Eagles have quality to rule South Africa

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Former secretary-general of the Nigeria Football Federation speaks to OLUFEMI ATOYEBI on the Super Eagles chances at the 2013 Nations Cup in South Africa, match-fixing in Nigerian football and controversies surrounding his time at the NFF

How will you rate Nigeria’s chances at the Nations Cup?

I want to believe that with the team we currently have, Nigeria will rule Group C. I don’t see Zambia as a hurdle we cannot cross comfortably with the players we have now and the time they have so far spent together.

Zambia captain Christopher Katongo just won the BBC version of African Footballer of the Year. Don’t you think it will have a positive effect on the nation’s defence of the Nations Cup title?

Katongo’s achievement gives strength, stability and belief to the whole Zambia squad. He is their captain and winning the BBC award will boost their morale. It will inspire them to play harder. When you have a great player in a squad, other players around him play to his standard. It will be the same for Zambia in South Africa but as I said, they are the least of our problems, at least we can qualify.

Are you specifically saying that Zambia cannot stop Nigeria from winning the cup?

I am not saying that the champions are not good enough. I watched them in Angola 2010 against Nigeria in the quarterfinals and in the last edition which they won and my impression about them remains high. They have the determination to fight and play for their country. It has always worked for them and now that they are the defending champions, their opponents must prepare for big fight.

When you look at the players we have and their rate of development in the past few months, it gives hope that Nigeria will compete for the trophy.

In 1996, we did not defend our title when South Africa hosted; we also did badly in the 2010 World Cup hosted by the country. Is there something unpleasant about the national team during big competition in South Africa?

We were not in South Africa in 1996 because of political unrest between Nigeria and South Africa at the time. In 2010, we were there for the World Cup but we did not live up to expectation. We cannot blame anyone for that except the players. The team had fantastic preparation so we cannot blame the coach or anyone else. They players failed the nation in 2010. This time around, the players know that they are playing for their fatherland and their future. They should see every game as a match to be won. South Africa is a venue where anyone can win, including Nigeria.

The Super Eagles have only Mikel Obi (Chelsea) playing in a big club. Others play in far lesser clubs while our opponents have players in big clubs. How do you think this will affect our quality of play in South Africa?

Mikel plays in big club but he is one player in the squad. Success of a team depends on the players, not just one person. The Nations Cup provides a window for a nation to showcase its development in the game and to the players, it is an opportunity to show how good they are to bigger clubs who will need their services with improved deals. The future of the players depends on how well they play in big events like this.

FIFA has increased the fight against corruption in football while other nations have stepped up the fight against match-fixing, the latest being the revelation in South Africa where top officials were exposed. Do you think Nigeria is doing enough in this direction?

I will not want to bring Nigeria into the match-fixing scandals in football because I don’t think we have such problem. But if by chance such a thing is creeping into our football, I can only implore our administrators to take a drastic measure to fight it. It’s bad and evil and it kills the game anywhere it is allowed. It ruins a nation’s image too.

As an ex-international, is there something you would have wished to achieve during your time that you missed?

There were many great moments in my life as a footballer. I had the opportunity to play on and pursue glory in football and to some extent I fulfilled that ambition, having played at the 1984 Nations Cup in Ivory Coast, winning bronze. But my regret till date is that I could not play in a World Cup. The opportunity was there for me to play in the team that was looking for the 1982 World Cup ticket, but I had to return to school and focus on my studies at the time. In fact, the success I achieved in education compensated for the loss.

If you had an opportunity to revisit the decisions you took as NFF top official, which of them would you like to reverse?

I took so many decisions as a football administrator and all were taken in the interest of football and Nigeria. If in future I had the opportunity to take those decisions again, I would gladly repeat those decisions.

Segun Odegbami said a lot about your days together in Shooting Stars and outside the field. Unfortunately, people perceive you as enemies. How is your relationship with him now?

I met Odegbami many decades ago. We spent our youth together. He is not just a friend but a brother to me. My uncle married his aunt and he was the best man on my wedding day. I still cherish our time together when Shooting Stars were still great. When I was going to the US for further studies, he encouraged me. When I returned, he took me to Otto Gloria, the then Green Eagles coach and told him that one of the best players in Nigeria had returned home. That was how I returned to the team. Odegbami had a great influence in my life. But today, we belong to different camps because of difference in our football ideologies but I still respect him. People say we fight all the time but that is rubbish. We are one in the football family.

How much passion do you still have for football after you left the NFF?

I am the chairman of the Osun State Football Association and I still nurse the ambition to help build football in Nigeria. I just completed a sports management course at the National Institute for Sports in Lagos. I have no other job but football. Only death can separate me from football. When I first picked your call today (Wednesday) I was with the sport commissioner in Osun State, discussing the development of sport in the state.

You were with the Osun State football team at the just concluded Nations Sports Festival in Lagos. How will you describe football standard at the festival?

Football at the sports festival was average in standard. I am impressed with the young players that represented Oyo, Osun, Lagos, Ogun and Cross River states. There is hope in the game for a better future. I played at the first edition of the festival in 1973. It gave us the lift we needed and I am sure that players who featured for these states in Lagos will also benefit. Lagos State did well as host and I am happy that the state won the male and female gold in football. Those are important medals in any multi sports competition. Some states were also involved in fraud and I am happy that they were caught. That shows that our record keeping has improved greatly.

The Nigerian league gave you a tremendous rise in life but all is not well with the league today. What is you assessment of the impeachment saga that got rid of Victor Baribote as the Nigeria Premier League chairman?

The problem of the NPL is unfortunate. I don’t really know what the problems are because I am not in the picture. But we must strive to protect football in Nigeria. We should not allow external influence to mess up what we have achieved so far in the game.

Irrational actions will always give an opportunity to people outside the game to accuse those who are running the game. It happened to me when I was accused wrongly just because some external bodies wanted to get us out of the system.

There were many reports surrounding your removal but what is central to it all is the issue of mismanagement of the NFF fund. How will you react to this?

NFF President Aminu Maigari is a friend but it is unfortunate that he allowed himself to be used against his friends. They used corruption as the excuse. I was in charge of the technical department of the NFF and I didn’t know what the financial status of the body looked like. Why have they not audited the NFF’s account since we were forced leave?

Will you say that politics cannot be removed from football in Nigeria?

We tried to protect the nation’s football from politics, but some of those in the house sold out for selfish gain. I slept in the EFCC underground prison facility for five days in Kuje Prison. These were the darkest days of my life because they were cruel rewards for serving Nigeria from the academicals level many decades ago.

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