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Atlanta ’96: What Abacha told us before the final against Argentina – Mobi Oparaku

Ex-international Mobi Oparaku is one of the best right backs that the country has ever produced; he was one of the stars of the Dream Team that won the gold medal at the Atlanta 1996 football event. He told AJIBADE OLUSESAN in this interview that the current Super Eagles can rule Africa once again. Excerpts…

The Super Eagles commenced their World Cup 2022 qualifiers with two wins; do you think it is going to be an easy ride to the ticket this time for the team?

In football, nothing comes easy; however, I think we need to commend the team for picking up the maximum points in those two games. They were difficult matches; I didn’t see the second game against Cape Verde but I watched their first match against Liberia and I think despite being a tough one, they came out victorious. It is important that you win your first match in qualifiers; that win boosted their confidence for the next one and that could help them throughout the series.

Some pundits remain unconvinced about the performance of the side despite winning the two games, and they have questioned the technical ability of Coach Gernot Rohr, are you one of those?

It is hard to complain when a team wins their games; football is not easy and to win games in Africa is even so tough. I think there is a marked improvement in the way the team played. When we were criticising the coach, it was not because we wanted him out of the job, but we wanted to see our national team do well. I think he is now listening to the criticisms and is making the needed adjustment. I am talking about the quality of players he is now inviting to the team unlike what he was doing before -bringing players who were not doing well at the club level. If you look at the team now, there is more cohesion in the way they play, and most of them are playing for top clubs in Europe.

We finished third at the last African Cup of Nations; do you see this team going all the way when the competition starts in Cameroon next January?

If you look at our team, you can see that we have that quality; our players are playing in top clubs in Europe, and the records are there of how they have been performing well for their clubs. So, I am not scared about our chances at the next AFCON.

You played in the defence during your time as a national team player, what is your assessment of the backline of the current Eagles?

Honestly, I don’t think we have a bad defence. My only problem is the goalkeeping; I don’t think our goalkeepers are top-notch. If you have a good midfield, you are likely going to have a solid defence line. Most of the pressure comes from the midfield, and you could see during our time that our midfield was solid and that was why we had a formidable defence. I think they are bringing more good midfielders into the current team and we are now seeing the good work of the defenders. The good thing is that they also have very good strikers that complement the midfielders to make the job of the defenders easier.

You thrived in the right side of the defence; what is your view about the players who are currently playing on that wing?

Without sounding immodest, I was the one that made people know that you could be a wing-back; I think we had a problem with that area of the team before but the problem is gradually going away with those that are there now. I think the other player, Shehu Abdullahi, was doing well and the new one is also not performing badly.

Nigerian league champions, Akwa United, were bundled out in the preliminary round of the CAF Champions League and this has been the usual occurrence for some time now, why are our clubs not competitive on the continent?

The major problem is the level of officiating; if you know you have won the league clearly and fairly without referees’ assistance, you can go out there and do well on the continent. However, the situation we have here is that most of these clubs are assisted to win the league and when they get to the Confederation Cup or the Champions League, there is no referee to help them at that level, and that’s the reason we are seeing this level of failure. If we want to solve this problem let us begin to see improvement in the performance of our referees, they shouldn’t be induced to help teams win matches so that we can have true champions that will represent us in these competitions rather than what we have at the moment.

Is that the only problem?

I have spoken about the referees; the second problem is government. Their involvement in football is not helping the game, most times some of the decisions that they take tend to ruin the whole thing because they are not professionals who understand the dynamics of the game. I think we have to be truly professional if we want to sanitise our league.

Rohr has said local players are not good enough to play in his team; do you think that is a fair assessment of the quality we have in the league? Does he come to watch the football matches?

Has he made a move concerning the issue that concerns upgrading the league? All he does is criticise the players; what has he done about the league that is of low quality? That impacts badly on the players. If the league is upgraded then the players will be upgraded. If you have good quality players in a squad, you still have to come down to the standards of the league and that’s the problem in Nigeria, we have quality players but the league is very low in quality. It is the league that’s killing the players, not the players killing the league. He has to make a move and get involved in the upgrading process.

The poor state of the league is forcing our players to obscure leagues across the world and many of the top ones even prefer to go to North African countries…

I can’t question that because the standard in North Africa is equal to the one you will get in Europe. So, anyone that leaves the Nigerian league and goes to North Africa is equally playing in Europe because the quality of the league is very high; so, that is why I said we need to upgrade our own league. When the league is upgraded, sponsors will be attracted but the lack of development of the league has made it hard for sponsors to come in.

One of the defining moments of your career is the gold medal you won with the Dream Team at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games football event. Could you recall how it happened?

The preparation was so great because the Nigeria Football Federation proved they knew their job at that period. While preparing for the tournament, we were not thinking of which teams we would meet but rather we were concentrating on how we would build our standard. Back then, the Nigerian government played a superb role in bringing that medal to Nigeria because they provided everything that would enable us to be champions and I am so happy to talk about this because there was nothing we asked for that they did not give to us. We had a highly qualified technical adviser that helped us to conquer and all hands were on deck for that gold to come to Africa. The government then instilled a lot of confidence in us by providing every little request made and they ensured nobody lacked anything; we as players had to do what was required to become champions. Can you believe such a thing can happen that from the day we started preparation to the time that we won the gold no single player complained about anything? I think that was the only time in the history of this country that we would have such a preparation. One of the things that thrilled me was that we were always speaking with the president.

Do you mean the then Head of State General Sani Abacha was always speaking with you?

Oh yes, he spoke with us before our first game against Hungary, and in-between our previous game and the coming one, Mr. President would make sure he spoke with us, can you believe that? So, tell me what else do you need to win a gold medal? We were so happy, comfortable, we were ready to do anything we could do and those things we could not even do. I am so happy anytime I talk about Atlanta 1996.

Defeating Argentina was symbolic but the victory over Brazil in the semifinal was more dramatic because they had beaten you earlier in the group stage, what was the dressing room like before the match?

Let me talk about myself, for example I said to myself that ‘today isn’t going to be like the last time when they beat us; we can’t come to the semifinal and lose again. Mobi, you have to do all your best to prevent another loss’. The most joyous part of playing against Brazil was that we all said to ourselves we could not lose this game, we were unanimous in our determination, we decided we had to change the story for Nigeria and Africa. There were people in the dressing room who gave us so much confidence and that was what brought us to that level even while we were losing we were not under pressure; you could see the way we were moving the ball, the way we were building our play despite trailing our opponents because we knew we were fitter and stronger and more determined than the Brazilians. And then, we thought about the support we had, we never wanted to disappoint anyone, and that motivated us. Let me tell you, the kind of support we received during that period, I don’t think any Nigerian side can enjoy such again.

You spoke about how General Abacha was motivating you, could you recall what he told you guys after defeating Brazil and as you headed for the final against Argentina?

The man was something else; he said ‘for you to beat almighty Brazil, to all Nigerians you have won the whole world. I don’t care about what you play in the final against Argentina, the whole Nigerians are in a different mood now, so go out there and enjoy yourselves against Argentina. I would be waiting for you at home, Nigerians are eager to have you back. Gentlemen, go and enjoy yourselves.” So, the man did not even ask us to win our last match, but we knew we had to win this for him and all Nigerians.

The experience in Atlanta was a sweet one but Nigerians expected you guys to repeat such a feat at the 1998 FIFA World Cup in France but it ended in a fiasco as the team crashed out in the round of 16. What went wrong?

Thank you for bringing up this question and I will give you the correct account of what happened. After the World Cup qualifiers where we did very well, they opened a pre-tournament camp in Switzerland. When the first batch of players was going to camp I wasn’t called up and I was involved in all the qualifying games from the beginning till the end. And after everything, they refused to call me to the camp in Switzerland. But some Nigerians started complaining about me not been in the camp then the NFF had to make a way for me to be in Switzerland. When I got there I saw a lot of people that were not supposed to be there; they were not even involved in the qualifying games. I wasn’t happy with the caliber of players I saw because some of them were injured and when a player is injured, he is of no use but that was not what happened in camp, I was shocked because we had young and very good players who were fit but they were not invited. That was the worst scenario I had seen all my life in football. You deliberately left out young, fit players who were doing well in their clubs and chose to go with old legs who were injured and were not even part of the team again. It was shocking. A lot of people were involved in that sham; when Abacha died, they sacked Philippe Troussier and brought Bora Milutinović who knew nothing about Nigerian football or Nigerian players. Fanny Amun was there as the Secretary-General and everything and made decisions that would hurt Nigeria forever. That ’98 World Cup I was thinking if we didn’t get to the final at least we would reach the semifinals but the NFF killed that dream because of one or two people. Maybe they wanted to make one or two people happy but in football you don’t make people happy to the detriment of everybody. If you have a team that plays good football and gets the results, that’s when you are happy. You are to do the right thing even though people will criticise you; when the result comes these people will clap for you again.

There were insinuations that there was a high level of indiscipline in camp, that players fought over money on the night of the round of 16 match against Denmark, how true is this?

Like I said earlier, the main problem in camp was bringing in old and injured players and then leaving out young players that were vibrant and fit to play in the World Cup; that was just the problem. I was one of the youngest players in camp and there was no way I could get involved in such an argument. What I saw was the worst that can apply in football and it’s nothing to talk about.




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