Remembering Olubayo, and the ’05 generation

African football has a wonderful propensity for moving on. Being rescheduled for the beginning of next year, the African Cup of Nations will provide the giants of African football with an immediate prospect of redemption for the failures of 2011. In Nigeria, a generation of players arriving at their prime have the chance to spearhead this redemption.

This generation has some pedigree, most notably at the U20 World Cup in 2005. The team qualified from a group containing Brazil, before beating Ukraine and hosts Holland en route to an All-African semi-final with Morocco. The quarter final with the Dutch was a particularly gruelling encounter; the Nigerians eventually winning 10 – 9 on penalties. The North Africans were overcome emphatically in the semis, before the Super Eagles were eventually outdone in the final by a little fella called Lionel Messi.

Players from that tournament such as Falcao, Llorente, Silva, as well as Messi himself, are approaching their prime and yet are already writing their own histories, and carving out their own spots in footballing folklore. It’s hard to say the same for many of the Nigerian squad, despite their impressive showing in the Netherlands, and a silver medal at the Beijing Olympics three years later.

Of that crop, Taye Taiwo is currently sampling life in West London with Q.P.R., John Obi Mikel – the star of the team – has been in England a while longer, struggling to be truly effectual at Chelsea. Sani Kaita, despite being a mainstay of the national side, has failed to settle at various clubs, and is currently playing in the Ukraine. The exciting Promise Isaac has yet to debut for the seniors, and of the ’05 generation, it is perhaps only Chinedu Obasi who is in the business of carving out a legacy for himself, having recently signed a permanent contract at Schalke.

Arriving in Holland for the Youth Championships, Olubayo Adefemi was one of the less heralded members of the squad. Coach Samson Siasia’s original plans didn’t have him in the starting eleven. He made his first appearance for the team in the final group game against Switzerland, starting in a match that Nigeria needed to win. After impressing here, he kept his place, contributing a penalty in the shootout against the Dutch, and a crucial goal against Morocco.

Adefemi became a central component of the U20s team, and then the Olympic team in 2008, opening the scoring in the emphatic semi-final victory over a strong Belgian side. His club career progressed and he began to forge a career at teams across Europe, leaving Nigeria in 2004 to play in Israel, Romania, Austria, and in France, for Boulogne, in their maiden season in Ligue 1. The versatile defender made his debut for the Super Eagles senior side in 2009, before moving to Skoda Xanthi, of Greece, in 2010. In April last year, he lost control of his car, and was killed in the collision. He on the way to the airport, scheduled to fly home to make preparations for his upcoming marriage to his girlfriend Folashade.

I shared correspondence with Olubayo in late 2009, as he adjusted to life in France. He visited London, and enjoyed the White Hart Lane stadium tour, having photographs taken in Ledley King’s hallowed spot in the changing room. He confided however, that were England to ever be his port of call, it would be Arsenal, and not Tottenham, that would be the preferred destination.

Team mates, following his death, spoke of a warm character, and a fantastic sense of humour. It was a personality evident in his exuberant celebrations and committed performances. Christopher Katongo, who captained Zambia to their 2012 Afcon victory, was a team mate of Adefemi’s at Xanthi. He described his friend as a good man, who was well liked, and was like a brother to the Chipolopolo skipper.

Olubayo was a young man when he died, just 25, just approaching his peak years as a player, and beginning to arrive at his most effective for club and country. The youth team of 2005 were taken into the hearts of Nigerians, they succeeded in forging and sustaining a relationship with the fan base, one that existed above and beyond their accolades on the pitch. It is a reality sadly lacking from the current convocation of Super Eagles.

Nigeria are currently in the process of qualifying for the 2013 Afcon competition, to be held in South Africa. An away draw in tiny Rwanda doesn’t auger well, but the Super Eagles will certainly be confident of getting the result they need in the return leg on June 15th, and progressing to the Second Qualification Round.

Young, impressive players have been brought in to augment the generation of 2005: talented midfielders Ahmed Musa and Joel Obi are already establishing themselves as international performers, despite being only 19 and 20 respectively. Victor Moses’s decision to opt for the land of his birth, as opposed to England, has boosted Nigerian fans – even if his exciting build up play at Wigan isn’t yet to be matched by a polished end product.

The Naija community was awash with complaints and solutions following the draw in Kigali; Yakubu not hungry enough for victory, Odemwingie too greedy for money; the coach clueless, the players lacking commitment. Some Nigerians propose a total rebuilding of the national team, an overhaul of players, staff and ideas. Others are quietly confident that Nigeria are merely at a crossroads, a step further towards their emergence as an African superpower once again.

If redemption is to come at the African Cup of Nations, then the generation of 2005 need to step up. Even the mightiest eagle may need to return to the treetops to rest, but come 2013 and South Africa, Nigeria will call for their team to soar once again.

Ed Dove, London


Remembering Olubayo
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