Fringe Super Eagles goalkeeper, Dele Ajiboye, talks about winning the 2007 U-17 World Cup in Korea and rumours that he was married before playing at the cadet tournament, in this interview with EBENEZER BAJELA
Fourteen years after, you are still fondly remembered for the double penalty saves you made in the U-17 World Cup final against Spain, to help Nigeria claim a third title. How would you describe the feeling?
I was happy that I saved both penalties that gave us victory in South Korea. In life when you succeed in what you are doing, you feel fulfilled and that was exactly how I felt. I was very happy that day, and it remains one of the most memorable days of my life.
Did luck play a role in both saves, or it’s something you practiced before the match?
I wouldn’t say it was luck because during the tournament, we practiced penalty-taking in every of our training and the coach (Yemi Tella) always told us to remember that impossibility was nothing. After extra time (in the final), the coach called me and said that all the players had done their own part and the rest was up to me. He said I should make the country proud and I thank God for the outcome of the game.
You wept after the shootout victory…
(Cuts in) Immediately after the game, I just started thinking of my late mother because she told me while she was alive that I shouldn’t give up under any challenge I had while playing football. So, her thought came to my mind and I wept because she was not there to witness my achievement. So, there was no way I could hold back the tears because I wished she was alive to see me that day.
Which team was the toughest you played against at the tournament?
Our toughest opponents at the U-17 World Cup were Colombia and we were afraid of facing them. Some players even had to fast and pray. I remember vividly that we had a prayer session before the game and Kingsley Udoh, who was the assistant captain, said after the session that he was confident that we were going to win and we eventually won 2-1.
Is it true that you had a wife and child before the World Cup, who came to welcome you on your arrival at the airport?
It’s a big lie because nothing of such ever happened. When we came back from the World Cup it was only (Babatunde) Fashola that welcomed us; no one could come close to where we were. Even my elder brother who was at the airport could not have access to me. I’ve also heard about the rumour, but no one has confronted me about it. If they have evidence they should come and confront me with it. There was no wife then and it was just girlfriends we all had. People just like to tarnish others’ image and it is a very bad thing.
Fans expected you to continue your development at the U-20 World Cup in Egypt in 2009 but coach Samson Siasia benched you for Uche Okafor. What happened?
I wasn’t dropped at the tournament in Egypt. Prior to the tournament, we played a friendly game against Costa Rica, and I got injured, but I was still with the team that went to Egypt because they felt I would be back and could still make it. But unfortunately, I wasn’t fit enough to take part in any of the matches over there.
But some say Siasia dropped you during the tournament because of a clash…
(Cuts in) That is a massive lie. Siasia is like a father to me and I call him often. He was so upset with the coaches because he warned them not to feature me in the friendly game where I copped the injury. Siasia was not with us when we played the friendly because he went to the US when we were in Spain for camping. I’ve never had any form of argument or issue with Siasia, I see him like a father.
In 2009 you joined Pontevedra CF in Spain but returned to Nigeria in 2011. Why did you return so soon?
My time in Europe was okay because I gained new experience, but if you remember, we played our 2012 Olympics qualifiers that time in Edo State, before we travelled to Morocco. My contract was about to expire then and I was offered a new contract but I told the club to allow me finish with my country’s assignment before we talk about a new contract. I discussed it with coach Alloy Agu then and he knew I wasn’t too keen on returning back to the club even though I hadn’t made up my mind. I had some offers on the table then, which he knew about, and he talked to me and also gave me advice on what to do. Unfortunately, we didn’t qualify for the Olympics in Morocco. Before I returned back to Pontevedra, they had already signed a new goalkeeper, meaning I was no longer needed. I regretted not signing a new deal when they wanted me to. Nothing terrible happened during my time with the club, but it was my mistake that caused me a stay there.
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Football is a very funny game because if you don’t have a good manager who looks out for you, no matter how good you are you may end up not getting a lucrative offer. That is the major problem that I’ve had right from time. I never had a manager; I basically do my things myself which I learnt was not the best. One has to be lucky to have a good manager. There are some agents in Nigeria who ask for money before they can get you an offer. Some even make crazy demands that you cannot meet. For instance, how will a manager ask me to pay for my ticket to travel and play abroad? There are a lot of agents out there who are not capable of managing players but they keep lying to players. Another challenge is that most Nigerian agents are not interested in players who are in their 30s; they would rather go for players who are between 17 and 25 years. So, you need a good manager that can manage and direct you. Right now, I don’t even have a manager. Not having a manager is actually one of the reasons why I’m still plying my trade in the Nigerian league. But I’m confident that something big will happen soon.
Is it true agents take advantage of their players in Nigeria?
I know a lot of players in the Nigerian league who still give agents cuts from the stipends they earn every month. Things are not done that way because when I was in Europe my agent gave me money because he often told me that I helped him put food on the table. He never asked me for money. If we (footballers) do well, our market value rises and that means more money for the agents when clubs come calling.
Football is a game of luck and when you have it, everything seems perfect. Gernot Rohr believes in you playing frequently for your club. When you play regularly, he will take note and invite you one day. It doesn’t matter the league you play in. That is the kind of coach he is but I’ve been unlucky because he has not seen me in action for several months, the lockdown didn’t help my case in this regard. The league just resumed and we haven’t played many games unlike the goalkeepers in South Africa and Europe, it will be unfair to blame him if he hasn’t looked my way because I have not featured much this season.
Eagles coach Gernot Rohr has been criticised for ignoring home-based players. Do you think the criticisms are fair to the Franco-German?
Let me start by saying I’m happy that Rohr was at the stadium to watch us during our last continental match. The truth is he cannot invite every home-based player to the national team because our league is not like that of South Africa, where it seems more like they are playing in Europe. Their league is very good, and it means they can afford to select players from there to the national team. The only advice I have for Rohr is to watch more of our league matches; I can guarantee that he will see at least two or three players who are good enough to make the national team.
Champions Plateau United didn’t start the 2020/21 season on a good note. What happened?
Many of the players are injured and we’ve been affected by the injuries. But I’m sure that by the time we all come back and fit we will start getting the results. You can see that in our last game we played very well and got a draw. I’m confident that things will get better. By God’s grace, we are going to bounce back and go on to do well in the season.
Who is the toughest striker you ever face?
It’s Nigerian striker Gbolahan Salami, he is a tough player to play against.
As a keeper, who would you pick as your best goalkeeper of all time?
We’ve seen many great goalkeepers from the past. Some of the players I watched them live and others I heard about them, goalkeepers like Jose Luis Chilavert, Peter Schmeichel, Edwin van der Sar, Peter Rufai and many others. But if I’m to pick one I think I will go with Chilavert because he was good at taking set-pieces and he scored so many goals.
How do you relax?
I like to listen to music and hang out with friends. Most times when we travel for matches I have my earpiece on listening to songs. When I don’t go for training or during the off-season, I pay a visit to friends and hang out. I also cook, I know how to cook very well and I enjoy it a lot.
How does your wife cope with your female fans?
I thank God that I’m married to one of the best women in the world and she doesn’t have any issue, even when she sees me with any lady. She doesn’t even bother going through my phone or anything and I respect and love her for that. She is the best woman any man can think of.
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