He is one man who eats, lives and sleeps football. His romance with Nigerian football started over 35 years ago with his stint as flag carrying boy of the then Green Eagles. Over the years, his passion for football grew even as he grows too. With time, Rauf Ladipo became chairman and later president general of the Nigeria Football Supporters Club. In this interview with Anthony Akaeze, senior assistant editor, in Sao Paolo, Brazil, shortly after the Super Eagles crashed out of the 2014 World Cup, Ladipo relives the pain of the team’s ouster and suggests ways forward for Nigerian football. Excerpts:
I saw you and your team here in Brazil travel long distances to cheer the Super Eagles. How would you describe the experience?
Well, the experience has been wonderful and it’s about garnering knowledge added to the ones I had before. I just must say that we came to Brazil with the hope of seeing our players, Super Eagles, play in the semi final of the World Cup, but the opposite was what they delivered. We got to the second round which only equalled our previous performances of 1994 and 1998. But I want to say that despite the fact that the Super Eagles players had the best opportunity to write their names in the history books of Nigeria, they disappointed when it mattered most. I want to say that that was not good enough for Nigeria as African champions to just get to the second round and fail to qualify for the quarter final. Having said that, I would say, yes, we came and lost but we were not disgraced. Because at least we got to the second round.
So, I give them 50 marks out of 100. But what I saw of the team is that we brought some players who had no business in the World Cup at all, because when the team was playing, the technical crew had difficulties in introducing some replacements at a time when we particularly needed them. Take for instance the match we played against France. The man who was doing the good job in the midfield was Ogenyi Onazi and the technical crew of France knew this and they went for him. He got injured and was taken off the field. One needed a substitute who could do the same job as Onazi was doing or 90 per cent of what he could do.
But what happened? Even the bench of the Super Eagles did not have the confidence to introduce a player that could do that. It took them almost three to four minutes, even after the doctor had signalled to the bench that Onazi could no longer continue. And then our players were begging for a replacement, the supporters were shouting for a replacement which did not come until after three minutes. That was unexpected of a team like the Super Eagles but having said that, we’ve learnt our lesson in a bitter way and so Nigeria needs a team, a new team that will take us to the next level. I know some of the players could still make the new team but it is not all of them that should make the new team.
For us in the supporters club, it has been a wonderful experience. We travelled all the way from Nigeria through Addis Ababa, before we landed in Sao Paolo. And then we travelled by road here in Brazil. Within days we travelled over 200 hours to support the Super Eagles. It was something that needed a lot of guts and the grace of God to be able to accomplish. It shows us that this group (Nigeria Football Supporters Club) is very patriotic.
But one thing that actually makes us sad was the refusal of FIFA to allow us to support our team with what we know how best to do. We are a group of people who have a unique and distinct way of supporting our national teams by blowing the trumpet, singing, beating the drum and dancing and all our songs which are messages to the team, we couldn’t do that and it affected the pattern of play. Infact the Super Eagles goalkeeper, Vincent Enyeama, complained and said he could not notice the presence of the supporters club because he was expecting to hear the drumming of the supporters club, which didn’t happen this time due to FIFA.
It was a strange thing. We’ve been to other World Cups before now: US 94, France 98, Korea/Japan 2002 and indeed South Africa 2010 and we were allowed the use of our instruments which actually provides glamour and fun and which makes fans to want to come to the stadium and enjoy themselves as the game goes on in the field. Eighty five per cent of those who go to stadiums, expect to see the drumming, the trumpeting and the dancing steps of the Supporters Club of Nigeria which was actually missing in this tournament?
Do you intend to take the matter up? Because there was a report saying that FIFA was not aware of the problem and that you should write a letter…
I do not believe FIFA is not aware. I think what FIFA did was just to adhere and dance to the dictate of the host country, Brazil. Because before the World Cup, there had been some protest coupled with some violence on the part of the Brazilians not wanting the competition to hold and maybe in an attempt to forestall any violence, maybe to stop fans from coming into the field with weapon…but what we saw here is not the best way of supporting football. Indeed it is the opposite. So, for us in Supporters Club of Nigeria, Africa and elsewhere, we are going to do a joint letter to FIFA through our various FAs, to be able to talk to FIFA to do a postmortem of what happened here and see if actually, by way of comparism with previous World Cup tournaments, what they had done had actually provided the glamour and fun expected of a World Cup.
How would you rate this World Cup in Brazil compared with previous ones?
This, for me, has been the most expensive and most poorly organised. That’s taking into account and consideration what happened in past World Cups.
You are a well-travelled man who has traversed the globe to watch football and cheer Nigerian teams. What can stop Ladipo from travelling to watch football matches?
Nothing will stop me, as a matter of fact, nothing will stop me. I just beg God to continue to give me good health and long life to continue to support Nigeria, because that is what I have decided to do for my country and I wouldn’t want to see anything that would stop me from doing it.
What does it take to lead a group of over 50,000 people from diverse background like you described the supporters club?
It’s not been easy actually. What one needs most is God’s guidance, God’s given wisdom; God’s given patience to be able to lead them aright and God’s financial blessing, because you can’t be a leader of a group like this without being blessed in these aspects, including good health and wisdom from God because you are dealing with a group of people with different kinds of behaviour and backgrounds – different educational and social backgrounds – and you have to come down to their levels at all times otherwise you won’t be able to lead them.
Were there times your patience was tasked?
Of course there were times, very many times but before I react, I always pray to God to give me the right way to handle the situation and God does that for me. Even right here in Brazil, there had been several times my patience had been tested and tasked, but thank God I was able to surmount all that little problems that came up. I had been able to douse tension here and there to be able to give the best to Nigeria.
There has been a lot of comment out there about Nigeria’s coach, Stephen Keshi following Nigeria’s ouster at the second round stage. What’s your impression of him?
Well, we give Stephen Keshi and his team 50 per cent but I do know that we were expecting him to have like 70 to 75 per cent. I want to say that for me, even Stephen Keshi had the best opportunity to have written his name in gold, to have written his name in the history books of Nigeria but that was not done.
What do you think should be the way forward for Nigerian football?
We have to restructure Nigerian football, administratively and technically. The people in the NFF gave Stephen Keshi free hands to run and thinker with the Super Eagles. Because they did not want any blemish, they allowed it and now Stephen Keshi has taken us this far. Is that far good enough for us as African champions? We saw other teams here in Brazil having three, four, five, six, seven coaches on the bench but the job was given to only one person. The job is bigger than one person. We want a consortium of coaches who will be technically sound to observe the various aspects of the game of football. The departments [are] more than one, two, three. It’s about seven or eight departments and therefore there should be people to man each department, make their observations and recommend to the coach for implementation.
Of course Keshi has been the head coach, his preoccupation was to see the team do well, score goals and win matches. How much of observation could he have been able to do in all departments while he looked forward to the team scoring goals? These were things that were missing. But I believe that, by the time we do a review of what happened here, if we must better it, we have to take all those things into consideration. We have good coaches in Nigeria, those that have coached the national team before and are still vey sound. These are people that actually, should have been behind Keshi. The Brazilian team is a good example. You had people behind Filipe Scolari, 70 to 75-year-old coaches who had played the World Cup and have even won it before. That kind of arrangement is what we need for the Super Eagles.
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