It is 20 year since Nigeria won its first Olympic gold medal in football at the Atlanta 1996 Games. One of the players, who achieved the feat, Garba Lawal, tells Idris Adesina about the joy of playing at the Olympics and more in this interview
As a two-time Olympian, what is your view about the Olympics?
The Olympics is a wonderful competition to be at. I believe that every athlete wants to be at the Olympics and participate. Being an Olympian surpasses winning medals there. It is a wonderful and massive event to experience in one’s lifetime as a sports man or woman. I am very excited every time I remember that I am privileged to be at two Olympics – Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000. It gives me great pleasure to know that I achieved success in one – as an Olympic champion, while I got to the quarterfinal stage in the second one. The Olympics can just be said to be the peak or pinnacle of one’s career. The feeling one has being there is different from that of playing in the World Cup.
You were at the Atlanta 1996 Olympics and the Sydney 2000 Olympics, what is the difference between the two Games?
The difference between the two is much. At the Atlanta 1996 Olympics, we had players with great exposure and a very great zeal to succeed. Players like Jay Jay Okocha, Nwankwo Kanu, Taribo West, Teslim Fatusi, myself, Mobi Oparaku, Emmanuel Babayaro, Dosu Joseph – as goalkeepers – Victor Ikpeba, Celestine Babayaro, Abiodun Obafemi, Kingsley Obiekwu and the rest. When you see that team, you will see that it has a lot of experience. It was filled with players that can take on any country. Moreover, there were players who had played at the USA 1994 World Cup in that team – like Daniel Amokachi and the others. It was only a few of us – I and some others like me – who just came into that team. When you see that team, you know you have seen a winning team, you see a team that is together and work for each other. Despite the problems we had in camp – lots of them which were not heard outside – we still went ahead to do well. I still believe that the problem we had then and didn’t complain about was one of the reasons God gave us the victory in 1996. Despite our being a good team, we weren’t better than other countries at that Games. Brazil and Argentina, for instance had their best players there – Ronaldo was there for Brazil and Zannetti was there for Argentina. Every country was hungry to win then. But at the Sydney 2000 Olympics, there were young players too but that hunger as we had in 1996 was not really there. Nigeria had a good team in 2000 as well – young players like Pius Ikedia, Yakubu Aiyegbeni, Victor Agali, Greg Etafia, Azubuike Oliseh, Isaac Okoronkwo, Julius Aghaowa and Celestine Babyaro. But we weren’t able to go beyond the quarterfinals, where we lost to Chile. We had issues in preparing for that tournament as well but the bite was not there as we had in 1996.
At the Sydney Olympics, Nigeria lost 4-1 to Chile in the quarterfinals. Were you already looking to create another history by defending the 1996 title?
Sincerely speaking at the Sydney Olympics, I was not looking at repeating history with the team because we were sort of too relaxed at that tournament. We had the mind to only take each game as it came and if we play in the final, good, and if not, still good. We wanted to give our best in each match and see if we could go far but it wasn’t to be. But the experience was good all the same.
At the Rio 2016 Olympics, there was a lot of trouble with the national team during their preparation, especially concerning money. What do you think can be done about this in the future?
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When I hear any of our players complaining about money and not being paid, I am amazed because these players are aware that the problem has been perennial with the country. The issue is not new to Nigerian football and should not be a yardstick for their performance. In 1996, we were owed a lot of money and we still turned it into a motivating force to win the gold medal. The same happened in 2000 when I had to fly down to camp two days before it opened for preparations. I flew with my own money – $6,500— to that camp and the same thing was done by Babayaro and a few other players. Till today, the money hasn’t been refunded to us and none of us complained. We didn’t allow it to stop us from giving our best at the Olympics. We saw it as a chance to make history for ourselves and the country and not as an avenue to be rich. I agree with Okocha when he said recently that Nigerian players should not expect that they can get rich playing for the national team. It is just a part-time call up that is done over the weekend and you go back to your club. I believe that the players should see the national team as an addition to their CV and let their club career be their main focus. When you play well for your club and make good money, Nigeria will call you to play for them and you won’t be bothered about being paid there or not. The glory of playing for the country is just the motivation we had and it was what kept us going back then. Although it is not a good thing for players to be owed, I believe that since the problem has become a recurring one, players should learn to complain less and do well for themselves with their clubs. Having the Olympics in your CV is a great boost for any player – just like the World Cup – it comes once in every four years and loads of players want to be there before you got the chance. So players should expect anything when called to play for the national team and they should see any challenge as a driving force to success in the game. Till date we are heroes because we didn’t allow the challenge we saw in 1996 to set us back on our way to winning the gold medal.
How did you feel watching the last Olympics on TV?
The feeling was fantastic. It brought back memories. Most of the memories were from the 1996 Olympics. I remember that I was once at that stage on the road to making history with my teammates. At times, I go to Youtube to watch clips of our matches in Atlanta and I smile. I realise that then we played like machines. We were very united in the face of all the challenges and I am proud that I was a part of that team.
Having played at two Olympics, how do you rate the quality of football at that level?
Olympic football is good and it is just being a little different from being equated to the World Cup. At the Olympics there are different sports that you will even wonder how some of them came about. Some of them you have not even heard about in Nigeria. Just as great players want to play at the World Cup every four years is the way they also want to play at the Olympics. Every player wants to be at the World Cup, same thing for every athlete – not just footballers – they want to be at the Olympics.
Where is your Atlanta 1996 gold medal now?
The medal is still with me. I have it and every time I see it, it brings back good memories.
Have you ever thought of selling the medal?
Not at all. I haven’t thought of that for a moment. Can the Olympic medal even be sold? I don’t think so. Even if it can be sold I have not had any cause or reason to say I want to sell my medal. That medal tells a lot of stories and it brings back a lot of memories to me. Selling it will be like taking out a part of me.
Do you have any regrets about the two Olympics you attended?
I have no regret at all, even in my career as a footballer, I have none. Since I have known that football is a game where you win some and lose some and even draw some, I have come to accept any result in good faith. So rather than have regrets, I pick the lessons in it and move on to the next thing that needs to be done. There are more memories to cherish in my career and the Olympics I attended than to have regrets. I am even lucky to have attended the two Olympics I attended.
What will be your word of encouragement to other athletes who want to become Olympians?
They should be focused and dedicated. Distractions should be avoided. Although being at the Olympics is good but competing and winning makes the feeling sweeter. Those who have won one thing or the other for Nigeria are proud of it today. So anybody who wants to represent Nigeria – be it at the Olympics or other competitions – should realise that the money will come later but they need to achieve that dream with all they have got.
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