By MERCY JACOB
For former Nigerian international, Yisa Sofoluwe, jazz was a great motivating force that gave him extraordinary strength while on the field of play. The man popularly known as ‘The Dean of Defence’ in his playing days, revealed to TSW in an exclusive interview how music, especially jazz, propelled him to action and how his dedication to succeed in football made him to stay away from his wife anytime he had a crucial match to execute in order to give his best in the game.
The former Nigeria’s Under-17 assistant coach, also, told TSW what led to the abrupt sack of the technical crew, which he was part of, and why Nigeria has been finding it difficult to have solid defenders in her various football squad. Relax and read Sofoluwe at his best.
Who is Yisa Sofoluwe?
Yisa Sofoluwe is an ex-international footballer, a former coach of Nathaniel Football Club of Lagos, former national Under-17 assistant coach and currently, the assistant coach of Gateway Football Club of Abeokuta. I’m also working with the Industrial and General Insurance (IGI) Company of Nigeria.
Do you mean that you’re keeping two jobs, working with IGI and as well, coaching at Gateway FC?
Yes, I work with IGI; the company only released me to Gateway FC for one year. I’ll go back to IGI by December except if Gateway gets promoted to the Premier League and decides that I should remain to help them further.
Which club(s) did you play for?
I played for IICC Shooting Stars of Ibadan between 1981 and 82, and when we came back from the Under-20 World Youth Championship, I mean, Mexico ’83, I joined Abiola Babes of Abeokuta in 1984. While with Abiola Babes, we played the National Challenge Cup and emerged the runners-up. When Abiola Babes was disbanded in 1988, I joined Julius Berger FC of Lagos. I was only three months with Julius Berger before I travelled to Belgium.
While in Belgium, I played for RS Sinamiou, Winter Clark and many others. After spending many years in Belgium, I wanted to crossover to other parts of Europe, but I was denied a pass. That was when I came back to Nigeria and joined Gateway FC in 2000. When I became the captain of Gateway, we won the Challenge Cup after the final in which I scored the only goal of the match.
Did you enjoy your stay in Belgium?
It was a smooth ride at the beginning, but things went awry when Belgium mangers began to use and dump African players whenever they felt that they were no longer performing at their optimum best. They started playing some tricks and stopped paying us good money.
The first time I moved to Belgium, they were having huge spectators in their stadia during matches. But when most African players began to leave Belgium because of the bad treatment they received in the hands of their managers, the number of people that came to watch matches at the various stadia in the country dwindled drastically. The league nosedived to the extent that they began to record a-near empty stands during matches, and before they discovered what was happening, it was already too late for them to ameliorate. Little did they know that their discriminatory treatment to African players would affect their league negatively, but they got the blow after all.
When did you join the national team?
That was in 1983. We were the first set of players in Nigeria to qualify the country for Under-21 World Cup. The championship is now meant for Under-20s. It was the late coach Christopher Udumezue that invited me to the national camp and when we came back from Mexico ’83, coaches Adegboye Onigbinde and James Peter invited about seven of us from the squad to join the Green Eagles.
When did you retire from playing professional football?
I hung my boots after we qualified for the Seoul ’88 Olympics. The German coach they brought in then scattered our team, which made waves at Morocco ’88 and would have been taken en bloc to the Olympics in Seoul. I played at the Nations Cup in 1984 under Coach Onigbinde. We lost in the final to Cameroon. I also played at Morocco ’88, which we also lost to Cameroon after the goal scored by Henry Nwosu in the final was disallowed.
You were a player and now a coach, which side of the divide would you say is more tasking?
Both are different ballgames. As a player in the field of play, your utmost goal is to ensure that your team scores goals and not to concede any. But many more would be going on in the head of the coach, who would be reading the game, studying each of the players, both on his side and on the side of the opponents to know where to effect changes when necessary. Moreover, the coach is faced with the task of controlling his players and as well, dealing with the club management to ensure that things are moving smoothly. None is actually easy, but I think that the coach has more in his hands to deal with.
Why were you sacked as the assistant coach of the national Under-17 side?
It was quite unfortunate. We were relieved of our duties en masse when the team did not do well. But the fact remains that we did not start preparation for the competition early enough. We only called players to camp three months before the qualifiers kicked off. So, when we failed to qualify, we were asked to go.
When did you start playing football?
I started playing in the ’70s when I was in the primary school. I grew up in an area where stars were being produced. Great players like Muda Lawal, Haruna Ilerika and Obafemi Martins, all started from Evans Square in Ebute-Metta, Lagos, which is also where I began as a footballer.
What was the reaction of your parents when you took to football?
It was tough. My parents did not want to see me anywhere around football. They believed that football was meant for bad boys and Indian hemp smokers. If not because of my elder brother, who was also a footballer, my parents would have succeeded in driving me out of the game.
It was my brother that convinced our father to allow us to be going for practise, and when he obliged, I joined the Greater Tomorrow, a team that was sponsored by the National Sports Commission (NSC). Stephen Keshi was also a member of that team. We were in the team when Pele of Brazil visited the country in 1976 to launch Pepsi in Nigeria. I remember that we went for a programme in Ibadan and while on our way back to Lagos, we had the news of the assassination of the then head of state, the late Gen. Murtala Mohammed. While in fear of that development, we turned back to Ibadan.
What was the feeling like, meeting the great Pele as a young boy?
I was so happy. I lacked words to express my feeling then. We took pictures with him and I cherish those pictures till date. Pele was a great inspiration to us. We learnt one or two things from him when he visited the country.
There were great defenders in your days, why is Nigeria finding it difficult to raise good defenders nowadays?
In my days, we had naturally talented players, who with little training, excelled in their profession, but today, most players do not have the natural talent to play football. So, you can’t measure them with the players of my time.
Most of the players of my time were schoolboy players. We were trained right from our tender age. When you see Lionel Messi of Barcelona FC, Maradona and Jay Jay Okocha, I mean the players that began from the school and as youth, you will understand that a great wall of difference exists between them and those that just stumbled into playing football or were force by their parents to play football because of the money in the game today.
So the solution is to go back to school sports development.
It’s not that you can’t get a good defender from the streets, but you can’t compared the one you picked anywhere with the ones I call natural players. When I started playing football, I didn’t start as a defender. I was rather a striker. While I was with IICC Shooting Stars of Ibadan, I played up front until the coach drafted me to the defence. And as a naturally talented player, it was easy for me to adjust in that position.
You’re called ‘The Dean of Defence’, what brought about the sobriquet?
It was the late journalist cum football commentator, Ernest Okonkwo that gave me the nickname. He started it the day we played against Ghana in Kaduna following the way I marked out Ghanaian striker, John Barnabas. Initially, I didn’t know that I was the one he was calling the Dean of Defence until I read it in the newspapers.
Can you do other things apart from football?
I attended a training school where I learnt painting. Now, I work for IGI.
In your playing days, you must have had many fans including the female folk. How did you manage them?
I was free with my fans, but I never allowed any of them, male or female, to distract me. I was focused. I would listen to music and danced with them, but I never allowed them to derail my focus.
What about having girlfriends?
I had girlfriends, but I never went to bed with any of them. Even when I got married, my wife came to understand that once I had a match there would be nothing like sex. I believe that once one engages in sex before a crucial match, it would be difficult for one to perform very well on the pitch. Till date, I don’t compromise on that. It’s a policy I’ve lived with all my life.
Was your wife one of your friends before you got married?
Yes, she was. But when I showed interest in marrying her, it wasn’t easy for her to oblige because of the number of girls she saw around me. If you see my wife, she looks like she is my sister. So, even with many girls around, I never removed my eyes from her. And by the grace of God, we have two boys, Adewole and Adekunle. My wife’s name is Bisola.
Are you satisfied with two kids?
Well, that was the decision I took while in Europe and I don’t intend to go beyond that number.
And you think that your people are happy with that.
Who are the people you’re referring to? Are they the ones to take care of my kids and pay their school fees? Assuming that I gave up the ghost while playing football, would they take care of my children? So, I took that decision and nobody can change it. Even though I would have loved to have a baby girl, I thank God for the ones He gave to me.
How old are they?
My first son is 23 years old, while the second is 21.
Are they living in Nigeria?
My first son, Adewole, is living in Ghana, while Adekunle is in Nigeria.
What is Adewole doing in Ghana?
He is in school there.
Tell us the pranks your wife played before she accepted your marriage proposal?
I met my wife in Lagos. Looking at her, she was very quiet and she is still a quiet person. But she gave me a raw deal before she accepted to marry me. However, I came to realise that whatever that belongs to you, no matter the circumstance, must surely come to you at the right time. Before we got married, she also saw hell in the hands of many girls in my area. Some were ready to fight her because of me, but when she made up her mind to marry me, she stood her ground.
What tonic makes your marriage thick?
Understanding is the answer. I was into clubbing before I got married. I love music quite a lot, but my wife is not the party type. So, I stopped going to clubs because of her. I think that’s part of the understanding I’m talking about.
But if for any reason you quarrel with your wife, how do you settle the matter?
When the blood is still hot, I might pretend and claim that I’m right, but after a while, I will apologise to her.
Are your children interested in football?
I would say that they only play football for fun. I don’t even see any of them being a good footballer.
Any regret playing football?
None! But I must quickly add that Nigeria does not appreciate her heroes.
Where are you from?
I’m from Ogun State, from a family of seven, and I’m the third in the family.
You said that you love music so much…
O yes, I do. In fact, my best music is jazz. I love American fun jazz. In the Eagles’ camp in those days, every member of the team was aware that I love music, especially jazz. Till date, Keshi still calls me ‘Jazz man’ because of my love for the music.
Why the love for jazz?
Music, especially jazz, would always send me into the world of ecstasy, and in that state of mind, I can do spectacular things. In my playing days, if I enter the pitch after listening to jazz, I would do unimaginable things. Oh my God, it was a source of inspiration to me.