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Ishola Babatunde: Exit of a football icon

Ishola Babatunde was a footballer of international repute in the 80s and 90s who died along with one of his staff members having suffocated from…

Ishola Babatunde was a footballer of international repute in the 80s and 90s who died along with one of his staff members having suffocated from charcoal fumes after locking themselves up in a shop without windows to shield them from the chilly weather while they waited for PHCN to restore power.

The downpour which persisted into the late hours of Saturday, July 11, 2009 and which resulted in a chilly weather in Jos as well as the power failure that night, prepared the grounds for the tragic demise of two breadwinners.

“The epileptic nature of power supply in the country as seen everywhere and every day, which is characterised by irreparable losses in all spheres of life affectinginnocent Nigerians, can typically be exonerated in this incident,” James Albert, a sports analyst, opined.

At the age of 44 and after playing active and professional football for more than two decades, Babatunde’s life came to an end in a small milling industry that he had established after bowing out of professional football. The small milling industry was his means of having dignity and pride to cater for his family simply because most football players who laboured for their states and the nation are left in the cold to waste and die in despair by the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF).

Indeed, the late Babatunde was a household name in the 80s down to the 90s. “It is quite an achievement for any Nigerian footballer to have played in some of the top teams that were making waves in the 80s. He played for the Mighty Jets and IICC Shooting Stars; those were teams that held sway in the then Nigerian league,” a fan of his said.

According to a former teammate who played alongside the late Babatunde in their days at the JIB Rock Strikers, his presence in any football match made shivers run down the spines of his opponents and gave succour to his team mates, while his presence always assured even the most incurable pessimist of tactical and sometimes breathtaking goals. Those were the good days of the former Eagles star who died on Sunday, July 12, 2009.

Another fan who went down memory lane, recalled the name given to the late left-winger. “He used to be referred to as ‘Mosquito’ because of his ‘piercing shots,’ which used to take goalkeepers unawares”.

Carving out his own niche in the football industry, Babatunde attracted the first highest paid fee in the then Nigerian league of N100,000 when Udoji United wooed him from Ranchers Bees of Kaduna. He had won several awards including the Bournvita Award for emerging as the highest goal scorer in the league. No wonder his death attracted comments from internationally-recognised coaches.

Lamenting the death of Babatunde, former Falcons handler, Isma’ila Mabo, said, “The death of Ishola is a great loss to the nation”.

The president of the Nigerian Football Federation, Sani Lulu, highlighted the enormous contributions of Babatunde to the development of football in Nigeria thus: “It is sad and I am worried over the regular loss of ex-internationals in recent times,” Lulu said.

His former coach at JIB and the national team, Bitrus Bewarang, reacted thus: “His death is a deep loss to the football family”. His former teammates too could not hold back their emotions. “I will really miss him,” said Shola Popo. “His death is a great loss to us,” said Mighty Jets coach and former teammate, Audu Isa.

Babatunde was born on August 24, 1965 at Salihu Karatu Street, Sabon Fegi in Jos, Plateau State capital. He attended Nuruddeen Primary School, Katako and was later transferred to ECWA Primary School, Gada Biyu where he subsequently attended Government Secondary School, Jos, (now Sardauna Memorial College).

Since his youth, the natural left footer had exhibited great skills in the game which earned him a local limelight at the amateur level where he played for the Eleven Stars and Plateau Lions FC, all in Jos. During his professional days in the Nigerian league, he played for JIB Rock Strikers, IICC Shooting Stars, Ibadan, El-Kanemi Warriors of Maiduguri, Ranchers Bees, of Kaduna and Udoji United.

At the national level, Babatunde played for the junior national team, Flying Eagles in 1989 as well as the Super Eagles in 1991 and 1992. Playing for clubs like the Mighty Jets was one of his dreams, but he never stopped there because of his mastery of the game. But what made Ishola tick? Mabo was the first to outline some of the talents of Babatunde, “He was a prolific player with accurate shots, speed and the ability to convert the slightest opportunity into goals”. Bewarang said of the late player’s ability, “Shola was a very good prolific left footer”.

His former teammate at JIB, Auwalu Arrow, said, “His ability to score goals with his sharp shots made him stand out in the crowd”. Another former teammate and currently Mighty Jets coach, Audu Isa, adds: “He was a player whose presence could assure victory for your side and vice versa. I was his captain, but I must confess that he was a better player than me”.

Football aside, Babatunde’s character was also something to be displayed on the window shop, because hidden behind his baby face was a good sense of humour. Audu Isa confirms, “He was a man with a very good sense of humour; he used to make everybody laugh”.

Bewarang also acknowledged that Babatunde was a well-disciplined player. “He was never a problem player to any coach he played for”.  

A father of five, Babatunde’s death has inevitably, over the past two weeks, opened series of discussions among his contemporaries about his contributions in the field of play. He was last seen on the pitch on Saturday, (less than 24 hours before his death) in a morning training session with his colleagues with the All Stars club. But before his final departure from that training session, he left a message which was not only for his teammates in the club, but for humanity as a whole as narrated by the president of the club, Othman Ibrahim.

“I cannot forget the spirit of togetherness and oneness that the late Babatunde exhibited on his last day of training. Two players had a little misunderstanding over a jersey, but before we knew it, Babatunde removed his own jersey and gave it to one of the players, bringing the misunderstanding to an end. It was a message of peace and sacrifice, which is something I’ve been remembering since I heard of his death,” he said.