Dr Felix Owolabi, Mon: Our biggest mistake!
What it was like with Chukwu, Odegbami, Adokiye, Muda Lawal
…Winning the Nations Cup was special
…Role of schools in sports development
His modesty, humility and unassuming disposition definitely portray Dr Felix Owolabi’s background. ‘Taken’ away from his immediate family by the missionaries as a starry-eyed youth, Dr Owolabi grew through the fine tenets of Christianity under the tutelage of Catholic priests. Born in Inisha(pronounced Inisa), Osun state, in the west, Owolabi’s journey took him to Kaduna, in the north, where he grew up.
He attended mission schools, from where he was discovered as an all-round athlete as, apart from football, he was also a sprinter and middle distance runner of great promise. He, however, concentrated on football on the promptings of his games master while at the Teachers’ Training College, Katsina.
Dr Felix Owolabi burst into national limelight when, as player of Racca Rovers of Kano, he got invited to the national team. His major tournament was when he helped the Green Eagles win the 1980 AFCON. He has since retired to his private life.
He spoke with Jacob Ajom on his life, the role of schools sports in his rise to stardom. He refused to rate the Super Eagles and spoke on Gernot Rohr’s contract renewal and how Nigeria can rediscover her full potential in sports.
The phone rings and the man at the other end answers: “Hello,” confirming, “you are onto Felix Owolabi.”
When our Jacob Ajom reached Felix Owolabi(MON) for an interview, he first reacted this way:
“Ah, did you say Vanguard? How are Ikeddy Isiguzo and Onochie Anibeze?”
They are all fine. Ikeddy is no longer with us but Onochie is still here. He is the Weekend Editor.
“My warmest regard to them. It was Onochie who broke the news of Abio;a’s death to me in France. We were lodging in the same hotel in France during the 1998 FIFA World Cup. Onochie came to my hotel room in the night and told me, “they have killed Abiola.” I was shocked. It was a very sad news that changed our mood throughout our stay in France.
“Well, can we go on now?” That was how Dr Felix Owolabi set the tone for the interview. Read on.
When did you start playing football?
I thank you for the opportunity given to me to speak to your media. I am very very appreciative. For you to have picked me, you have a reason for it and I appreciate it.
In the first place I grew up in a neighbourhood, where sports was taken as part of the society. When the missionaries brought education to this part of the country, they ensured that sports was one of the attractions they used to get the youths to go to school.
I was discovered very early. As a kid, every time I was sent on an errand, I would always find one, two or three other young boys trying to form a football pitch to play football. We would come together, set the goal posts with stones or sticks, we used any object, rags, oranges or whatever, put them together to produce a ball, and the next thing was that we were on it, playing football. We would play until we would forget that we were on an errand. When we got home, our mothers would spank us very well but that didn’t stop us from doing the same thing the following day. That was how it all started.
The missionaries introduced schools because they wanted to bring their religion to the natives, they needed to lure the children, the youth. On getting to school then the youth discovered there were facilities for almost every sport; football, Lawn Tennis, basketball, even the athletics tracks were in place. The facilities were just around there for every one to do one sport or the other. It was a mission school. And that in itself, was the beginning of my life to this day. It is historical.
Incidentally, my father was a Catholic and one of those who assisted the missionaries to settle down and were accepted in my home town. As a way of showing gratitude or what some say, to payback to my dad for the role he played for their early settlement, a Reverend Father decided to pick me from my father’s house and for over 15 years, I lived with the Catholic Mission. I grew up there, and I must confess to you that I had very little knowledge of my father and mother. I was a Mass Server and had every opportunity. That was how everything started.
Incidentally, by the time I grew up I was taken to far north, I attended the same school with Inua Rigogo, the United African Nations School. We also had Aloysius Atuegbu in that school too. The school was very close to Ahmadu Bello stadium in Kaduna. It was a mission school too. That was how things started for me. As youths, we always had time to organise ourselves. Though one could say we were not well coordinated, but we were used to ourselves as one area would go to play another area.
Like if I were on Katsina Road, we would go to Constitution Road, to play against them, or we would go to Tudundawa to play against them. These are areas that people like Daniel Amokachi, Victor Moses among others grew up in. Any footballer who had lived in Kaduna before would have to pass through these neighbourhood groups. That was our own grassroots and that is how I was discovered by Kaduna Rocks Football Club. The club was owned by a federal agency, we called them Federal Geological Survey. That was how they came to take me.
By the time I got admission to go to school, I had already started playing club football. I started very early. Though I was small, I never was scared of anybody, like David in the Bible. I never feared no one because the courage was there, I had the flair and I was skillful. Whenever they had a match, they would come and pick me in their bus and I would go and play for them. Even while in the secondary school, I was playing in the Kaduna League, the Challenge Cup and we actually won a lot of laurels.
One Fatai Yusuf, who is in Abeokuta now, and one time welfare officer of the Nigeria Referees Association was my captain then. They had just finished from school and there were some other players who were also in school like me. The story has been from one point to another. That was how everything started.
I was discovered at a time I needed an avenue to explode, to really express myself. Like you have the lockdown now, and somebody from nowhere just appears to you and say come let’s go, and you follow him and you eventually find yourself in an area you never dreamed of being in the first place.
Incidentally when I got admission into the secondary school, at that time, sports, education were combined together; different from what obtains today. I went to Government Secondary School Dutsin-Ma, now in Katsina State. It used to be North Central state at that time. I learned there is a University there now, From Dutsin-Ma I went to Katsina Teachers College. There, we had a lot of sports. We went to schools sports, Challenge Cup and a lot of other competitions. In the whole core north, I was into athletics too and was very good in the 100m, 200m, and was always the last (anchor)man in the 400x100m.relay.
I was an all-rounder, and by God’s grace, even in the academics too..If you ask Dr Tijani Yusuf (he was our games master then) about Felix Owolabi, he would have a lot to tell you. During our Prize giving day, if I didn’t take a lot, I would take home at least five prizes. I was just very lucky and I must add that I had the grace of God. When I finished my TTC programme, because my result was very good, I was asked to teach in the secondary school.
At that time the state sports council brought coach Ismaila Lulu from Zaria (he was a fantastic player in his days). He was deployed from Kaduna to go to Katsina to develop football there. That was how they formed another football club in Katsina called Nasarawa Football Club. At that time, son of the former President of Nigeria, Alhaji Shehu Shagari was one of my bosses. He was in the military, he was a Major then, we were all playing together. He was our games master.. I went through a lot of training, which paid off in the long term. From there we went to Kaduna for a lot of competitions.
In the field of athletics, I was always second because there was only one boy who was always beating me. He was in Military School, Zaria where they were exposed to regimental physical training. It was a secondary school majorly for sports but ended up as military school, so in the whole of Kaduna Province and the core north, I was always second. At a point, I said let me go for football and forget about any other sport.
Club football and invitation to the national team
Kaduna Rocks were the team that made me what I am today. The club exposed me to numerous competitions like the Challenge Cup, the National League. Before one knew what was happening Racca Rovers from Kano came to me to play for them. It was from there that the invitation to play for the national team came in 1976.
At that time the national team had just returned from Ethiopia after participating in the Africa Cup of Nations. When I got to the national team, I met great people that I had been hearing about; people like the great Muda Lawal, Segun Odegbami, Christian Chukwu, Emmanuel Okala, Adokiye and a host of others who were already very popular. I didn’t know why I did not entertain any fear. I just took it as another challenge. I said to myself ‘as long as they were able to make their names here, all I had to do was to brace up, be disciplined and then follow whatever programme that was there.
The coach at that time, Father Tiko liked very young boys and he encouraged them. He liked me then because I was dedicated. I think what inspired him also was that I was coming from a team in the north that was beating big teams like Shooting Stars, Rangers and Bendel Insurance. In those days it was these three clubs that were up there. All of a sudden, Racca Rovers came from nowhere and we were beating everybody in sight. So by the time I came to Lagos and they asked me where I was coming from and I said Racca Rovers, the coach picked interest in me and he felt I must have something unique and paid special attention to me.
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That was the way I saw it, otherwise most of the players in the national team were playing for the big clubs. That was how my international journey started. We went to the Africa Cup of Nations in 1978, we came back with a bronze medal, went to All Africa Games, we won a silver medal. Meanwhile, in 1977 we played a west African tournament which we won. I was part of that team and I played a major part in that tournament. That was the beginning of Felix Owolabi at the national and international level.
My return to the west through IICC Shooting Stars
One thing about me is that I have remained focused. At a very early age, I had the opportunity to be exposed to international matches. In 1978, after the All Africa Games, we came back to Nigeria, the famous chairman of IICC Shooting Stars, late Chief Lekan Salami lured me to join Shooting Stars. That year, I wouldn’t have joined IICC but because I had spent so many years in the north, I felt I should come back home. I spent the greater part of my youth in the north and felt it was an opportunity for me to come back home. When Chief Salami approached me to make a switch to IICC Shooting Stars, I quickly jumped at the idea.
Another thing was the underlying primordial coloration of clubs in the country then: the mighty Rangers then represented the Ibo race, Bendel Insurance represented Edo or rather Midwest, while IICC Shooting Stars represented the Yoruba race. So it was not difficult to convince me to join them in 1978. The only regrettable thing was that I couldn’t play for Shooting Stars, the whole of 1978 season because I had already registered for Racca Rovers, so it was in 1979 that I started playing for Shooting Stars.
I was part of the Shooting Stars team that won the Challenge Cup in 1979. We beat Sharks of Port Harcourt at the National Stadium, Lagos in the final. Incidentally, the final goal that sealed victory for Shooting Stars in that Cup final was scored by me. It was a difficult goal because I shot from an impossible angle. In 1980, it was the year of the Africa Cup of Nations, which by the grace of God, we won. I think God gave it to us.
Although it did not come easy, we struggled for it, hard work. If you remember we couldn’t win it in 1976, came close to winning it in 1978 but because of the politics in Ghana. In 1980, we just felt that we had an advantage because we were playing at home in front of our teeming fans and all Nigerians. We needed to do everything within our powers to win it. To God be the glory, the government and the people of Nigeria, the media and every Nigerian, young, old, boy and girl stood solidly behind us and at the end of the day we emerged champions. It was not we(the team) that won it, it was Nigerians that won.
Thank you so much for this fantastic lowdown on how it all started. You spoke so much about the school system, how it worked hand-in-hand with sports development then. Let’s look back then and now. What do you think is responsible for Nigeria’s faltering steps towards sports development?
The greatest mistake Nigeria did was the scrapping of the Teachers Training Colleges, technical schools and the commercial schools. For instance, the Teachers Training Colleges were meant to teach children in the schools both academics, physical and health education(PHE or simply PE). So teachers in the training schools were specifically trained for that; to become games masters and games mistresses. A games mistress would teach a girl how to play basketball, football, volleyball, tennis and many other sports, and the games master would teach you same.
For instance, my games master at a time, when he saw that I was good in all the sports, as one who was very interested in football and identified the potential I had, he decided that I stopped other sports and concentrated on football. He told me, tomorrow, I want you to come and play football for me. That was how I started playing football. If he had not been a good teacher and a games master, and without him directing me to concentrate on football, I wouldn’t have been what I am today.
Beside that, because we had teachers who were games masters and games mistresses in the schools, sports was taken very seriously and made compulsory in all the schools. And then, on the basis of that numerous competitions were lined up for the pupils and students. We had secondary school games, even primary school games. We also had competitions at various youth levels at that time and everything was going on fine.
But today, everything has been rubbished. You find out that even in the education sector, most of the teachers who are taking on the pupils and the students are not qualified to teach. Some people went into teaching because they couldn’t get the kind of jobs they desired and found teaching job as the last resort. In our days it was not so.