He was in the silver-winning Golden Eaglets squad to the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Canada, was in the silver-winning Flying Eagles squad to the FIFA World Youth Championship, Saudi ’89, and also played for the Super Eagles. OladimejiLawal alias Kabongo also has a long list of achievements as far as club career is concerned. In this interview with TosinOmojola, the dazzling right-winger, who is at present the Team Manager of 3SC football club in Ibadan, formerly IICC Shooting Stars, talks about his personal life and opens up on numerous issues in football…
“My life has always been around Ibadan, I am an indigene of Ibadan, from Isale Alfa, Ogungbade compound. I am glad I am coming in to play my part. I salute those who have been in the saddle before us, they did their best and we are going to build on what they have done.
‘’I don’t have any leisure time I am a maniac when it comes to sports and that is why I am still the way I am. I don’t think a day will pass by in my life without having training and that is why I was scared to take up this team manager job at a certain stage because it is going to affect my own schedule because I love my training.
“I play volleyball, table tennis, I swim and I still play football every morning but my new job will not give me that opportunity again, I will have to create time when there is free period maybe I can have one or two training sessions, because I don’t want to have pot belly. There would be days that I will join my players in training and show them how we do it’”.
“I grew up in Cocoa Research Institute of Nigeria (CRIN). I started playing football at a very tender age, from my primary school days. I was one of the most talented players in Oyo State because I remember then if I played football at Olubadan Stadium, I used to go home with lots of money, we spent coins then. After playing, people would call me and they would be giving me money, which I would take home after sharing it with my coach and co-players. At my first secondary school Prospect Secondary School, Aba Nla, we did very well in football. I started playing for the school team when I was in class two, I later moved to Ibadan Grammar School for my HSC and we won all the trophies available then and represented Oyo State at the All Nigerian Secondary School Games where we came third and from there. I was invited to the Oyo State Academicals under the late Samuel Ojebode of blessed memory (he was my very good coach) in 1984 for the ManuwaAdebajo Cup. I was made the captain of the team and we won the trophy for Oyo State after beating Kano State in the final played at the National Stadium, Lagos during the regime of Lt. Colonel OladayoPopoola.
“From there I was invited to the U-20 national team and while we were preparing one day, Coach Udemezue came and picked about six of us and said you are very talented but you are still young and he handed us over to Coach SebastienBrodericks (Sabara) of the U-16 team, eventually three out of us made it to the U-16 World Cup in Canada where we won the silver medal.
“From there, we graduated to the U-20, I think about six of us also made it to the U-20 World Cup in Saudi Arabia where we also won the silver medal. From there I graduated to the Super Eagles. So I was actually the first Nigerian player to play in all the three national teams.
“I also played for the University of Ibadan where I studied Physical and Health Education. I played in the NUGA Games, won silver medal. Everything I have done had been for Oyo State. The only time I played outside Oyo state was when I featured for Julius Berger.
“I was signed on by Real Madrid in 1988 before the U-20 World Cup and after the World Cup, I joined Real Madrid but was dropped to the second team because there was quota system then and such players like Hugo Sanchez, Ben Schuster who later became a coach, Fernando Redondo and the rest were in the team then. What they do is that they draft us into the main team when they have friendly matches and other club ties except the league to play.
“From Spain I moved to Belgium where I teamed up with Augustine Eguavoen who was the captain of the Belgian club then. I played for about three seasons and later got injured and was out for one year and I have to move out of the cold and I got a club in South Africa, Helenic, played for a season, rejoined my Belgian club and after a season I decided to come back to Nigeria where I joined BCC Lions under the tutelage of David Adiele and I played alongside Moses Kpakor, Friday Ekpo and John Okon. I was there for two seasons beforeI decided to return to Ibadan.
“When I returned to Ibadan I found out that the only team that was missing from my CV in terms of professional football was Shooting Stars and I took the courage even though the scenario then was not good, the package was nothing to write home about but I played for the team.
“During my second year with the team, Chief AdegboyeOnigbinde took over, the team was in Division One. He called me and said you are getting old and people regarded you as the head of the mafia but I made baba understand that were the mouthpiece of the team and that we were labeled mafia. After watching me train, baba said you are going to be the leader of the team and I was always travelling with the team to motivate them. Whatever I discuss with baba, he will always consider it. That was what actually led to the promotion we got. I remember I gave the pull out that resulted in the goal we scored against Globe Stars in Oghara, which gave us the promotion ticket’’.
Best Moments in the National Teams
Having featured for all the national teams in Nigeria, the U-17 side, the U-20 team and the senior national side, a feat that made him the first-ever player to do so, when DimejiLawal was asked to pick his best moment during his days in the national teams, he went for his time with the TundeDisu-led Flying Eagles squad of 1989.
‘’Every segment has played vital roles in my life but I think the U-21 was the one I still cherished most because that was the stage I would say I was becoming a man. It was during that period that I was beginning to know what football was as a profession”.
Halted Goal-bound Move at Canada ’87
It was a move reminiscent of some of the great Pele and Diego Maradona’s feats. Dimeji was on his way to scoring a goal through a solo run but suddenly the whistle was blown, as referee Wright from Brazil felt the Russian defenders were going too hard on the whizkid who held his nerves to evade the sea of legs. Of course, he has something to say about that.
‘’At that particular time, you know, we were seriously looking for a goal and I just decided to make that move which was a solo move in which I went past three or four defenders if I could remember very well. I just wanted to make sure that we won that cup back to back having won the maiden edition in 1985. But unfortunately the referee decided to stop that movement. At that particular time, I remembered Pele stood up and left the stadium immediately because everybody knew then that they did not want us to win that cup again.
“It came to me as a big shock because I had the chance to win the game for Nigeria and bring the cup back home like the previous team did two years earlier. It was really a big shock for me because I was young and I felt it was cheating on Nigeria’’.
Playing against Russia in the quarter final of the U-20 World Cup held in Saudi Arabia, Nigeria’s Flying Eagles were on the verge of exiting the tournament. With just 20 minutes left to regulation time, the Eagles were trailing four goals and everybody including the players themselves thought Nigeria was as good as out. But the unexpected happened; the Eagles rose from the dead, leveled up scores and went ahead to eliminate the Russians to book a semi final place.
Dimeji played an important role in that historic game. He gave an insight into how it all happened that evening.
“Every glory must go to God, everything you are able to achieve in life is by the grace of God, when you have the grace, you can do a lot of things. When we were four goals down, we went back to the dressing room and a majority of us were almost crying because we felt we have disgraced our nation but we thought among ourselves that come on boys, let’s go back there and give 200 percent performance and try to reduce the tally by scoring at least two goals. Our plan was to go back to the pitch and score two goals so that we will not fail woefully and return to Nigeria with such humiliation.
“But things turned around and luck smiled on us we scored the first goal, got the second one, then the third one came. At this point we found out at that, ah, we could score the fourth goal and even go ahead and win the game and eventually, we got the much-needed fourth goal to level up, push the game into extra time, them to penalty shoot-out where we eventually won.
“A lot of people did not really know what that match meant to some of us who graduated from the U-17 team because it was the same Russian U-17 team that defeated us in the final at Canada ’87 via penalties that we were playing against in Saudi Arabia, so it was like a sweet revenge. We cried in Canada and they cried in Saudi Arabia’”.
Super Eagles Vrs Togo, Fans and Westerhof
After his successful stints with the Golden Eaglets and Flying Eagles, Dimeji’s next port of call was the senior national team then under Dutchman ClemenceWestrhof. A drama of sort ensued during a Nations Cup qualifying match against Togo at the National Stadium in Lagos when soccer fans went haywire, calling for the introduction of DimejiLawal into the match when it looked as if the Eagles could not find the back of the net. When the shout: Dimeji, Dimeji rend the air, Westerhof had no choice than to dance to the fans’ tune by bringing on the petit right-winger who responded perfectly by creating the chances that led to the second goal before scoring the third himself.
The former Julius Berger player spoke about that scene and how it allegedly cost him his place in the Super Eagles: “Yeah, that was a match against Togo at the National Stadium, Lagos in 1992, I was on the bench and the fans were clamouring for my introduction. I remember them that they were singing and shouting, Dimeji, Dimeji and they were throwing sachet of pure water and cans to the Eagles bench. The score line was still zero, zero then; so eventually I was called to warm up and while I was warming up, we scored the first goal. Immediately I got onto the pitch, my first movement, I made a pull-out, it resulted in the second goal and about seven minutes to the end, I made a solo run and I scored the third goal.
“At the end of the game, the fans mobbed me I was carried shoulder high around the stadium. Unfortunately that very match eventually caused a problem between me and Westerhof because you know the Oyinbo man with his ego, he believed Nigerians should not teach him what to do. That was when we started having quarrels; it was like this guy, with the fans behind you, you would be too strong for me. So he began looking for ways to shut me out of the team.
“After that particular game, I played six more international matches for Super Eagles before I got injured. I got injured during one of the matches and when I recovered, Westerhof did not give me a recall into the national team.
Westerhof then, apart from being a coach, was a big businessman. He had already groomed some set of players. Kudos to him because without him probably we would not have known those players, I remember the Amokachis, the Finidis, the Okeychukwus, the Okochas, he groomed all of them together to market them to Europe. I was already in Europe then, so he had no benefit whatsoever from me, so that contributed to his throwing me out of the team. Good enough, all those players turned out to be good players; they made their mark and I am proud of them and I am happy for them”.
Feelings about World Cup Miss
“My philosophy in life is whatever I have done or achieved has been due to the grace of God. It is because God allowed it, not going to the senior World Cup I see nothing wrong in that although it was my dream to play in the senior World Cup, I really wanted to, I worked hard for it but events like the ones I mentioned earlier on took place and it stopped me from getting that opportunity but I thank God for all that I have achieved. Some players went to the World Cup and they are not alive now; some cannot even step out of their houses any longer but here I am today, I am still in football business, I am still doing well, I thank God for all He has allowed me to achieve”.
The Local League Then and Now
“There is big difference, even in the world of football generally, there is big difference, football has become a very big business, it is now a money-making machine. The skills have reduced, it is no more about talents, it is about grooming, it is about building players but when we were playing, it was about talent, you must be good before coming to play football. Now, people come to learn football because they want to make money, then before you can learn it you must be good, you must be talented.
“It is not only in the Nigerian league, even compare the game in those days when the Maradonas, the Platinis, the Odegbamis, the Owolabis, the KunleAwesus, the MudaLawals and RashidiYekini of blessed memories, the AlloysiusAtuegbus, the Christian Chukwus, the Henry Nwosus and the rest, the way they played was quite different from what you see today.
“What they do now is just to kick the ball, hardly can you see a team in Nigeria that makes ten passes in a game and we must start correcting that now, we must let people start enjoying, coming to the stadium for entertainment because football is about entertainment. Let them come and see skills, I watch football these days and I see people looking dull while watching football, they have nothing to cheer about, it should not be like that, it is something that must entertain people.
“When you watch MudaLawal play, if the ball is coming from heaven, you will see his ball control and people will stand up and clap. When KunleAwesu decide to dribble, people will be happy, RashidiYekini, may his soul rest in peace, was so prolific that I did not see a game in which he was involved ending goalless. So that is what we want to bring back into our football”.
Coaching Problem in National Team
On the falling standard of football, Lawal had this to say:
“Coaching is part of the problem but I won’t put the blame on the coaches alone, it is the system, the environment, the win-at-all-cost syndrome, fire brigade approach, there is no time to plan, everybody wants to see his team winning right from the first day, second day, you must win and the coaches are put under pressure. What the coaches do now is, they don’t care about your talent; what they are after is how to get the result, operation fix it anyhow, whatever it will cost and that is the source of the problem’’.
Foreign League Far Ahead
“It is very obvious everybody can see it, as much as we are improving and there are still room for improvement because Rome was not built in a day. I think we are improving gradually; most of our stadia are getting better. The League Management Company (LMC) is doing pretty well by improving on the welfare of the players. But its still a long, long way if we are to compare the two. You could see that people still prefer to watch European league games than watching local league matches.
“For things to get better, our referees must improve on officiating, our administrators must improve on the welfare package then we will have a league of high standard then we will enjoy the league. When we get to that stage, our players will not have to leave Nigeria and play in Togo, they will not have to leave to go and play in Sudan. I don’t know why a Nigerian player would leave to go and play in Cameroun but if the package becomes better and the players are enjoying themselves, it will be better.
“For Instance, we still see a situation where people travel from Lagos to Maiduguri inside a 30 seater bus, we see a situation where players will play and clubs would be owing them match bonuses, these are some of the issues we must tackle to make the league gets better and I want to give kudos to the league organisers, they are working towards improving the standard of the league also.
“With all these done, we will start seeing better football because we will have our talents playing here. For instance the Nigerian players in the victorious U-17 team to Qatar, it will be sad if that is the last time we will see them, because most of them are going out now. We will not see them in our league and these are players that are supposed to grow in the local league if there are good facilities, good welfare package, we will see them more here and by the time they go out, they must be well exposed and proven here”.
Lack of Sponsorship for the League
“Look at our stadium here, the Lekan Salami Stadium, Adamasingba, there is no single logo, there is no single executive branding but here is the venue of the home matches of Shooting Stars and household name in Nigerian football, a team that is bigger that many teams in Africa when it comes to name. I see no reason why a bank, corporate organisations cant support a club like this so that we can go back to that level that we have attained before.
“Look at the Orlando Pirates, the Al Ahly, Esperance, TP Mazembes, look at the level they are now, all of us must come together and brand a club like this. People call me to ask questions about Shooting Stars, to many this is the only club we have but look at the present condition of the club, no sponsors nothing, everything is put on the government but the government cannot shoulder everything alone and that is the truth”.
Problems of 3SC
“There are lots of problems confronting the club. When I was called upon to become the Team Manager of this team, I had to sit down and think over it because I have had the opportunity of passing through the place as a player, I had the opportunity of serving so many managers then, so I understudied while I was playing and I found out that the major problem of the club is internal crisis.
“This club always performs well when everything is going smoothly, when the players are in the right frame of mind, when they are happy, there is no internal problems, when the administrators are working well with the players, when the supporters club have good working relationship with the administrators, when the club is working well with the Ministry of Youth and Sports, the sports council, the state FA, check the record, when everything is working smoothly, the club is always doing well. But the moment there is any breakdown in between this ring, it becomes a problem.
“You see some people going forward, some backward, some to the right and some to the left and that is the first step I am trying to take as the team manager of the club, this is a club that belongs to everyone of us, it is our heritage as Yoruba people and Ibadan indigenes, it is like Cocoa House, that is how the club is in my heart. If we lose it we have lost everything most especially for those of us that have played the game. This Is a club we must all embrace and if we do it well, all of us will have jobs to do with the club because it is supposed to be an institution where everybody will have space, we cannot all become coaches, all of us cannot become administrators, managers, supporters but we want a Shooting Stars that everybody will be involved with and the only way to make this possible is for us all to work and walk towards the same direction. If I discover that it will not work out in this way, I will find my way out because I cannot do it alone.
“I need the supporters club, I need the ex-Shooting Stars players, I need the present players, the administrators, the ministry, the grassroots coaches. We must all come to the round table and discuss how to move the club forward it is not about OladimejiLawal. That is why since I assumed office; I have been going round to seek the advice of the elders because we want to run it in a way that will involve everybody. My dream is to see the club return to the continent, I don’t want to be a local team manager, I want to take the team back to the continent, to play alongside the best in Africa and God willing it so shall it be.
“I am happy I have an able General Manager, RasheedBalogun, who is so active. This is a man that has taken this club into heart and people must support him, I mean everybody including you the media, when we are getting it wrong, let us know through constructive criticism, you can call us and advise us”.
Nigeria, 2014 World Cup
“The job of a coach is such a difficult job, sometimes you have a lot of talents that make the selection a big problem most especially for a country like Nigeria where talents abound. All that Keshi needs to do is to set a yardstick, a criteria with which he would use to select his players, he cannot afford to take mediocre to the World Cup. He should not think of helping any player, if he does and fails, the blame would be on him. Nobody will share in the blame. The Big Boss and his crew have done so well since they came on board and I wish them more successes. They should not be sentimental or biased in their choice of players, they should ignore whoever is trying to impose a player on then and pick the best for the World Cup.
“Between him and the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) there should be no crisis, that is the kind of relationship I am expecting to see as he prepares for the World Cup. They have been working together and they have been getting the results that should continue because the moment crisis sets in, there would be problem. The NFF should give the technical crew the full support and allow them do their job”.
Favourite Club in Europe
“I am a die-hard fan of Arsenal but when it comes to La Liga, it is Real Madrid”.