Former Nigeria midfielder Femi Ajilore, a 2008 Olympic Games silver medallist, talks about being part of the Nigeria U-23 side that won silver in the football event of the Beijing 2008 Olympics, in this interview with ANTHONY NLEBEM
How’s life been on retirement?
It has been good but there are a few challenges. The challenges are just Nigerian factors, like you have a lot of things you want to do especially for the grassroots, but when you have facilities challenges, it becomes difficult to implement these programmes. But we have been managing the few available facilities and resources.
As a retired footballer, what are you doing now to discover younger footballers to stardom?
I retired officially in 2017 and we started our academy in 2019. We have been training young talents and hope to do more. But our biggest challenge, like I said earlier is the facilities, though we have one that we are using, it costs so much. But we are hoping to have our facility to help us to develop these young lads. Despite the challenges I mentioned earlier, I have been working with grassroots football, kiddies football and others too. I have an academy which I manage and also have a few coaches I employ because I can’t train these young lads alone. I discovered that most of these kids don’t start early enough and that was what gave birth to what we are doing. We think it’s important to catch them young, to teach them the basics, especially at their tender ages, and thank God that some of them are growing very well. About three of them have been to England for trials, and even at a young age, they discovered they have the potential of becoming great players and that has given us a lot of courage to keep doing what we are doing, to see that these young lads become greater stars for the future.
The Super Eagles haven’t been as impressive like when you played. What do you think is responsible?
There are many factors responsible for that, but from what I have seen so far, I can only highlight three areas that are the issues. One of the major factors is our league. If our league is not doing well, the players that are supposed to be discovered will not be discovered. And if we are not discovering talented players in our league, then it might be difficult to bring them to the national team. That has reflected on our national teams, we have a lot of overseas-based professionals, but most of these professionals are not players that develop right from our league. But if we have these players discovered here and still end up playing in Europe, representing Nigeria will be different from the players that are trained in Europe. Secondly, I think our grassroots is another challenge, you think of the number of players that we have and some don’t start at tender ages, which sometimes lead to age discrepancies. Maybe at age 24 when they are supposed to be at their top level, it’s when they are learning the basics, which is not the best. Thirdly, the facilities have been a huge challenge, Nigeria is known for football, but how many facilities do we have for local footballers? I have been privileged to train many young stars at the stadium, and using the facility at the stadium is a big problem. The people managing the stadium always demand for money to train these kids at the stadium. At the moment, we are not allowed to train at the stadium.
How can the Eagles become super again?
As I said earlier, some of the issues I highlighted should be taken into consideration and for our overseas-based professionals, it’s also a technical issue. There is a need for the national team coach to have a continuation from the one we have. We have a lot of great players playing abroad and are doing well at their respective clubs. So, if they cannot replicate this form for the team, then something is wrong. One of the biggest problems is the technical aspect. If we have a united technical crew, who has the ability to motivate and mobilise these players, we will get the results.
What’s your idea of Nigerian and foreign coaches?
We have indigenous coaches that are sound and can take up the national team job if given the opportunity to do so. But if we must have a foreign coach, then he must be sound and must know the ability of every player. Knowing that a player is playing for a big club and bringing him to the national team and just playing him is not the best approach. He must know the strength of those players and these are the qualities some of our local coaches have. There are many of them out there, right from those that have represented well at the national level and have gone for coaching courses and are doing well. We need to give them the opportunity to take charge of the national teams. If we must have a foreign coach, the gaffer must be a world-class coach and not just anyhow coach. Again, we lack continuity in our national team. There is a need to have a Team B and facilities, like I mentioned earlier. When we bring our indigenous players and they don’t have a good facility to train, there is no way they can give their best. We can see this happening in recent times, our overseas-based professionals coming home, the field they play on compared to the ones at their various clubs is not of the same standard and this often affects their performances. We can see it with Victor Osimhen, scoring for the national team is very difficult, but immediately after he gets back to Europe, he scores goals. Again, I will advise that our indigenous coaches that have represented the country at various levels be given the opportunity to coach the national teams. We have seen that happen in other countries. Some of my friends that I played together with in Europe were given the opportunity to lead their national teams and they are doing well.
What’s your impression of the domestic league?
To be honest, our domestic league is not up to standard, but there is a lot of work ongoing. We have seen a few changes, which are making the league look a bit better, but if our league has to be standard, there are so many things to be considered. The sponsorship, media, facilities and security of the players and fans, who pay to watch their clubs play. If these issues are well-taken care of and fans can support their teams without violence, it will encourage the players to know fully well that their family members, friends and fans are there to cheer them up, they don’t want to disappoint, they will work hard to deliver their best. So, there is a need to focus on these issues, which can help make our league better.
On fans violence in the Nigerian league, how do you think the authorities can stop it?
It’s a huge challenge, even in Europe all these things happen, but there are standards set to control fans’ violence. But we don’t follow these standards here. The authorities should sanction any club whose fans are violent., We have seen it work in Europe, but in our case, if the home fans misbehave at their homeground, in the next game you still see these same fans at the stadium. Nigerians are so passionate about football and we have some die-hard fans who have placed a bet on their teams, and the only way they can vent their pain is being violent, which we don’t want. But I believe we can beef up security at the stadiums to protect the fans, players and match officials.
What fond memories of playing for the national team do you have?
I have so many fond memories of most of the games I was privileged to play. I can’t forget the Beijing 2008 Olympics football final, which is one of my biggest moments because playing in a stadium of 90,000 capacity was amazing. Although we lost the final, getting the silver is like winning the gold. But winning the gold would have sealed the dream for me. Also, helping Nigeria qualify for the 2010 World Cup was another memorable moment for me. All the same, I feel so good each time I look back at the period I played for the national team.
Do you hope to go into coaching?
Yes, I have taken a lot of coaching and management programmes. These are some of the reasons I have been taking coaching education. I would love to be a team director or manager, but I will always remember one thing my coach in Europe will always say to us, “every football player is a potential coach provided you have passion for it.” I don’t want to do it for fun, I want to do it at a professional level.
Is it true that some players use juju in football?
I have never had any experience regarding that even while playing at the national level. I have not experienced any form of juju with the people I was privileged to play with in the national team and also playing in Europe. But I will not say juju does not exist in football because we keep hearing that.