wanting something else but football just kept calling.

You never played in Europe, was there any reason for that?

This is what I say to people, God used football to launch me, so I can use the acquired fame to do His work. I will say this much, I was in West Ham for a very long time under Harry Redknapp,  Frank Lampard and co were in the junior team. I was there in 1995 for a year, I remember Redknapp so loved me that he said, ‘this is one of the best talents I ever seen.’ He wanted to sign me but they couldn’t get a work permit for me because I had not fulfilled the requirements for a work permit and you know, these things, you can’t shortchange them. After one year, I had to leave, then I was with Glasgow Rangers, then the Laudrup brothers were there. I was there for about three to six months, Walter Smith was the manager, he even wrote an acknowledgement when they found out they could also not get me a work permit. He actually wrote an acknowledgement to any club anywhere in the world that was going to get me, that I am one of the best talents he had ever seen, but it did not work there. I was in Motherwell, I was even in their local newspaper. Their coach Alex McCleish said great things about me, but they could not pursue the work permit as well. So, many big clubs, I was also in Besiktas for one year. Redknapp treated me so well at West Ham, he was giving me money every single weekend that I spent at West Ham, all the clubs I went to treated me very well, they put me in five-star hotels, but I could never get the work permit. Maybe it was not meant to work out, maybe the name was for me to use to do the work of God. I may have been brainwashed from not doing these things if I had achieved more fame, it might have gotten into my head and I would not be the person I am today. I am a very happy man today.

How was the mood in camp ahead of the Olympics?

It was very good, this was an assembly of the best players this country had ever seen. At that time, it was an Olympics that had 90 per cent of our players at the height of their careers all over the world. Everybody was at his peak, everybody was at his best and everybody wanted to don the Nigerian colours and be on the pitch for Nigeria. We also had some very strong and disciplined characters in the team, talking about people like Daniel Amokachi, who does not allow anybody to give below 100 per cent. In training, Amokachi could fight you if you messed up, we also had Sunday Oliseh, who we hated at the time, he was more calculating and was always there to point out your lapses and things like that. The mood was very combative, very competitive, we all wanted to don the jerseys and be out there on the pitch, which was one thing that was sacrosanct for everyone. That was the reason why when there was no money, it was the players that funded us in camp. We were sponsored by the players who had money at the time, the Okochas, the Victor Ikpebas and the Amokachis. They were the ones using their credit cards to pay for our hotel bills, our feeding, our laundry and they also got about six space buses to convey us around. Sometimes they would take us shopping, straight from their credit cards throughout the training camp, before the NFF brought in funds for the Olympics proper.

Before the semi-final match against Brazil at the Olympics, were the players confident of beating the huge favourites?

We were that good, but before the Olympics, we never believed we were that good to beat Brazil. At that time Brazil were number one in the world and never lost or drew their friendly matches, beating everybody black and blue. All these stories filtered back home. I think for us, we had the determination to do our best, but I think what let us know we could beat Brazil was when we played in the group stage and they defeated us 1-0. They felt they won, but that 1-0 loss was the biggest booster we needed. That was when the confidence started growing, but Oliseh later let us know that coach Bonfrere Jo was the only person who knew we were going to win the Olympics. Bonfrere confided in him that we were the only ones that could stop ourselves from winning gold. But for us, it was when we played them in the group stage and then when we met them again in the semi-finals, when we were 3-1 down, we went for a break, and while in the dressing room, Taribo West shouted angrily, ‘This is nonsense, 3-1? Guys, we can do it.’ He also let some players know that if they had taken their chances, we would be leading, he was just letting them know we could do it. And the moment we went back in, Brazil made their biggest mistake by withdrawing Ronaldo Nazario from the game, they thought they had won. The moment they did that I signalled that no one should worry anymore, that we had won the match because he was the only one that held us. And from that moment, the game changed to the glory of God.

And how did the team find the final game versus Argentina?

That one was a walkover , when you beat Brazil, nothing to fear again. You know South Americans have crafty tactics, so that was the only thing we needed to avoid, not giving them free kicks around our box, and once we did that, we finished them. For us, we already won the Olympics, I don’t think Argentina presented us with that much of a problem like the Brazilian match did.

So, did you or anyone else that you are aware of, experience racism in Atlanta?

Not at all, I was having a beautiful time. My first girlfriend ever in Nigeria happened to be in Atlanta at the time, so we got talking and once in a while, they visited us in camp. I think I even had a relationship with a beautiful Brazilian girl, the day we defeated Brazil, I was with a Brazilian babe. She was one of the volunteers at the Olympics. I met her in one of the camps and we became friends.

Did the Americans support Nigeria?

Yes, we had a whole lot of support. Before the Olympics, the Super Eagles had already won a lot of hearts at the 1994 World Cup in the United States. Movie director Spike Lee already put out a word urging Americans to support the Nigerians, we enjoyed a very good fan base. Honestly, the Americans loved the Nigerians.

Is your medal at home with you?

I misplaced my medal due to all the moving around from house to house. One of my teammates was even telling me recently that a lot of us had also misplaced their medals, only a few people you can still find with theirs. It wasn’t real gold so I am not even surprised, if it was real gold, someone would have even melted it and collected money. Mine didn’t get missing because of that though, it got missing out of negligence. I actually just found out maybe last year that it was missing, I thought it was always where I kept it and I think it was probably during the moment of changing houses that someone who may have thought it was real gold picked it up.

What will you call the lowest point of your career?

 I think the lowest point of my career was when I finally decided to retire. In my opinion, in accordance with my age, it was not yet time to call it quits, I still had so many more years I could have given, because I was still active. I did not quit because I wanted to, I did it because I could not stand the way the Nigerian system was treating the game. It dawned on me that the only way I could speak against the system was when I was no longer part of the system, so I decided to quit.

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