Who is the greatest mid-field football player in the history of Nigerian football?
The country is replete with a few footballers that can fit that bill – Sunday Oliseh, Mikel Obi, Jay Jay Okocha, Henry Nwosu, Friday Ekpo, Etim Esin, Samuel Garba Okoye, Haruna Ilerika, and one or two others, all exceptionally gifted players that excelled playing different roles in the midfield of Nigeria’s national football team.
Oliseh was a tough marker and brilliant passer of the ball. Jay Jay was a dribbling machine and creative genius. Henry Nwosu was a skills-workshop, great passer and deadly shot with both feet. Samuel Garba Okoye was a ballerina on the ball, masterful at linking defence and attack with grace and effortless ease. Kanu Nwankwo was elegant, skilful and a great thinker with the ball.
In this constellation of superstars, however, one player stands out in my mind, and in my humble opinion was the greatest of them in combining all the different skills and roles – dribbler, marker, passer, holding, scoring, and tireless, endless marking and running.
In versatility, he stands atop the pile.
To crown it all, to set him completely apart, on March 22, 1980, probably the greatest day of his career, he played as a centre forward. That’s was the clearest demonstration of how good a player Muda was.
So, he stands alone in versatility. That’s why he also stands out as the most decorated home-based footballer in the country’s football history.
I am writing about him today in humble tribute to my friend, my Egba brother, and my team mate who died at the time when he was about to start a new chapter in his life, to start to reap bountifully from his illustrious service to Nigerian football and to the country.
It is hard to believe that it has been 31 years since the gentle, very handsome, always-smiling, hardworking football genius died ‘prematurely’.
By the time he left the world for eternity on July 6, 1991, he was only 37.
Mudashiru Babatunde Tiamiyu Lawal, ‘Haji Shiru’ as most of his fans all over Nigeria called him, was the only African at the time to have participated in 5 African Cup of Nations Championships (he was decorated by the Confederation of African Football, CAF, for that feat); the first footballer to be appointed Nigeria’s Football Ambassador (with an office space within the premises of the Federal Ministry of Youths and Sports in Lagos); the longest serving player in the national team of Nigeria; the first and only football player to be adorned with two National Honours, MON and MFR.
Until Rashidi Yekini, Jay Jay Okocha, and Kanu Nwankwo came to dominate conversation on African footballers with their exploits in Europe, Muda Lawal was one of the most talked about and celebrated in-field player in African football playing entirely locally in Nigeria, from the time of his exploits in Dire Dawa in 1976, to his captaincy of the Green Eagles at his 5th AFCON in Libya.
Muda left Shooting Stars FC in 1984 following the disbandment of the team by the Governor of Oyo State when the team lost the final match of the African Club Championship. Muda’s departure 10 years later to play for two of the most unlikely clubs in Abiola Babes FC in Abeokuta and Stationery Stores FC in Lagos for his last few years as a player was a ‘sad’ chapter in his relationship with the club that gave us all a foundation upon which we built a great name for ourselves, for the club and the country.
His time in those clubs were not memorable. Only fanatical supporters of the two clubs would recall any great exploits of his to any great length.
Incidentally, Muda joined Adekunle Awesu and I in Housing Corporation FC in 1973, and all three of us joined ‘Sooting Stars’ a few months apart in 1974.
It was inevitable that he would return to Shooting Stars International FC to cap his career in football, to his roots and to the club that gave him the biggest platform to exhibit his genius on the biggest stages in African football.
Muda loved football with a passion. He lived the game completely, sleeping and dreaming it.
Up till that point in 1991 that he passed on, football had given him everything he dreamt of in life – a great career, numerous national awards, an official position in government upon which he would build his life-after-active football, a great wife and beautiful children, and tons of close friends around the country, including Ayinla Omowura, the legendary Egba ‘Apala’ musical maestro who died shortly after Nigeria won the Africa Cup of Nations in 1980.
Muda and Kunle Awesu were the best of friends as a result of their mutual love for Ayinla and his music. Kunle was fanatical about Ayinla. He would only play Ayinla’s songs in his car after the three of us bought our first cars in the wake of our victory, winning the Africa Cup winners Cup, in 1976. Haji Shiru was, like Awesu, a die-hard Ayinla fan.
Muda and Kunle would always head to Abeokuta from Ibadan at the end of many of our home matches inorder to attend the man’s gigs in those days.
The music that ‘bored’ me out of joining them on their nocturnal trips to Abeokuta, even though, occasionally, we participated in some other escapades as young bachelors around Ibadan in those days.
I was a great influence in Muda’s marriage to my best friend’s sister. That I was also a foitballer, very close to Yetunde’s family, was Muda’s biggest ‘credential’ to get her family to succumb to pressures, and finally accept that their ‘special’ daughter whose beauty was a magnet for many a rich suitor in Ibadan at the time, was not doing a disservice to the family by marrying a footballer.
That’s how Muda married Yetunde and they settled into a great life together throughout the latter part of our football career. When children started to arrive and Muda had to take his football odyssey to Abeokuta and finally to Lagos, the displacement created a slight turbulence that was only finally calmed by his eventual return to Ibadan to rejoin Shooting Stars FC as a member of the technical team.
At that time, Shiru had started toying with several options of business to retire into. I never quite saw him settling down into the role of a football coach. He loved to play and not to coach. His choice was business! So, he spent a lot of time with his friend, another Lawal, near the old Kingsway Stores in Ibadan planning, I believe, several business ventures.
Then, on July 6, 1991, the ‘world’ ended.
It was hard to deal with at the time. How could such a young, healthy and extremely fit man suddenly collapse
Time has not healed anything for those that knew the great man, his humanity, his genius and his friendliness with everyone. But life has trudged on and it all seems like yesterday.
That Muda died so young is what makes the pain of his passage 31 years ago still this fresh.
Muda Lawal came, saw, and achieved a great deal in Nigerian football. He now rests in our minds in the great memories of him – a man most distinguishable by a wide permanent laughter dancing on his face.
I have a giant portrait of him hanging on the wall of The Sports Lounge in Abeokuta, in dedication to the greatest midfield player in Nigeria’s football history, in my humble reckoning.
Continue to rest Shiru!!!!
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