The historic feat made by Nigeria at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games is still fresh in the minds of many even after over two decades.
That feat etched Nigeria’s name in the history books as the first black nation to win the football gold at the Olympics.
Several years after, a member of the winning team, Garba Lawal tells PREMIUM TIMES that the victory in the United States also helped win many new ‘football converts’ especially among the women in Nigeria’s conservative northern region.
Mr. Lawal speaks on other issues including his sojourn in Tunisia and Holland during his playing career.
Enjoy excerpts from the interview.
Since retiring from active football, what have you been doing?
A lot, but right now, I am into coaching now since last year, I am handling a Nigeria National League (NNL) side, Real Stars. Last year we made it to the play-offs but we missed promotion and this year, we fell short by two points. But, one thing I am sure of is that we are on the right track, my boys have been wonderful.
Your decision to go into coaching — was it something you had always wanted to do or coming in was accidental and you just wanted to try your luck?
No, it is not just to try my luck, whether I like it or not, football is my profession. Sometimes, you end up becoming an administrator and at other times it is coaching, it all depends on you. Playing football or coaching is about the ability you have not just trying your luck, so if you believe in your ability, then you can excel. As a coach, you learn from your players and they learn from you also. Then also you learn from other coaches that started before you, that have more experience the same way you do in playing football. However, each coach has their own philosophy.
The general notion is that football stars have and live a flamboyant lifestyle – talk about money, women and the likes. Is that correct?
You cannot change human beings, only God can. We are all different even when I was playing, I am not the kind of player that goes around, my colleagues know me, it is not because I am smarter than the others, it is just God. If God protects you, then you just have to thank Him for that.
So what informed you calmness despite being a football star.
It is just discipline, you must have discipline on and off the pitch, that is just it. If you have discipline and you are prayerful, I don’t think you would have the time for all those things like womanising, alcohol, clubbing and the likes.
What do you usually do when your teammates are away to catch fun?
Usually, after my league games, I go back home to watch the highlights before we resume training next day or the next two days. So, I have started correcting my mistakes myself even before the coach does that at the next training session.
You played club football first time outside Nigeria in Tunisia, how was it for you?
It was great, their facilities are just like Europe, they are called North Africans but sincerely they are like Europeans. Like the team I played for, Esperance, apart from the football team, they had the volleyball, handball and basketball teams all well run professionally.
What of the experience in Holland, the language, weather, culture and all that, how did you adapt?
The only difficult thing for me in Holland was the weather. The Dutch people speak English if you don’t understand their language, but the major challenge was the weather, when it is winter, it is very terrible, then you are talking of -8, -10 degrees, there is nothing you want to adapt to in that condition, cold weather is always tough even for the white men, they find it difficult.
Is there any fun moment you remember in Tunis during your days at Esperance?
None, actually, I am always serious with my football but mostly on celebrations like Sallah, my teammates jostle to take me to their homes, to see their parents and loved ones.
Once you are a good player, Tunisians and mostly Esperance fans like you very much, they would be treating you like a VIP always. I enjoyed my time in Tunis and they really liked me.
How did you meet your lovely wife, did she come to watch your game at the stadium and like you?
No, it was not at the stadium or about football. Hausa women don’t like going to the stadium like that then.
…So after marrying she still doesn’t come to the stadium?
Well… after marriage, she started coming to watch live games to see her husband but before marriage, Hausa women they don’t really like going to the stadium like that.
In a way, it means you made your wife start liking football.
Well, they have been hearing the names and national team football before so they know how good football is. After Tunisia 1994 and Atlanta Olympics 1996, that was the changing moment for Northern women to watch football. Especially after the Olympics, it marked a turnaround in the following of football in the northern part.
Before it was only the men and they were watching, but not very many of them. However, after the Olympics in Atlanta, it was the turning point.
When I came back from the Olympics with Tijani Babangida, Babayaro, and Daniel Amokachi, that was when we knew people were keeping vigil to watch us. They told us that both men and women were not sleeping so they can watch us. They said after every game they would come out and celebrate in those odd hours, that was the turning point.
Is there any of your kids already showing interest in football?
I have two kids, a boy [Abubakar] and a girl [Aisha]. The boy likes to play football, as young as he is, when he is watching football, he would tell you Team A is playing 4-4-2 formation or team B is playing 3-5-2 and he is just eight years old. He knows all the big players from Messi to Ronaldo to Neymar; he knows all of them maybe because he plays football games on the laptop and Ipads so he has a deep knowledge of formations and the likes. The sister is younger, she is just three years old.
Tell us your favourite local and international club.
I like to watch a lot of clubs in Nigeria whether from the south or this our area in the north. In this our side, I like to watch Kano Pillars anytime they are playing, Nasarawa United and the likes, I enjoy watching them all. I also like to watch Enyimba, Enugu Rangers and Akwa United when Abdul Maikaba was there, also MFM when Fidelis Ilechuwku, I always cherish coaches that bring grassroot players to the limelight.
On the international scene, my favourite club has always been AC Milan but I also like watching Barcelona because they would always entertain you even if they lose.
How do you relax?
I watch movies mostly Nollywood and Kannywood then I also go for music, I like old school kinds of music from the 80s.
What can you describe as your biggest moment in football
Winning the Atlanta Olympics gold and then playing at the World Cup and scoring against Zubi Zareta are great moments for me.