Danish players feared we would beat them silly at France ’98 — Lawal
Ex-Super Eagles midfielder, Garba Lawal, a veteran of the 1998 and 2002 World Cups, recalls his Mundial experiences in this interview with ’TANA AIYEJINA
The World Cup
Playing at the World Cup is the highest, the very best. You get bunch of talented and skillful players coming from each country to showcase what they’ve got. If you are looking for any quality of players at the World Cup, they are all there; it’s like the football market. That’s why you see players crying when they are injured and can’t play at the World Cup, or when their countries do not qualify. It comes once in four years. Even if you are fit, it’s just a 23-man squad representing each country and you may also miss out. And if you miss out, you need another four years to get the chance again. The World Cup is special. The Olympics is multi-sports, yet everyone can’t make it. But the World Cup is just one sport, that’s why it’s special. At the Olympics, only three over-age players are allowed for the football event but the World Cup is open to any age of players if the coach gives you a call-up.
France ’98 goal
Whenever I remember the World Cup, I remember my goal against Spain at France ’98, where I scored against a great goalkeeper, Andoni Zubizaretta. Even the Spanish was wondering how I played the ball the way I did. He was thinking I was going to make a pull-out for my teammates but I decided to shoot at goal instead because I saw the space of the keeper from his line, it was about three or four metres. So, he wasn’t expecting the ball and the only thing he could do was to push the ball inside the net. That was why after the game, he sat down on the pitch and was thinking. He knew the kind of quality he had as a keeper but he was shocked to have conceded that kind of goal. He was not bothered by Sunday Oliseh’s third goal, that could beat any keeper, but the costly mistake he made that led to my goal. After scoring, I fell down and I got up and started running towards the supporters but the late Rashidi Yekini ran after me and was telling me in Hausa that I should come back but I got carried away; I thought they were our supporters. When I raised my head, I realised they were Spanish supporters. And Yekini said, ‘I told you to come back. Those people are not our supporters’. That’s the best squad I’ve ever seen, they were just unlucky; we had a fantastic squad. From the bench to the starting 11, we had great players. I feel great and honoured playing amongst those players.
We lost 3-1 to Paraguay because we had qualified from our group and decided to change the team. It was me, Oliseh, Taribo West and Peter Rufai who were the only players that had played the first two group games.
We felt Denmark could not match us. We had not finished the work on our hands but were thinking of the one after. Michael Laudrup and some of his teammates told me and Tijani Babangida in Dutch, ‘We know you guys are going to win the game but please, don’t score too many goals against us’. But we were thinking of playing Brazil in the quarter-finals after beating them at the 1996 Olympics. That’s how we lost 4-1 against the Danes and we crashed out.
Players’ exclusion from 2002 World Cup
I believe it affected us. That team was built by the late Shuaibu Amodu and Stephen Keshi. If that squad was kept, we believed that we could have gone far. The squad was made up of very young players like John Utaka, Bartholomew Ogbeche, Julius Aghahowa, Femi Opabunmi, James Obiorah, Justice Christopher and several others. But I believe that the mistake was caused by the NFF (Nigeria Football Federation) because if you start a fresh team, it takes time for the players to adjust. At the World Cup, experience counts; that’s why we didn’t even get to the second round. Whether you like it or not, it affected the team. Fine, we had young players, but we needed experience too. I think that affected us. When we came back, Nigerians were not too worried because they knew we went to the World Cup with an inexperienced team. They knew we had a young team which needed time but we didn’t have enough time before the World Cup.
It was at France ’98 and it was a privilege to play alongside great players like Oliseh, Jay Jay Okocha, Daniel Amokachi, Taribo West, Babangida, Finidi George, Uche Okechukwu, Celestine Babayaro, Austin Eguavoen, Ben Iroha, Rufai, Victor Ikpeba, Yekini, Mutiu Adepoju and a lot of other great players. It was fantastic being among these players.
France ’98 and Korea/Japan experience
The difference playing at France ’98 and Korea/Japan ’02 was togetherness. The 1998 players were together for a very long time. Some of us like Babangida, Taribo and Kanu started from Mauritius ’93 African Youth Championship. From there, we had the Olympic team before we played at France ’98. So, you could see the difference. I played for Julius Berger alongside Taribo in 1993; Kanu was at Iwuanyanwu Nationale at that time. We were playing in the same league. So, you can see the understanding, togetherness of the 1998 team. And the quality players in 1998 and 2002 were not the same. The calibre of players would scare you when you were first invited. I remember Ade Akinbiyi, he was excellent in the English Championship and he was invited to camp for the 2000 AFCON. But when he saw the camp, he didn’t even train. He honoured the invitation and went back to England because he was new. Which position was he going to play? He knew there was no chance. Akinbiyi didn’t even touch the ball in camp. He came in the night, came for breakfast in the morning and then back to England. That’s the difference between the Eagles of my time and the Eagles of today. Then, every department had about two quality players each. It was fantastic playing in those squads.
From our camp in Switzerland, there was no interference till the end of the 1998 World Cup. We had no issues. Even at Japan/Korea, we had a young team but we didn’t have issues with the officials.
There’s none. Whether you like it or not, you win some and lose some.
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