Garba Lawal is every coach’s player. Once he broke into the national team, Lawal’s industry, versatility, and commitment to duty earned him a regular national call up and he remained a permanent feature in the Super Eagles throughout his international career that spanned over a decade. He spoke with Jacob Ajom.
Garba Lawal began his football career in the back streets of Kaduna with a grassroots club, Shooting Stars Club of Abe in the 1980s. He told us his story:
“I started playing football at the same time as Tijani Babangida and Daniel Amokachi because we grew up in the same neighborhood. We used to play behind the Ahmadu Bello Stadium, Kaduna. One senior player of the United Nigerian Textiles Limited(UNTL) Kaduna, Sani Nagogo used to come and drill us as a coach.
He was a fantastic player himself and very popular then. I watched him play in the National League against clubs like Leventis United, Mighty Jets of Jos, among others. He could play both right or left flank. He trained us and at some point, I was spotted by officials of Nigeria Universal Bank Football Club, Kaduna. I joined them in 1989.
We were playing in the national Challenge Cup in 1991 when Mr Rasheed Balogun who was scouting for Julius Berger FC of Lagos spotted me. He came to Kaduna and formalized my release. That was how I joined Julius Berger FC of Lagos in 1991. I played there until 1994.
I moved to Esperance of Tunisia from Berger. When I got to Esperance, they had already won the African Champions League. I was involved in the Super Cup match against Motema Pembe and I scored the winner. That was my first continental trophy, the 1994 CAF Super Cup. I stayed at Esperance till the Atlanta ’96 Olympics. After the Olympics, which Nigeria won, I moved to Roda JC Kerkrade of Holland. I left the Dutch club in 2003 to Levski Sofia in Bulgaria from where I moved to a club in Portugal in 2004. In 2005 I moved to Iraklis Heracles in Greece and from there to China where I retired in 2007.”
Garba’s international career was blossoming with the Nigerian national team, the Super Eagles.
“At the international level, I attended four Africa Cup of Nations tournaments – Ghana/Nigeria 2000, Mali 2002, Tunisia 2004, and Egypt 2006. We won one silver and three bronze medals. We almost won the 2000 edition in Lagos but luck was not on our side as we lost to the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon in front of our home crowd at the National Stadium, Lagos. It was a painful and controversial loss because Victor Ikpeba’s penalty was wrongly ruled out, as no goal. We all believed we were robbed because even if the center referee had made a mistake with a wrong call, his assistants should have corrected him.
I attended two World Cup tournaments; France ’98 and Korea Japan 2002. All these tournaments remain indelible in my memory.
Are you disappointed that you couldn’t win the Africa Cup of Nations after four attempts?
Not at all. Although football is all about winning trophies, in football too, you either win or lose. With one silver and three bronze medals, I don’t think it was a bad record. The most painful miss was the Ghana/Nigeria 2000 tournament we played the final in front of our home fans and the referee bungled everything. I repeat we were robbed. Although referees are human beings who cannot be infallible. No one is above mistake
Do you think if there was VAR like you have today, that goal would have been disallowed?
Maybe not. Even VAR does not always get it right. At times I disagree with VAR’s decisions. I have seen some controversial decisions by VAR because it is still handled by human beings. The joy in all this is that there is everything to be proud of. Playing for your country is the dream of every player. I played among players who were supremely gifted and who were always encouraging me not to be afraid. Players like Victor Ikpeba, Kanu, Jay Jay Okocha, Tijani Babangida; Amokachi, Rashidi Yekini, Finidi, among others were always encouraging me. When we were playing, we were like a family. It was wonderful playing with them
How did you get your first call up to the national team?
Late coach Amadu Shaibu gave me the first invitation to the national team in 1997. We had just won the Olympics and some of us were drafted to the senior national team in 1997. I think my first match was against Kenya in the World Cup qualifiers.
When did you score your first goal for the Eagles?
My first goal was against Burundi in 1999. We played that match in Abeokuta, which we won. It was gratifying scoring for the national team.
Which African team provided you with the stiffest opposition?
I believe we were the best, despite the fact that we could not win the Africa Cup of Nations. We were just unlucky. There were a lot of good teams like Ghana, Senegal was strong, Cameroon and Morocco were also strong. Egypt to have always been there. I had no fear for any particular team because I felt we were the best.
Lawal’s most memorable goal for the national team.
At France ’98 FIFA World Cup, the second appearance at the global stage for the Super Eagles, Nigeria had a remarkable showing. Although the team could not be compared with Nigeria’s squad to USA ’94, the Eagles still left footprints of a growing giant in world football. Grouped alongside Spain, Bulgaria and Paraguay the Super Eagles shocked the world in their group opener against Spain as the Nigerians ran away with a hard-fought 3-2 victory. On the score sheet for Nigeria was Mutiu Adepoju, Sunday Oliseh, who scored a screamer and Garba Lawal, whose trickery and quick thinking had the better of captain Andoni Zubizarreta who was in goal for Spain.
“That remains my most memorable goal for the Super Eagles. I know I scored a fantastic goal against Ghana in the Ghana-Nigeria 2000 AFCON, the goal against Spain in France ’98 remains the most historic and most remarkable in my career,” Lawal said.
He continued, “the goal against Ghana, was also very good because I took the shot from about 18 meters away and it gave us victory. But the World Cup goal against a goalkeeper who was touted as one of the best in the world before the tournament, gives me special satisfaction. Any day Peter Rufai sees me, he jokes about me retiring the Spanish goalkeeper.
When I got the ball from Rashidi Yekini, I dashed from the far left towards the edge of the box. Yekini who passed the ball to me expected a square pass or a cutback to him and even the goalkeeper noted I was in a tight angle, which he thought he had covered very well. I sold a dummy, which made him think I was going to pass the ball to another attacker or at best do a cut-back. Knowing he was in that state of mind, I exploited the moment and decided to try a shot at goal. I did and it turned out to be a clever flick which the goalkeeper tried to catch but ended up pushing it inside his own net. He was beaten hands down. It was an embarrassing moment for him because he was seen as one of the best goalkeepers in the world. He has not forgiven himself for conceding that cheeky goal. He feels he should not have committed such a howler which gave Nigeria victory.”
You traversed the globe playing football. Where would you say left you with the best memory?
I had my best football in Holland, while I was playing for Roda JC Kerkrade. I learned a lot about their football methodology, philosophy, tactical discipline, and versatility. You know professional football is very difficult and one’s ability to understand and adapt to what the coaches impart in one makes it easier. Even among coaches in Europe, Holland offers special lessons in football, and that makes most of them go there on courses to get a better understanding of the game. I played there for about six years so I learned a lot. That is where I had my best moments in football.
In the national team, Garba Lawal was every coach’s dream midfielder as all the coaches that handled the Super Eagles were always fielding you. Why do you think the coaches liked you so much?
It had to do with the methodology of the coach. Being a utility player is the making of a coach. It is the coach’s method and how he uses the player.
I believe it had to do with what the coaches wanted. It is a coach’s tactical approach to a game that determines the type of players he would use for any match. And as a player, your ability to interpret a coach’s plan on the field makes him like you. Coaches stick with players who can help them achieve their goals. Coaches see such a player as being tactically disciplined. If you, as a player, were advised not to move beyond a certain limit on the pitch and when you get there you go haywire, or get carried away, a coach would not like it, particularly when things go wrong. He won’t be happy with you because he would feel betrayed as you did not carry out his experiment. Who knows, maybe he wouldn’t have lost the match if you played to instruction. As a player, discipline is paramount.
You had a lot of coaches in the national team, Amodu Shaibu, Phillipe Troussier, Johannes Bonfrere( who took you to the Olympics), Bora Milutinovic, Adegboye Onigbinde, and Austin Eguavoen. Which of them would you say was your most favorite?
I enjoyed all of them. I cannot say this was good or that was bad because I did not employ them.
I remember Troussier qualified Nigeria for the World Cup but was not allowed to take you to France 1998. Did that affect the team?
No, I wouldn’t say so. Ours, as players, was to play. It is the NFF that appoints coaches and our job is to play. At France ’98 we did our best. It is unfortunate that our best was not good enough.
Some of your teammates have revealed that some of you were frolicking and \broke camp rules on the eve of the match against Denmark and that resulted in the 1-4 loss. Is that true?
I don’t know anything about that so I can’t say much. At the World Cup, every player is allocated a room to himself. Although we were all in the same hotel, it was not possible for one to know what the next person was doing in his own room. I don’t know from where those stories about players carrying women came about. I was only angry at myself for losing that match. I thought we lost because maybe we didn’t play well enough to achieve a better result. I know football is about teamwork, but I did not attribute the loss to anybody than myself. I do not know about others. The most consoling thought I had was that in football, like in real life, you win some and you lose some. You cannot win all the time.
Can you compare the present Super Eagles squad and the Eagles of your day?
“You cannot compare the two. We had quality players then. When one moved forward, there was always an extra man behind who would cover one’s back. When you moved you were doing that with confidence because there was always someone behind your back. We had world-class players like Yekini, Amokachi, Okocha, Kanu, Finidi. You can’t compare because the difference is very clear. You are a journalist who should know better.
How does the new method of recruiting players born abroad to come and play for Nigeria impact on the domestic game? As a member of the NFF Technical Committee, what can you say about this?
I think this question should be directed at the NFF or the chairman of the technical committee, who is also in the NFF Executive Committee, Mr. Ahmed Fresh. I am just a member of the technical committee and I tell you something, we have not met for the past two years. At the committee level, nothing is happening as there has been no meeting for a long time now.
My opinion here cannot change anything.
To play for the national team one needs patience and one must have that luck. In Europe, for instance, their national team coaches are very strict in terms of standards. One mistake and you are out. That is why I am tempted to believe that all those players coming from abroad to play for Nigeria are doing so because they cannot match the standard of the national teams in their countries of domicile. If they could match their standards, there is no way they would say they want to play for Nigeria. Indeed, those countries would not let them go in the first place.
Why are called Chindo?
It is a traditional name given to children born with six fingers. I am called Chindo because I was born with each of my hands bearing six fingers. Although the extra fingers have been cut, you can still see the scars. In my place when you are born that way, you are given that name. It is traditional.
After retirement, what do you do today as a way of giving back to Nigeria football?
I am a coach. I handle one amateur team, Royal Stars in Kaduna. The first year we were in the national play-off but missed promotion to the Premier League because we placed second, but the second year we could not make it because of financial problems. As a private club, we could not garner enough resources for the play-off, so we dropped out. It is not easy to run a football club in Nigeria because the funding is non-existent. Only government clubs survive here.
Where do you see Nigeria football in the next five years?
I can’t say because I can only see the future of our young players who are impressing very well in Europe at the moment. That young boy in Villarreal, Samuel Chukwueze is doing very well. I am impressed and hope that he remains committed and continue to be disciplined. Another young star I see becoming great in the nearest future is Victor Osimhen who plays for Lille of France. The young man at Leicester, Wilfred Ndidi is also doing very well. There are many others I cannot recall their names at the moment. Once they continue to do well, remain focused and consistent, Nigerian will be strong.
Thanks for your time.