1989. It was an encounter of the rarest kind.
You just do not get to meet with 3 of the greatest sportscasters in Nigerian history in one place, for an entire week, talking food, family and football. It rarely happens like that.
But that’s what happened to me in 1989. Thinking about it now, I was a bit naive. I could have made bigger capital of the meeting offered by properly documenting it for history. I didn’t and memory fades and fails with time. It has been almost 32 years since then. Don’t blame me, I was a rookie journalist.
It was my very first assignment as an ‘untrained’ reporter. I say so because I never had any formal training as a journalist even though I had been writing a column in the Sunday Tribune 10 years before, since 1979, at the height of my football career.
Banji Ogundele, previously of the Daily Times, had moved to Ibadan to take up his new appointment as Editor of Sunday Tribune. He kicked it all off when he saw some of my work (writing and illustrating) as the editor of a campus magazine when I was at the Polytechnic, and suggested that I could pen my peculiar football experiences in a special column in his weekend newspaper.
It sounded interesting and I took up the challenge. That’s how I became, probably, the first African football player to maintain a newspaper column. That was my baptism into journalism, providing a footballer’s perspective of things on and off the football field.
Banji had been my friend in Lagos, one of a group of renowned journalists around ‘sports city’. I don’t recall who made the connection, but I was welcomed into their fold and integrated seamlessly into their social circuit, a completely different world from the football field. The group included Dayo Sobowale, Yinka Craig, Toyin Makanju, Philip Phil Ebosie, Tunde Oloyede and so on. It was an honour and a privilege to walk in their circle.
That was how Banji made me to bite the writing bug, and I started to write without any formal compass.
By 1989 when I arrived the Scottish City of Glasgow and ran into the trio of Tolu Fatoyinbo, Ernest Okonkwo, (both, sports commentators in Radio Nigeria) and Fabio Lanipekun (television commentator in NTA), I had ended my football career 5 years before, practised as a Senior Industrial Engineer for 2 years at the Western State Industrial Investment and Credit Corporation, WSIICC (from 1984 to 1986) and joined Sunny Obazu-Ojeagbase (S.O) as a columnist in the bouquet of sports publications from his stable since 1984. I was a writer, not a reporter.
So, when the FIFA Under-17 Championship in Glasgow came along in 1989, although I was not originally scheduled to attend, but having secured a work permit to reside and work in the UK, and secured part-sponsorship of the trip, I convinced S.O that I should go in order to experience, first-hand, the world of sports reportage of an international event and to write about it from a football player’s angle.
That’s how I plunged into the deep end of sports journalism under the tutelage of S.O, and fulfilled my aspiration – observing and reporting the matches involving Nigeria’s Under-17 national team at that year’s FIFA Championship. The Nigerian team was loaded with very talented youngsters like Victor Ikpeba, Godwin Okpara, and others. They put up such a great show that Pele, who was a special guest of FIFA at the event, predicted that Nigerian youngsters would win the World Cup before the end of the last Century.
So, besides having my baptism as a reporter at a global event, the icing on the cake was the rare opportunity to share time and space, upclose for several days, with three masters of radio and television broadcast in Nigeria at the championship.
For several days, I had unfettered access to them. I shared lunches and great conversations, mostly around his family, with Ernest Okonkwo. I went shopping a few times with Tolu Fatoyinbo as we discussed mostly social life in the Lagos and Ibadan axis. It was with Uncle Fabio, who rarely ventured out of the hotel except when he had to do his journalistic work at the stadium, that we had the most productive conversations on sports and television in the lounge of the hotel where we all stayed together.
Every time we all met together I would quietly just sit and listen to them share their incredible stories as they traveled the world covering all the major sportinģ events. It was a fascinating and invaluable experience.
It was that trip and my interaction with Uncle Fabio in particular that ignited my interest and incursion into the world of broadcasting – television.
My conversation with him about ‘Sports Spectacular’ on NTA, a sports program anchored by Chuka Momah and Yinka Craig, opened my eyes to the possibility of becoming only the second independently produced sports program on Nigerian television. Sports Spectacular, mostly great boxing fights from the past, was the first. Uncle Fabio told me I could be the second if I chose to go that way in sports journalism. He promised to guide and support me. That was the birthing of my interest and subsequent foray into television documentaries and production. When we returned to Nigeria, I visited him in the NTA sports office inside the National Stadium, in Surulere, Lagos.
Surrounded by tapes of sports events and matches from the past, he triggered my interest to retrieve some footages of my own matches. He gave me advise and support that eventually led to a career in television presentation and production.
Meanwhile, Chris Ebie, also of NTA, took me under his wings, offered me a 4-minutes weekly slot on Livi Ajuonuma’s ‘The Sunday Show’ on NTA, to taught me how to present the sports segment which was mostly a pre-packaged American sports program called thè ‘George Michael Sports Machine’.
Within a few short months àfter returning from Glasgow, I was deep in the heart of sports journalism, getting first-hand and on-the-job experiences in both television and the print media. But it was television that was more challenging, more glamorous, and much more rewarding.
Uncle Fabio’s ‘hands and legs’ were in my making. His mantras were strict disciple, moral uprightness and professionalism.
He was also a great writer.
When I decided to write my first book, “The history of Nigerian Football -1960 to 1990” in 1991, it was to him I went for the contribution of the history of the media in Nigerian football. Within a week I had his script, a compelling read of the genesis and journey of the media in Nigerian sports.
After that experience, my visits to him became routine. He was a repository of information of the totality of Nigerian sports. He was always available to talk sports and grant interviews. He knew everything by heart, never consulting to extract names, dates and events from his detailed mind. He was, indeed, a great encyclopedia of Nigerian sports. No wonder, he titled his own weekly column that he religiously maintained until recently, for decades in the Sunday Tribune, “The Grandmaster”. It was very apt.
Uncle Fabio offered me easy access to footages and tapes in the NTA archives and never held back anything or information that I needed.
Getting very close to him in 1989 in Glasgow was the opener to a new world in my life.
When I was to consult for Rod Hay, an Australian Film producer, in 1993 for the production of ‘The Sleeping Giants’ series, a global 6-part documentary on the 5 African countries that had qualified for the 1994 World Cup, Uncle Fabio was a rich and deep source of information for the documentary.
All those experiences deepened my relationship with him. I owe a great deal of my venture and success in television, in particular, to Fabio Lanipekun.
That’s why as the celebrations of his 79th birthday since the 2nd of March, I am joining millions of his fans and followers on television and his column in the newspaper, to wish him well.
It is very shocking that, although he was a recipient of the national sports merit award some years ago, the federal government has not found it worthy to give this pioneer of sportscasting on Nigerian television, this teacher and mentor of journalists, this encyclopedia of Nigerian sports history, this doyen of professional sports journalism, a national honour that could represent the country’s gratitude to men that served sports, journalism and the country so well.
I hope that can still be done sooner rather than later.
This is a call to all those that drank from his well of tutelage to join in this clarion call. They include several giants of the industry that still have a voice: Rotimi Bisiriyu, Tunde Orebiyi, Modele Sarafa- Yusuf, Mainasara Ilo, Yakubu Ibn Mohammed, Hameed Adio, Tayo Balogun, Paul Ogaji, Dele Ojeisèkpoba, Waheed Olagunju, Willy Sowho, Charles Ojugbana, Feyi Ogunduyile, Mainasara Ilo, Abdulrahman Ibn Mohammed, and other ‘adopted children’ like Chuka Momah, yours truly and others I may nit be aware of in the sports-writing business.
Meanwhile, I wish Uncle Fabio Lanipekun good health and long life on the occasion of his 79th birthday.
Another Eagle exits the ‘stage’.
As I was putting this page to bed, I received a call from a friend in Jos, that another one of us has bitten the dust.
I must write about Jide Dina who died in the early hours of Thursday after a spell of ill-health.
Not too many football fans would recall a Jide Dinà and his exploits in Nigerian football. But I do, because we are of the same generation, and we both grew up in Jos. Whilst he attended St. John’s College, I was in St. Murumba College, and the two schools were staunch football rivals.
We were both invited to the national team around the same period in the miď-1970s, he from Mighty Jets FC of Jos where he manned the Central Defense of that great team, and I from IICC Shooting Stars FC.
Jide was an extremely hard and gifted defender. Unfortunately, with players like Christian Chukwu, Godwin Odiyè and so on in the squad at the time he joined the national squad, it was hard for him to secure a permanent shirt in the Green Eagles.
I remember 1976 in particular.
He had been listed and registered in the final squad for the Olympic Games of Montreal Canada.
On completing my studies at the Polytechnic, I played a match against Bata Bullets? of Zambia at the National Stadium, Lagos. I played like a man on a mission, soaring high like an eagle, scored 2 great goals for Shooting Stars in the Africa Cup winners Cup, and impressed the national team coaches so much that they had to draft and register me, by all means, for the Olympics even after the close of registration in Canada. That meant that an already registered player had to be ‘sacrificed’ and must be taken off the Green Eagles list in order to accommodate me in the squad.
The ‘lamb’s turned out to be my childhood compatriot, Jide Dina. I don’t know if it was ever revealed to him, because although he was not dropped from the trip to Canada he did not make the final team list.
He spent a few years in the Green Eagles. I believe he actually travelled with the team to Brazil preparatory to the African Cup of Nations in 1979. But once again, on the eve of the championship, he must have been replaced. Jide, surely, was a great player, a gentleman to the core, and a rock solid defender in the mould of Ismaila Mabo who was his mentor and coach.
I commiserate with his family as well as the entire Nigerian football family for the loss of yet another one of its great sons and heroes!
Travel well, Jide Dina.