Ex-international Emmanuel Babayaro speaks to TAIWO ALIMI & ADEYINKA AKINTUNDE on his long expedition from active football to becoming a social crusader.
Hyacinth Emmanuel Babayaro is a man of multiple parts and this is how he put it in his own words: “I’m an ex-international and Olympic gold medallist. I’m one of the lucky Nigerian to have featured in all the national teams of the country: the U-17, U-20, U-23 and the Super Eagles. A member of the Order Of Niger (OON), a philanthropist, a humanitarian and an activist, I’m a football administrator of repute, an actor and musician. Even though I am keeping that on a low, I’m a family man, a lover not a fighter. I love my country and I’m religious.”
Though Emmanuel Babayaro, and his younger brother, Celestine Babayaro (Chelsea and Super Eagles defender), hugged the limelight at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic, he kicked off his football career from a Kaduna ghetto.
“Like I would say, I think God sent me football as a means to an end, as a means of getting out of the ghetto and out of poverty. It started back in the 80’s when I was in primary school. I remember I would go with my immediate elder brother, Charles, one of the great goalkeeper in Kaduna, (he is late now) as a goalkeeper, and I would be surprised seeing him “flying” as we called it then, we later knew it is called diving. Watching my brother, he was a superman to me. He would give me his things, and after the match, he would collect it back. That’s my first experience with football.”
By accident, the football activist got in between the poles and never left. “I was in Primary 6, and we had a football match I was asked to replace the main goalkeeper; Ayinde (I will never forget that name) who did not turn up to school for whatever reason. The match ended goalless and that was my very first experience. I have never been a football person, I am more of a showbiz person, but God led me to football”
From here he was unstoppable with Charles mentorship and a childhood dream of becoming a great goalkeeper like his namesake Emmanuel Okala of Green Eagles.
“First, Charles inspired me to be a goalkeeper. But the great man, who inspired me to be a great goalkeeper, is Emmanuel Okala. My father was a fanatic of Okala. He would tune the television or radio to watch him and you dare not disturb. I was amazed to see how good Okala was, Nigerians loved him, and I told myself that I want to be like him, I want to be on TV. I was following him religiously. I started walking like Okala. Till today, he remains an inspiration. I also looked up to Andrew Aikhomogbe.”
In 1989/1990, Babayaro decided to take his luck a notch higher by joining amateur club side, Nigerian Agricultural Corporative Bank (NACB) inspired by Alhaji Sani Kontagora, the owner of his youth club. “He loved my goalkeeping. He took me to see the head of the NACB, Professor Ajakaiye. I was employed immediately, even before going on the field. I was earning 200 naira. I was very rich and within a short while I proved my worth. NACB was my first professional club. It was not my decision, but the will of God. It was good for me, as I was leaving the ghetto and doing great things.”
That move proved decisive for his football career. He moved quickly to bigger things, Kaduna Islanders and the biggest professional club in nearby Plateau state, Plateau United. “My two mentors in football, Stephen Musa and Patrick Mancha, were in Plateau United. They just told me to get on a flight and come to Plateau United in Jos. Plateau United is not just any football team. It is one of the top clubs in Nigeria, with a lot of history. Some of the best footballers this country has produced played for Plateau United. That time you have most of the domestic players playing for the Super Eagles, so, week in week out, you are rubbing shoulders with the best footballers in the country. That helps you get better.”
Babayaro soon became the choice number one in Plateau United and did enough to attract the Nigeria Olympic team going to the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. “Before I joined the Olympic team don’t forget that I had played at the U-17 and U-20 national teams so it’s like a progression. We had a great tournament and came back with the football goal medal. It was a great moment and the whole world celebrated Nigeria.”
“After the Olympics, I attended one more football trial with Besiktas in Turkey. Daniel Amokachi was there and I did very well. When goalkeepers were being appraised at the end of the season, my name came up, and I was just on trial. It was purported at that time that they wanted to sign me but they had exceed the quota of signing three foreign players, and so the only way they could sign me was if I would take up a citizenship. Then I learnt that if I did that, I would have to go to the military. I was scared. I am not a military person.
“I was there for about a year, and then I had to leave and come back. I did some appraisal, and in the process, I tried to stage a comeback in 2000. I got call-up to the Super Eagles, and made the team that played against Catalonia in Spain. I tried to resurrect the footballing in me, but there was this thing going on in my head. I am an activist, and the system was not really working and it got to the point you had to check yourself, maybe football was just to get a platform.
“So I went into coaching, and I found out that every player I discovered and trained gets into the Super Eagles within six months; Greg Etafia, Abdul Isa, Ibrahim Pius, and Victor Babayaro. I had to re-access myself. Maybe I was not meant to be the king, but kingmaker. In 2001/2002, I decided to follow music and became an administrator to train young ones.”
Football administration for Babayaro started in 2006, when he founded his own team Pioneers FC. He ran the club well to attract the Kaduna state government that handed him Kaduna United, which he tinkered from 2016 to 2018. “I want to believe that I set a standard. I was able to show that I am way above my time. I ran it for two years without collecting a dime. I ran it as a private entity. We raised every kobo spent in the club. We sourced for them. The stadium the government gave over to us, in all sense of modesty, was home to open defecation, but we turned it to one of the best stadiums in the country.
“I remember when Kashimawo Laloko came to the stadium; he was running the Pepsi Academy. He did not believe what he saw, until he went outside to see the adjourning building to the stadium. He asked who transformed the stadium. They mentioned my name, and he sent for me and he laid his hand on me and blessed me.”
Under Babayaro, Kaduna United began to produce it own water for commercial purpose. “Before my arrival, children could just pay N500 to play football in the pitch, but in one month, we had people paying N100, 000. We even had a client that was paying N1.5 million to use the stadium at weekends for a year. We were able to recruit young players; we had a grassroots tournament where the teams played at the stadium at night. We sold our own water, we were generating our income. We did that for two solid years, and in those two years, we were never relegated.
“I am someone who practices what I preach. I have always believed that football must be seen as a business before it can go forward in this country, so when it was my turn to handle a team, I could not have it any other way. I would not go to government to collect money and put in my pocket.”
Asked to evaluate football growth in Nigeria, Babayaro gave a damning verdict. “From five to ten years ago, we have been growing at a snail pace of about 20% to 30%. The last five years has been retrogressive. Today, grassroots is almost non-existent, Nigerian youths are the most trafficked in the whole world in the name of football. The only reason you see children leave like that is because they see no hope in their country. It has been retrogressive in the last five years. Infrastructure and administration is epileptic. The only thing seen to be functioning is the Super Eagles. The reason is simply because we are dependent on players who are trained in other climes and by foreigners, because our league is dead. That is the poor state of our football right now.”
Corruption in football
Noted for his outspokenness in football circle, the activist said colossal corruption is going on in Nigerian football and depriving the young people from humble background the opportunity to realise their dreams and taking their family out of the ghetto.
“There is a reason football is called the beautiful game. It brings hope, peace, and laughter. It changes lives; it transforms people, if it is not working the opposite is the case. So, in my fight against corruption in Nigerian football, I hope to achieve stability. I want a situation where everyone has equal opportunities, and they happen if we have good infrastructure.
“If our football is doing well, it will contribute to our GDP. Football is the biggest business in the UK, Europe, Argentina, etc. These are countries Nigeria goes to borrow, lend and seek handouts, and Nigeria has a lot of football talents.
“Nothing is being done to improve our diamonds, we are just leaving them to die for nothing and I am not going to let that happen. I am a product of the grassroots and the ghetto, and it took the grace of God for me to survive, so it was important to look back and see how to save my brothers and children
“They say the only necessary tool evil needs to thrive are for good people to do nothing. I am not going to do that. I have a philosophy that you are only as comfortable as the people around you. If my brothers and sisters around me are dying and uncomfortable, then I am not comfortable. I will not be until the struggle is won to the glory of God. Fighting for the soul of your country is worth it. We are still on it, it’s not uhuru yet but we are sure of victory.”
So what must change for Football to be run professionally? Babayaro answered: “Football administration has to have accountability and creatively. This is not the case today in Nigeria. The Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) will hold an AGM without an audited account. That is how much of a sham the federation is today. There is no transparency and accountability. They are not even creative in the way they run things. Those in the administration are just self-savvy, at the detriment of youths. If football is run professionally, Nigeria as a nation should be able to tap from football, not for football to be part of Nigeria’s problem.”
ON DOSU JOSEPH
Dosu Joseph and I have a very mutual respect for one another. Our relationship is great, and it is becoming greater over the years as we grow older. From that moment in the USA till today, we understand each other, I know what he wants and he knows what I want.
ON CORRUPTION IN FOOTBALL
A lot is happening in our country right now. We Have youth restiveness, kidnapping, terrorism; very recently, we have bandits. All these are a result of a very bad system. Football is the most followed sport in the country today. If we gather all these people together, you will see that most of them would have been footballers.
ON FOOTBALL POTENTIAL
I cry a lot of times when I hear Nigerians talking about oil, when we have a better and stronger industry which is football. Nigeria should not be an exception to the wealth of football.
IF NOT FOOTBALL
I am exactly what I am right now; a philanthropist, a humanitarian, an activist, and an entertainer. I am what I would have been if I was not playing.
I unwind by hanging out with my family. That is usually the best time for me. I am also creative whenever I unwind. I get to think of how to inspire the world. Whenever I pass knowledge to youngsters, I unwind. I pass knowledge and mold lives. I teach them how to confront issues of life. I was big in parties when I was much younger, but growing up now, I am beginning to discover myself.
Basically, I live by three philosophies. First is to seek God’s face in all that you do so that you may have peace, second, to thyself be true, and the third will be, you are only as comfortable as the people around you.