On the day Yisa Shofoluwe was to marry his wife in Lagos, he had hoped that a few friends and family members would be present. There was no provision for a place where special guests would sit and so when the late Chief Moshood Abiola arrived at the venue unannounced, confusion engulfed the whole place.
The former Green Eagles defender said he nearly hid himself from the business mogul, who was the owner of the defunct Abiola Babes Football Club, because he never planned to host such a dignitary at his marriage. He had wanted a modest party but against his will, a little house party became an elaborate event where millionaires met.
â€I donâ€˜t like throwing big party even when the occasion is special. For the wedding, we had planned a small event where about 50 people would be entertained. They were members of our families and a few friends. My friends were very few and even though some of my colleagues at Abiola Babes would have been there, I did not invite them. I just wanted a little gathering.
â€I was inside when I heard noise from outside and so many people running after some cars. I rushed out and just as I was trying to see what had happened, I saw M.K.O. coming out of his car. I nearly ran back into the house to hide because I did not expect him. I remembered telling him but it was not an invitation because I did not have a budget that would accommodate such a big figure in the society. But he was there with some members of his family and friends.â€
As the nectar of flower attracts the bees, Abiolaâ€˜s arrival drew praise singers and in a few minutes, the status of the wedding ceremony changed.
â€That was something I will never forget. It was more than being given millions of naira. It was also the best honour I have ever got from an individual till date. I had heard a lot about him but I never knew that he would honour a wedding ceremony of a lowly figure. It was the biggest surprise I have ever had.â€
If that was a thrilling moment period for Shofoluwe, there were other instances that have changed his life. While some were fond memories, others were however memories he would like to erase.
Not his will
Football as a career was not by his design. After finishing his primary school education at St. Judeâ€˜s Primary school in Ebute Meta, Lagos, he enrolled at UTC Training School where he studied sign writing and design. He could have worked in a company and lived a quiet life but peers influenced him as he took a short journey that led to the world of celebrity.
â€Among my few friends at the time were Deinde Akinlotan, Femi Olukanmi and Rotimi Clement. They were like idols on the street because they played football. I also played football but my study at UTC Training School took a lot of my time. But after the course, I featured more in street soccer and became famous. I was a striker and I scored in every match I played. Deinde told me that there is a good future ahead if we made it to the top. There were many clubs who wanted us to play for them.â€
Art of football
In 1983, he was a member of the Flying Eagles team that qualified for the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Mexico. His brilliant performance at the tournament earned him a call to the Eagles team that represented Nigeria at the 1984 Nations Cup in Cote dâ€˜Ivoire. Five other members of the junior team also made the senior sideâ€˜s squad for the tournament. He said this was a time when every good player was sure of reaching the height of his career because the coaches in charge were honest in their selection.
â€Deinde and Olukanmi were also in the 1983 squad. Wahab Adeshina, Ali Jeje, Chris Anigala, Dahiru Sadi, Paul Okoku, Humphrey Edobor and Tarila Okorowanta were great players at the time. They made football lovely to watch. You can imagine having all those skillful players in a team. Our style was pure football art.
â€You could only hope for the best at the time if you were good. There were big names in football then but coach Adegboye Onigbinde gave us the chance and we did not disappoint him. We lost in the final to Cameroon and I wept all through the night. It was the first time I have been close to holding a big trophy but it slipped. In football, every loss makes you a better player because you will want to avoid making mistakes the next time.â€
But mistakes are bound to happen. In 1988, Shofoluwe was in the Eagles team that made it to another final of the Nations Cup in Morocco. Again, Cameroon put a stop to the playerâ€˜s quest to hold Africaâ€˜s most glamorous trophy. This time, it seemed Shofoluwe was getting used to one important characteristic of football: someone must win; someone must lose.
â€Sometimes I wish I can go back to my youthful days and make another choice of career. Football can bring tears when result does not favour you, but you can be on top of the world with a single goal. It was an experience I also try to forget. But it keeps coming to my mind and I sometimes play the game on imagination.â€
Minister of defence
It was his second major loss and his last major appearance for the senior side but the U-23 offered him something to cheer.
â€We played Ghana in an Olympic qualifier for the 1988 Seoul Olympics. John Banama was the Ghanaian striker that everyone dreaded at the time. The media made so much noise about his ability to dribble, run and play shot. But on the day of the match, I stopped him from doing any damage and he did not have a space to operate. After the match, people were calling me minister of defence before we left the stadium. At home, the name tag came up again so I asked someone how they got it. He told me that Ernest Okonkwo (the late football commentator) gave me the name on the Federal Radio Corporation during the match. Most people have since dropped my real name for the tag.â€
With coach Manfred Hoener placed in charge of the national team and the Olympic team in 1988, Shofoluwe said the players were not happy with his tactics. While some were content to remain in the team and played according to the coachâ€˜s instruction even when it would lead to a disastrous outing, Shofoluwe decided to quit the team.
â€He took us to Germany to prepare for the Olympics and it was there that his little knowledge about football was exposed. He claimed to be well known in his country (Germany) but the Germans told us he was not popular at all. He changed our formation and disorganised the team. I played in the defence during the qualifiers but he said I should start playing in the midfield. It was a role I was not used to and many other players were also complaining so I returned to Belgium where I was playing for RSC Namur. The team did not win a match in Seoulâ€
The name RSC Namur did not feature among the great clubs in Belgium then and even now. So why would a celebrated Nigerian star, who stopped Ghana from going to the Olympics, be playing for such an unknown team? But the former Abiola Babes star said he felt at home at Gamur, explaining also that he had left Nigeria at the time to sign a contract with Genk, a formidable Belgian team then.
â€I had a manager who introduced me to the officials of Genk. He arranged for me to have a trial with the club and I traveled to Belgium after playing three months at Julius Berger, having left Abiola Babes.
â€But the manager was in a hurry to take his own share of the contract fee. He wanted Genk to quickly come up with the money so that he could leave me there and return to his country. Genk officials understood what he was planning so they cancelled the deal. I was almost stranded in a foreign land but someone came to my rescue and introduced me to Gamur team officials. Luckily for me, one of them knew a bit of my record and that was how they offered me a contract without trial.â€
Watching Okwaraji died
On the day Samuel Okwaraji died at the National Stadium in Lagos during the match between Nigeria and Angola in 1989, Shofoluwe was also at the stadium, watching from the stand. He said Stephen Keshi nearly succeeded in talking him out of retirement from the national team.
Keshi is my good friend and he had great influence in the national team. I came home on holiday and the time coincided with the period when the Eagles were preparing to meet Angola. We met and he said they were missing a strong defender like me. He took me to the Eagles coach Paul Hamilton and it was agreed that I joined them in training. But I did not want to disrupt the harmony in the camp so I stayed away. On the day of the match, I was on the stand when Okwaraji slumped and died. It was a painful experience for a young man who offered to help his country.â€
In 1987, he was voted Best Player in Nigeria and he received an award for his excellence. Much as he would have loved to play more after returning home from Belgium, financial woes of Gateway Football Club, which he joined then, forced him to leave the scene.
His return home falling in the cruel hands of instability and decay in Nigerian club football administration, a bleak future spread ahead, but he was able to find a way out. Abiola had been long dead but a fan offered a helping hand.
â€After completing a coaching course at the Nigeria Institute for Sports in 2006, I met Chief Remi Olowude, the Executive Vice Chairman of IGI. He said he watched me as a player and that he was impressed with the way I organised the defence. He offered me an appointment at the sports department of the company and I accepted it. I will remain grateful to him for the offer.â€
There are many suitors after accepting the IGI offer as many clubs attempted offer him a job. Perhaps with his experience at Gateway, Shofoluwe did not heed to the temptation, rather, he prefers to help the youths.
â€Aside the IGI work, I take part in programmes that develop the young talent. I took a team to South Africa in 2009 and we won the tournament.â€
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