When the news first broke, weeks back that Soccer Icon, Segun Odegbami was going to be 70 soon, many found it hard to believe. The news came as a pleasant surprise, perhaps because the gangling striker had always kept a youthful look and a sprightly physique, which gave him that refreshingly fresh image.
Of course, Mathematical Odegbami, has been around forever, playing football from his days in Jos, and Ibadan up to the National Team. But many just couldn’t imagine that the veteran footballer had gone far in age and was ageing gracefully. So, it wasn’t noticeable.
A few days ago, he turned 70 and all hell literally was let loose as friends and admirers bombarded his phone with calls and text messages until one of his phones crashed. It was when the phone calls and messages kept coming in torrents that he suddenly realised that vast majority of people appreciate his contributions to Sport development in Nigeria, especially football. He got messages from the President, Governors, ex-Governors, Ministers and many unexpected quarters all wishing him a happy birthday. And guess what? The birthday wishes have not stopped, as many of his friends and groups are begging to host him to lunch or dinner, all to celebrate this living legend.
How does he feel at 70? What are his reflections on life at 70? These and many more were the questions City People wanted to ask Segun Odegbami when we met him at his Lagos home for a 70th Birthday interview.
When we were ushered into his presence we met a spritely tall iconic football star who is still in high spirits. Nothing about him showed his new age. Over the years he has managed to keep a great physique. He is still the tall and well built Sportsman that he has always been. Yes, he is a footballer, but he no longer plays football. He has switched to playing Lawn Tennis daily. And he spends more time Online, writing and promoting Sports. He never ceases to remind you that he is a Sportsman devoted to promoting Sports.
He now has a Sports radio, located in Abeokuta, Ogun State, called Eagle 7fm Sports Radio. He presents a daily programme. Thought his Sports radio is in Abeokuta, he monitors it on his telephone.
How has he been able to maintain his figure? He says regular exercise and healthy living. He takes only Breakfast and dinner. He skips Launch. And he does not miss his regular game of Tennis which he plays vigorously, to keep fit. He enjoys the company of his old friends and members of the Sporting fraternity.
Over our cups of coffee, we sat down to talk about the joys and pains of turning 70. And Segun Odegbami confesses: I am just beginning to feel 70. For me Age is only a Number. Enjoy Segun Odegbami at his best. Below are excerpts.
How did you react to the fact that you are now 70?
I just woke up and people were congratulating me. It took a while before it settled in my head that I’m now 70, for my thinking to wrap itself around number 70. The people that get to 70 are very old people. When my father was 57, I visited him in Gombe, and then he told me his age. I was a young boy then in secondary school. Then he told me he was 57 and I looked at him that how can you be that old? 57 is now a long time ago. At 57, I was a boy. You see, it just creeps up on you unexpectedly like a thief in the night. You have to just accept it that you are an old man. But I refused to accept it until I saw the level of appreciation, the tributes and the messages. I did not even plan to do anything. My children in the UK wanted to come so that we can have a family thing. But I couldn’t go for various reasons and I thought I just want to come and stay with Tito and his brother at home. Then the messages started pouring in and the calibre of people that started sending those messages. There was a full page newspaper tribute that was paid for by the Ogun State Governor, Prince Dapo Abiodun, a man I hardly met twice since the time he became governor. Then, I got greetings from former President, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo.
He called me on phone and was singing happy birthday to me. And some former governors started sending in their messages. This went on and on until my phone crashed. And I said wow! So there’s this amount of goodwill for me. What did I do? I haven’t done anything. The only thing I did was probably about forty something years ago. So is that what is sustaining all these goodwill and others? Friends have come around to hold a party for me here. When I went to Ileogbo this past week to do some work, people I didn’t know from anywhere put up an incredible party. They took me totally by surprise. I went into the hall, inside the Lekelanre Academy, to my surprise, the guy had lined up 12 Obas from that environment. They were led by the Olu of Iwo and all other Obas. The whole community was rejoicing to have me around them. There was music, food, drinks, cakes and everything to celebrate me. There I was thoroughly humbled by the experience. Also, there was another event held for me few days ago. And many people have been calling to say ‘we want to host you here and there ‘ So it has been humbling. I have not done anything. I am struggling to survive the hard and harsh economic situation of the country. Partying was the last thing on my mind. Finally with all these amount of goodwill, I’m less afraid of the age of 70. And I’m embracing it now. I woke up the next day and nothing changed. I still play my Tennis, I still take my coffee, I still do my exercise and I still do my work. So it’s to me a number. 70 is just a number. I’m so grateful to my creator for giving me the grace of whom I have been. I don’t have stresses or tensions. I’m blessed in many ways. I’m so grateful. 70 is nothing to me anymore but I know we are getting older and older and closer and closer to that inevitable end. One should leave out the issues of tomorrow and do everything today and so those are the lessons.
How would you relate when you clocked 65 with now that you are 70?
Those numbers didn’t bother me. To me, they didn’t exist. I have never been bothered about it. I don’t think about it. In my brain, I’m still a young person because I do everything that I have been doing before. For example I go to play my Tennis which is my major yardstick. I don’t play with my age mates. I usually play with top tennis players in Ogun State. I play with the top players in Ikoyi Club. I play with the top players everywhere. And people would be asking, why are you playing so vigorously? That’s the only thing I know. It has nothing to do with age. The things that I do, I still do. Yet there are cracks here and there in my joints. Those things are normal. Health wise, I thank God even though I’m going through a few things like high blood pressure. But I’m taking my drugs. Naturally you get to certain age they warn you about your prostrate. Yet I take my medicine, everything, otherwise I’m fine. So the age has just come and gone. I don’t think about it until recently when I started seeing this flood of messages congratulating me. Till now, I’m still receiving them. Some people have really been great, the former Governor of Ogun State, Senator Ibikunle Amosun whom I have not spoken to in years. I didn’t even think we had a wonderful relationship that we have had before after he left government. I didn’t even think we had any relationship. Of course you know I contested then and that must have created some animosity of some sort. That’s what I think then, but he wrote me a beautiful letter. He now included a cheque in it again. And I said this is unbelievable. So this thing has been positive in my life and I just thank God for it.
How would you describe your football career?
Yes, I stopped a little bit earlier than I should have. But as for me, as far as I was concerned, I was disillusioned to failure; inability to achieve what was just there for me to take. If we had won at the cup in 1984, the African Clubs’ Championship which no Nigerian team has won before which was our big dream, we were on the verge of winning it when I sustained an injury at the semifinal stage and they had to put me through the most excruciating painful treatment you can ever imagine. For a week, everyday it’s like going to hell and coming back with the nature of treatment I was receiving just to get me to shape to be able to complete the championship. The only match I could manage to play was the final match. I was not even half fit but I have to do it. If we had won, without question, I would have been declared the African best player because I was playing throughout that year. That was my best year in terms of my career. I knew what I was doing. Rashidi Yekini was in the team with me. He was scoring goals, I was scoring goals. Then he was very young and suddenly we just collapsed at home. The nature of the collapse had spiritual connotations. Nobody thought that we would not win because they had gone to extra ordinary length to consult with the false gods that assured them that we didn’t need to do anything that we would win. We were celebrating even before we played. They were exhorting all these metaphysical aides. And you can’t take the glory of the creator and give it to mammon. So we were taught a big lesson and that eased my pain because if we had won, so many of us would have given credit to people that do not deserve it and our lives would now have been fashioned to believe that those people have some extra ordinary power when they have nothing. So it was a lesson for us. It was very painful for me. I lost everything. I didn’t win. I didn’t become the best player. I didn’t win the cup. I had an injury. So I just took my shoes and threw them away. And that was the last time I ever played.
Did you have any regret quitting football so early in your career?
When I first retired in 1982 as a result of the frustration of not qualifying for the world cup, the year after in 1983, I registered a football Club which is still active till today. It’s the first professional club in Nigeria. I registered it formally with the CAC and with the Nigerian Football Association to participate in the Nigerian league competition. The name of the club was The Soccer Ambassadors. We actually invited a team from Ghana because the NFA took me to task that nobody would play in Nigeria because there were no professional football in the country then. They said nobody would play. Then I started to gather retired players, the likes of Christian Chukwu, Taiwo Ogunjobi, I collected quite a lot of them and took them to Ibadan. We played against Leventis United or something like that and the NFA went after me. They said I couldn’t play association football with my professional club. So I started indoor football. I introduced it to the country. I came to the National Stadium in Lagos, paid for the hall. I designed the 7 aside football pitch inside the indoor sports hall and played series of matches. And that’s how we started the indoor football in Nigeria for the first time. Meanwhile I was taking on the NFA. Meanwhile all of that stopped when I went back to start playing the game again. I was brought back by late Chief Adisa Akinloye, Chief Lekan Salami and others. They wanted me to come back and play. So I came back and played and when it didn’t work out, I now finally left. But those were great years, great memories. So I was really satisfied with football. I didn’t miss it at all.
You have also expressed your love for Tennis, how did that start?
Even as a football player, I was playing Tennis in Ibadan. On weekends I would go to the Liberty stadium with friends and we would play Tennis all day when we did not have matches to play. So I have always loved Tennis. It’s just my alternate sport. I know how to play it and I enjoyed playing it. Since then I kept playing Tennis up till now. I enjoy it. You know when you had a good game of Tennis; you get all the exercises you need. It’s hurtful to the knees but I don’t care. Golf is too slow for me, walking is too slow for my heart. So I need something that is more rigorous. I still play Tennis. Although I believe that I would soon stop and take to another sport but for now I still play Tennis.
When you look back at your life at 70, how do you feel?
My life has been very fulfilling. The football aspect of it is the reaction of Nigerians I find fulfillment, I didn’t play for too long. But for the period I played, I’m very much appreciated. I have been rewarded with things I never dreamt of which have remained part of my life till date. I never won the best footballer in Africa award. That was the one that hurts a little. Not qualifying for the world cup also hurt me. Since I stopped many decades ago, my life has been from one adventure to the other. It was a very interesting and challenging adventure. They totally engaged me. They have kept me busy. They have kept giving me experience you can never get in the classroom, in the market place or even on the football pitch. They still sustain me up till now. Depending on the subject matter, what I always say is that I’m not an authority because I did not go to any institution to study them. But I’m experienced and I have applied those experiences and they are invaluable now. They are my own lessons. It’s been fascinating. I wanted to go back to school to go to UNILAG to study Philosophy. I had a conversation with a professor friend there and he said Segun, don’t bother, what you know is enough for application to your life. So I’m in sport, I’m in education. I’m on business and so I’m also heavily into the media. Not the general media but in the sports media. There’s nothing I have not covered in the media. So without going to school of Journalism or studying Mass Communication they invite me to come and deliver lectures and talk to practitioners in that field . I do this from the position of one who has been in the field. Those are the things I sell up till now. So my life after football has been lots of adventure. And I’m creating it for myself without competition. The sports industry and the scope it covers are such that there are no antecedents. There are no people who have done it before to now compare me with. I was the first person that started private independent television production in the area of sports. I’m one of the first people who went into publishing when it comes to sports. I’m not talking of reporting sports in a newspaper. I’m talking of a sports newspaper. I’m one of the first people to write a book on sports. I’m even one of the first people to go into radio on sports. Not only that one, but also using radio to drive the programme and cover events. I worked with the BBC as a consultant analyst during some international events. So I have vast experiences across the spectrum of sports without getting anyone from the walls of an institution.
How do you feel when you wake up in the morning and you think of Nigerian Football, where we are and what we haven’t achieved?
Nigeria is a country of missed opportunities. Even outside of football, we shouldn’t be where we are. We have the resources all around us and we all know this. The potential for Nigeria to be great is humongous. And yet we are squandering our riches. We are so engrossed in self aggrandizement. We had good, visionary leaders in the past and they continue to fade away, they were replaced by those who started thinking about themselves and accumulating wealth for themselves. They corrupted all the whole system and turned all of us into accomplices. It is huge incorporation of corruption system inside our lives to the extent that here we are; one of the poorest countries in the world instead of being one of the richest. That reflects in our sports. Nigeria wasted so many opportunities. Where there are few people who struggle to create a better future, those who would sabotage and make it not to work for their own benefits are the majority. We are playing catch up with those who don’t have heart of patriots of common good. It is the few that have the vision that are bent on sacrificing their time, their resources and their lives in getting things done. I could have stayed back abroad making money. I have the opportunities. But I love this country so much. I don’t want to live outside this country. So anything I want to do, the legacy I want to leave is for the service of my country for some reasons and it has to do with my upbringing. My father who would always point at the picture of Awolowo on the wall and tell us what Awolowo was planning and doing and so on. And I still live with that kind of vision for this country. So we have missed it. We have missed the train. I don’t know how we can get back on track. Chief Awolowo’s words are haunting us forever when he said if things were not fixed at that time that was in 1986, the situation would become irredeemable. I’m not a pessimist but what I see now is almost an irredeemable situation. But I pray that we wake up from our slumber. We still have the opportunity to get back on track. The game of football could be a model, a compass or candle to show us the possibilities and the way for those who can think it, who can see it. Football is not just a game. The world cup for example is an event that lasts for one month. And the football games are the least activities done at the World Cup. The World Cup itself is a 7 year project of development. The others are about life; developing roads, developing hospitals, fixing security, fixing education, fixing their facilities, construction of their railways and so on. We need to start to see the power of sports beyond the games aspect. We need to start to appreciate sports. It is a huge global industry. We are not scratching the surface at all. There’s so much ignorance and misplace of priorities. We can engage our youths and this will impact on the society if we get things right.