“I was very athletic back in my days and the consequences are beginning to show for me at the moment.” – Ali Baba

Ali Baba

Comedian Atunyota Akpobome popularly known as Ali Baba in this interview speaks on his participation in sports while growing up and how we can grow our sports in Nigeria

What was it like growing up as a child?

I was very athletic back in my days and the consequences are beginning to show for me at the moment. There are many sports that could kill your knee like long jump, volleyball, athletics and football.

If you do long jumps, one of the things that go first is your knees. I was a medallist in long jump and then 100m senior boys, though in secondary school. I also had a medal in javelin.

I played football for my secondary school and for my University and right now I still play football for my All-Stars team – the Galaxy.

What I’m saying is that football could be used to socialise, you play football to meet people, you play football to show how good you are and also to get ahead.

I have some medals at home in Benin but my father keeps telling me ‘your medals here you can’t keep them here for long.

At some point, I felt football was going to give me a lot of mileage. When I was in school football gave me accommodation in my first year and second year, thanks to my coach, Bako back then.

He was the coach for the then Bendel State University Ekpoma. In my third year, I also got accommodation for free but it came from my participation in Judo.

So for us then sports had always been in me, but as soon as my knees began to give in as an overage player, you began to distribute passes because you can’t run like you used to.

You let the ball do the talking. I think for us then sport was beyond getting social friends. It was a way of boosting morale and an avenue to travel anywhere to play matches. We were always allowed to miss classes and copy notes later.

It gave us chances to meet girls as well. But at the University level, it gave me some allowances and sometimes free food and football boots.

Did your father encourage you all along?

My father wanted me to study law and if I had read law I wouldn’t be able to do sports. The only thing that would make me do sports was if I remained on the field, but comedy was bringing in more money than football so I dropped it.

I still do football till date, but my knees are the problem, the skills are still there, you don’t forget the skills but stamina is the problem.

Are you pleased with the way sports is run in Nigeria?

The problem we have in Nigeria is that we devote all our time into football and because of that we do not grow other sports that could bring us medals at major tournaments. For instance, our first Olympic medal came from long jump with Chioma Ajunwa. What does it take to discover a long jumper? It is just a board and sand. With these, you can discover 30 new medallists just with that.

It means you can get six medals from that.

How about swimming?

What if the Swimming Federation of Nigeria builds its secretariat and an Olympic size pool in Bayelsa? And they recruit swimmers from that region, we could get medallists from there as well.

But instead, we put all our money and effort on football that will only win us one medal but if we channel such funds to other sports we will get more medals at major tournaments.

As soon as Mobil Open died, none of our athletes developed like their predecessors. These national trials we are organising now have not matched the Mobil trials of those days.

What’s your take on our league football?

We need to give youths more chances to develop and contribute to the team. I had a brother back then who used to play for NEPA FC but his coach, Eric in Abuja then never played him because he felt he was too young. He had to travel to Russia and the USA to realise his dreams. He plays like Austin Okocha but they killed his talent here because he was too young. He was about 16-17 years old then.

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