I arrived in Ilorin two weeks ago, as the funeral of Alhaji Moshood Olanrewaju Jaji was being concluded. His death followed that of the President of the Youth Sports Federation of Nigeria (YSFON), Alhaji Tunde Ojulari, who I last saw at the Ilorin airport, after the last Sallah holiday. Their death represented a major loss to the sporting community in Kwara State. Jaji’s death was particularly painful for me, because in his dedication to football and his exertions on the field of play, during the 1970s, he defined for my very impressionable mind, as a growing young boy, the ultimate professional player. He was the captain of the Ilorin town team, and was a very elegant center half of his period.
He had grown up in Ghana and Lagos, and in the very conservative setting of the late 1960s and early 1970s, people like him, were some of the most cosmopolitan individuals around, that a young boy could look up to, as a role model. The Ilorin team trained every evening at the United School, which had a very generous sporting space that has now disappeared with the craze for shops in the urban centres of Nigeria! Moshood Olanrewaju Jaji was almost inevitably the centre of attraction: tall, handsome and always bantering away about the fine points of the game; recollections of the most recent games or recalling tales from life in Lagos and Ghana.
We huddled around these remarkable individuals: Jaji; Christian Ulonta the very fit main striker for Ilorin who had the hottest shot I ever saw as a growing kid; Sidiku, the defender from Tate and Lyle and his partner, Isyaku from Philip Morris, who were Ilorin’s famous wing backs; Ajala, who was Ilorin’s number six and I think played for P&T; ‘Magnet’ Agodirin, Ilorin’s goalkeeper, who was from Offa, but was so good he got the nickname “magnet”! A few years down the line, the same football field would host the great Northern Nigerian and with the creation of states in 1967, Kwara State, coach, Usman Adenuja, who built a succession of wonderful football players who made Kwara State Academicals, one of the best in Nigeria, with many of them becoming regular fixtures in Nigeria’s Academicals: Baba Eleran; Busari Ishola; Ahmed Yahaya “Atinga”; Rasheed Gbadamosi “Baiye”; Olaiya; Salihu Ojibara, to name just a few of those wonderful sportsmen who combined sports with their education and had various levels of success into the future. In that pantheon of sporting heroes of my childhood in Ilorin, Jaji was unique. I recall that the final of the state challenge cup, almost always pitted Ilorin against Offa, every year.
Invariably, Ilorin usually won by a goal to nil, often a penalty kick, which Jaji always stepped forward to play. I can literally close my eyes as I write these lines now, to see him step forward and he ALWAYS played to the right side of the goalkeeper and always scored! I often wondered many years later, why the goalkeeper from Offa never seemed to have studied the way Jaji played his penalties. But looking back now, those games were like a re-enactment of the old inter-city warfare that was the hallmark of the relationship between Ilorin and Offa by another, sporting means. The passion of a “Derby” was incredible, because the Offa team paraded one of the best defenders in the old Kwara State, who happened to be from Ilorin: “Ambure” of the Offa Railways football club, from the Gegele Quarters of the city.
He was the rock of the Offa team, and would thwart every effort by the Ilorin team to score. The Ilorin spectators would abuse him, heckle him, accuse him of “treachery” that he dared to play for the “old enemy”, Offa; they conveniently forgot that the goalkeeper standing between Offa and victory, “Magnet” Agodirin was from Offa. Good football, like politics, was eminently local! I learnt very early lessons about passion, prejudice and the fair play which sports teaches. Those were remarkable years of our lives, in more ways than one. And Moshood Olanrewaju Jaji’s life was a positive expression of that period. His death, two weeks ago, was a finale of sorts, for those remarkable years. May Allah forgive his sins and grant him Al-Janna Fir’daus.