Dimeji Lawal blasts: Westerhof ruined my Eagles career
Dimeji Lawal took the whole world by storm with his sublime skills and dazzling runs down the wings at the Canada’87 FIFA Under-17 World Cup. Nigeria lost in the final of that tornament in Canada after winning the inaugural edition in China two years earlier in 1985 but pundits predicted that a star was born. As expected,the fleet-footed Dimeji progressed naturally to Nigeria’s Under-20 squad,the Flying Eagles to the final of the World Youth Championship in Saudi Arabia in 1989 under coach Tunde Disu. Like vapour,the once blossoming international career of the talented lad evaporated almost immediately after he made his debut for the Super Eagles tutored by Dutchman, Clemence Westerhof.
“My international career was short because Clemence Westerhof sidelined me. That was a very big factor because I was signed by Real Madrid from Saudi 89. Westerhof was in the business of selling players but in my own case,he could not sell me. I was already sold so he brought in other players to play in my wing and unfortunately,I got injured while we were preparing for the World Cup,” Dimeji told SportingLife’s News Editor Onyewuchi Nwachukwu in an exclusive interview in Lagos last weekend. The ex-footballer also spoke like never before on other crucial issues bothering on Shooting Stars,Stephen Keshi’s new contract talks and his growing up years. Excerpts:
Shooting Stars are at the verge of returning to the Premier League, how were you able to achieve this?
I give thanks to God but it has been as a result of committment.A lot of hard work has been put into returning the team to the Premier League.We brought in a lot of professionalism and that made the difference from what was done before and luckily for us,all of us that are working together in Shooting Stars have been in the business for a very long time. So,the expertise and experience are not lacking from the chief coach to the last coach.From the general manager to me and to the boys, it’s been a lot of hard work and commitment and we thank God we are getting the desired result.
How have you used your experience as an ex-international who played in Europe to inspire the players?
Thank you very much. That’s where the experience comes into play.All the experience and knowledge I’ve gathered along the line in my career I’m trying to put it into practice at Shooting Stars.You know what happens when players have someone who has been there before guiding them.It is easy for them to tap knowledge from that player because they believe in you since you’ve been there before.
Discipline is also important and that was the first thing I introduced when I came into this team. You can play like Messi or Neymar but if you refuse to abide by the club’s rules and regulations you will be shown the way out.We believe in all our players and that has really worked a lot for us.
For our coaches,I try to ensure there are no sentiments in what they do all the time, especially team selection. We put things on the table and at the end of the day we always come to one decision that will lead us to success. So it is a collective idea and work.
Since you came, have you been able to identify the problem in the team? Why is Shooting Stars always coming up and going down?
There’s a lot of politics in Nigerian football,especially with the traditional teams. Traditional teams such as Shooting Stars,Rangers,Insurance and many others that have gone into extinction have been plaqued by internal wrangling from people who don’t know anything about football. The running of football clubs in Nigeria has been reduced to mere joke. When they don’t have people to send anywhere they send them to go and run football clubs and that is why our football is dying. You can’t see a carpentar working in a hospital as a doctor but that is what we have in our football. So it is always good to have people who have passed through a certain system to be in the position to administer, to bring in knowledge and ideas. That is why I give kudos to the present commissioner and our governor who took the right decision by appointing all of us that have the needed experience to help restore the lost glory of the club. And we are really praying that this trend of getting professionals to work at our football clubs should not be only for now. For instance,if we work so hard to bring the team back to the Premier League and another government comes in or the same government then decides it wants to take it back to mediocres, they still get the same result.That’s why the team is going up and down.
What football needs is continuity – we are building and they should allow us to finish building. It is a thing of sadness to me when I see teams like Shooting Stars,Insurance going down always and their contemporaries in other countries like Orlando pirates, Al Ahly, Zamalek waxing stronger season after season.
I think in our memo,this is one of the points we are going to let our governor know that even if we are no more there they should appoint professionals to run the club.
Osaguona Ighodaro played for Shooting stars last season. Are you surprised that he has been called up to the Super Eagles squad ahead of the Nations Cup qualifiers against Congo and South Africa?
I’m not surprised at all.You see, I have to tell you the truth. The Shooting Stars team of last season were the best in the Nigerian league in terms of quality of players but a lot of indiscipline ruined the team. There were ego clashes and at the end of the day the club crumbled.The players felt so big that they virtually refused to listen to the instruction of the coaches. On the pitch,they played what they liked and it really affected the team. When you look around the league now, majority of the star players in other clubs were part of Shooting Stars squad of last season. Mutiu Adegoke, Osaguona that you mentioned, Gbolahan Salami, Olaide, Chima and so many like that are all doing well for top teams in the Nigerian League. So what happened to them last season was pure indiscipline. They didn’t have that person with pedigree leading them. They were just doing what they liked.
I think Osaguona is doing well for Rangers because he found himself in another club where there is discipline and the leaders of that team may not give him the space to misbehave. These factors may have brought out the best in him.
What do you make of what is happening now. Barely a week to the Eagles Nations Cup qualifier on September 6 against Congo,the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF)and Stephen Keshi are still talking about contract.
Very unfortunate. Instead of consolidating on our successful outing at the last Nations Cup, it’s been crisis upon crisis. Let me tell you,it showed in our result in the World Cup because we struggled to win only one match in Brazil. How did the Eagles perform at the Confederation Cup? So what we should have done is for all of us to put our heads together and build a stronger national team but unfortunately its been crisis upon crisis. The fact is that whenever we achieve success, it’s crisis that follows.By the time they end the crisis in the NFF we’ll be restarting instead of building on the past.It’s really painful.
If you are to advise the NFF about Keshi’s contract what would you tell them?
The thing is if you want to engage Keshi, sort it out, engage him and if not disengage him and let him go.
Look at his record,if you feel that within the contract you have given him before he has done well, then give him another contract. Why make things difficult? If you think he has failed,then disengage him and get another coach it’s as simple as that.
Most of the countries that took part in the World Cup finals have either sacked or employed new coaches because they want to move to higher levels. All this Keshi this, Keshi that – I want to coach, I don’t want to coach. I think it is all rubbish.
If the NFF wants to give Keshi a contract – give him what he deserves and if you don’t want to give him a contract let him go. The issue should not be politicised because it’s going to affect Nigerian football at the end of the day.
During your time we had Nigerian players signing for big clubs but now the reverse is the case. What is responsible for this?
We must go back to the grassroots. Football should start from the colleges and neighbourhood.When I was growing up,the best schools around were the schools with standard football pitches. But today, if you go around Nigeria now, houses and shopping malls have been built on what used to be football pitches. When they are not building houses on the picthes, they erect event centres, no one is thinking about grassroots’ football again.
Every abandoned house is now a school. So, because there are facilities, talents are no longer emerging.
Now people play football because they don’t have any other thing to do,then you must have played in your school, neighbourhood and become a real talent.The likes of Keshi,Henry Nwosu, Muda Lawal came out of their neighbourhood. Everybody knew that they will be stars.These are the kind of talents scouts from Europe are looking for. They scout for real talents.
What we have these days are yahoo-yahoo boys everywhere. Even our kids are no more practicising football on fields they now play video games. This has diminished the talents of our kids and it is affecting us because one of the things that was bringing money into our economy was football. The situation has become so worrisome to the extent that Nigerians now play in Cote d’ Ivoire, Vietnam. For me, it is really degrading.
You came from a football family – your younger brother having played in Europe is now in Sunshine Stars. How did your parents take it when you were growing up?
When we’re growing,our parents had nothing against playing football but they insisted that we must also go to school. The only time they raised eyebrows and got angry with you is when you are not getting good results in school. My father drove us to play football around because he played a little bit of football also while he was growing up. My mother was a runner for the old western region and in a way, sports has always been in the family. We are four guys – the other two played football also but not to the professional level.
You were very skillfull for the Golden Eaglets and the Flying Eagles but your career in the Super Eagles was short, why?
My senior international career was short because Clemence Westerhof sidelined me. That was a very big factor because I was signed by Real Madrid from Saudi 89 when he started building a new team when he came to Nigeria.
He was also in the business of selling players but in my own case, he could not sell me. I was already sold so he brought in other players to play in my wing and unfortunately, I got injured while we were preparing for the World Cup. I played seven games and scored against Togo and my problem with Westerhof began from then. I was on the bench in the Nations Cup qualifier against Togo at the national stadium, Lagos and the fans were shouting that I should be brought in the game because Nigeria was searching desperately for the first goal.
In the second half, Westerhof thought he was too big to listen to Nigerians so they started throwing objects at the bench. Evenually, coach Tunde Disu who was Westerhof’s assistant then asked me to start warming up.The first move I made when I came was a pull out before I scored a goal, the whole stadium went agog. Since then Westerhof thought that I may become bigger than him.
Is that enough reason for you to think he(Westerhof) never wanted you in the national team
Yes. He was scared of my rising profile in the team and he was already moulding the likes of George Finidi and Uche Okechukwu for the national team. There is no doubt about the qualities of these players but you know in football if you are good and the coaches give you the opportunity to play regularly, you will surely excel. That was what happened between Westerhof and I.
Now that you are retired,are you still going to continue with football administration?
Rome was not built in a day and charity begins at home.It has always been a dream for me to manage shooting Stars and now that I’ve the opportunity,I’ll use it to tell the whole world what I’m capable of achieving. The truth is that all of us can’t go into coaching and there’s a lot of job to do around football like what I am doing now trying to build a model team. Maybe one day the NFF may consider me for similar role in the national team.I hope for the best.
Where is your favourite holiday destination in Europe?
I have a lot of places I love to be but my last holiday was in Spain. It was beautiful and I love the place. I’ve been to Santiago before.
(Cuts in) what about your wife and kids?
My kids are in London – my wife is here in Nigeria.
Thank you very much for speaking with us.
The pleasure is mine.
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