Diminutive Nigeria's Olympic Eagles and FC Metz midfielder, Sadiq Popoola speaks to Completesportsnigeria.com's ADEBOYE AMOSU about his experiences with the Nigerian team, prior and after winning the Rio 2016men's football bronze medal.
Completesportsnigeria.com: You were virtually an unknown figure before the start of the Olympics, what has the journey been like for you?
Popoola: To describe my journey as a footballer is not something I can easily sum up. To say it has been tough would be an understatement as no words can describe what I have gone through.
My first attempt to play for Nigeria was in 2009. I was part of the Golden Eaglets side handled by coach John Obuh and looking forward to making the final squad, but as God would have it, I was dropped at the last minute.
It was tough for me then as I was keen on representing the country, especially as we were the host nation.
After that, my agent took me to United States of America for trials but I couldn\'t secure a contract with any club over there. At that point, I was frustrated and told him that I was no longer interested in playing football again. He persuaded me not to give up on my dreams and I listened to him.
I later returned to Nigeria and rejoined my old team 36 Lions Football Club who were campaigning in the National League then.
In 2012, he took me to Belgium for trials with Standard Liege. They were impressed with my performance in training and were ready to offer me a contract, but then disaster struck again. I sustained a shoulder injury in training which made them change their mind and I was back to square one again.
It was at that same period that Ezekiel Imoh joined Standard Liege and I was staying in his house. I was really frustrated and playing football was totally out of my mind then.
But thanks to Imoh who stood by me then. I remember one fateful night he was advising me, \'brother you can do this, don\'t give up.\' I was crying and he was crying too.
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How did you eventually secure a deal abroad?
Hmmmmmm, that was really a big miracle. At a point, I was about giving up, I was offered the chance to train with French side, FC Metz. It was close to the end of the transfer window and I actually signed for the club on transfer deadline day in 2012.
I call it a miracle because I signed the contract 15 minutes before the window closed down.
Later, I came back to Nigeria to sort out all other things pertaining to the contract and that would ensure I become a professional player.
On getting back to the club, I was asked to be training with the reserve team. After a while when I couldn\'t take it any longer, I complained to the club president and was loaned out to FC Seraing of Belgium.
Were you in any way surprised when you first received the invitation to play for the U-23 Eagles?
Well, to be honest it came as a surprise to me when I got the invitation to play for the U-23 Eagles. My experience at the U-17 level wasn\'t really a pleasant one and I was not thinking about it at that time.
Before then, I had a cordial relationship with coach Samson Siasia. He always comes around to scout for players in France and that was how we met.
When was the first time you were invited to play for the U-23 Eagles ?
I remember vividly it was an All- Africa Games qualifying fixture against Gabon. The game was in Libreville and I didn\'t get to play as I was on the bench for the entire duration of the game. After then, I was invited a couple of times, but I didn\'t honour the calls until the friendly game against Brazil.
That was the game that opened the door for me to stake claim for a place in the team. Everyone was impressed with my performance including the Brazilians. Rafinha who plays for Barcelona all congratulated me after the game.
You guys had a difficult time back there in Atlanta and your trip to Manaus was postponed several times before you eventually travelled down to be part of the Olympic Games. What happened behind the scenes out there in the USA?
It was really tough out there, but it\'s not something I want to talk about at the moment. Everyone was disturbed when we couldn\'t travel on the original date we planned and the day after.
It was really funny. Our first game against Japan was fast approaching and we were still stranded in Atlanta. At a point, we thought maybe we won\'t even get to play the game and our opponents would walk us over.
Then, we travelled down to Manaus on the day of the game. It was really tough, I don\'t think I have ever experienced that before in my life.
How did it feel arriving Manaus few hours before the game against Japan?
(Long laughter) You know before we travelled to Brazil, we had already turned everything to comedy. I remember telling my teammates, \'na wen I see aeroplane I go believe say we dey go Rio.\'
However, everyone was positive despite all the challenges we went through. We felt it was important not to allow all the distractions get to us and we went into that game against Japan with that positive mindset.
A lot of people out there were really surprised with our performance. They were like, \'you beat a Japanese side that has been on ground and training for days before the game.\'
I guess that was what motivated the Japanese Doctor to give us the money he pledged to us.
Your first game at the Olympics was against Colombia and you received huge cheers from the fans whenever you touched the ball…
Cuts in… Yeah, you are right. I guess they were really surprised at my height and my performance in the game.
You know the Brazilians love free flowing football and we won a lot of fans with our performances in the first two games, especially that against Japan.
So, they were really amazed, probably seeing one of the shortest footballers they have ever seen in action play against the Colombians.
On my part, I think I didn\'t disappoint them with my performance. The Brazilian fans were very warm people and it will be nice to play in that beautiful country again.
Did your teammates in any way taunt you about your height in camp?
Yeah, they did (Long laughter). To be honest, I am the shortest guy in the team and they used to make fun of it.
I never see it as an insult or abuse as it makes the atmosphere in camp very funny. We make jokes about the tall guys in camp too, a tall guy like Sadiq Umar, you can imagine me standing beside him. It was all fun.
Tell us about your relationship with team captain John Mikel Obi…
Ooooooh, you mean Odogwu (strong man). We call him Odogwu. Mikel is a friendly person and also a big brother.
You know he was not only the most senior player in the team, but was also very experienced too. So, we accord him the well deserved respect and he took us as brothers.
I remember the first day he came to camp, he was like \'coach where did you get this short man from?\'. He just liked me from the first time he set his eyes on me.
Then the fact I was a very funny guy also endeared me to him. He always wanted me to be around him either in training or in the hotel.
What does winning the Olympic bronze medal mean to you?
It was a wonderful feeling, we had the ambition of replicating the Atlanta\'96 team by winning gold medal at the Games, but unfortunately we couldn\'t achieve that.
Like they say in local parlance, at all, at all na him bad. It is still good that we came back home with a golden bronze.
At the last Olympics, Nigeria didn\'t win any medal but we made sure the country didn\'t return home empty handed this time around by claiming the bronze.
What was your experience outside the pitch in Rio like?
Brazil is a beautiful country. Like I said earlier, I would like to go back to the country one day. Representing my beloved country has been a wonderful experience, and it has taken away all the disappointments I had in the past. I almost gave up in the past after failing to make any headway in my career, but here I am, an Olympics bronze medalist. It\'s all to the glory of God.
Can you give us a hint about your future ambitions?
Right now, I\'m still savouring the joy of winning bronze medal at the Olympic Games. After that,I will go back to France and sit down with Metz officials to discuss my future.