How VAR confusion denied me CAF Champions League medal – Babatunde

Former Super Eagles midfielder, Michael Babatunde, talks about his decision to join Albanian club, KF Laci, his time in the national team, the late Stephen Keshi and more in this interview with JOHNNY EDWARD

Why did you opt to join Albanian club, KF Laçi?

I joined Laci to prove to some clubs who were not ready to sign me because they didn’t think I could still play football again after the knee ligament injury I suffered while I was at Wydad Casablanca. I have found my rhythm again and I believe with time, focus and some consistency, I will get a bigger club.  My coach here and the team have given me everything I need to overcome the injury setback and I want to repay them back.

You were a surprise inclusion in the Super Eagles squad to the Confederations Cup and the World Cup in 2014. As a young footballer back then, what was the feeling like?

My inclusion in the squad to the World Cup in Brazil meant a lot to me and it also made me realise that hard work pays. Thank God I was playing under a coach (late Stephen Keshi) who saw all these in me. It was a great opportunity for me and I’m happy that with the little minutes I had, I proved myself in a way that the coaches were right to pick me. I was praised for my performance by our captain then Vincent Enyeama and the coach, after our first win against Bosnia and the game against Argentina. I had an assist for Ahmed Musa to score against Argentina. It was a good tournament for me, but it ended with in much tears because I broke my right wrist.

How disappointed were you when you were stretchered out?

Not just disappointment. I was in pains for days because I went for surgery the following day in Brazil. My arm was strapped to my chest and I could not do anything by myself. It was a sad moment for me then, but its history now.

 Do you think the injury to you and Ogenyi Onazi caused us defeat to France in the Round of 16?

It depends on how you see it, but I believe the replacements who came in for us against France did their best. But I think we could have made some positive difference if we were both on the pitch. Again, it’s possible we could have lost by a wider margin. Football at times is very unpredictable.

Did that injury deny you big moves after the World Cup?

My performance at the World Cup in Brazil was to be a step forward in my career but it was not as I was out of action for seven months after the tournament.  I had an offer from Southampton then in January 2015 but the deal fell through because I could not meet the deadline set for my return to action.

 Playing at the World Cup in 2014 must be one of the biggest moments of your career at that time?

In a way it was because I played at two major tournaments with the team and I learnt a lot with the big players in the team at that time. Of course, it was also my biggest moment, coming from the Ukrainian league at the time. So, it was a big deal. That is the dream of every footballer and I’m happy to have played at the World Cup with Nigeria.

What was it like coming up against Lionel Messi during the group clash between Nigeria and Argentina?

He is my idol. I used to watch him play right from my days at Water FC and Heartland. Playing against him was tough because he was the difference in that game. They were not better that the Eagles but he scored twice and gave our team too much to worry defensively.

You played under the late Stephen Keshi, what kind of coach was he?

Keshi was a father to me, I still miss him. He had so much trust in me and gave me the chance to play for Nigeria. He understood what everyone was going through and how to help them. Keshi turned my childhood dream to reality. It was in our final training before the game against Bosnia that he told me I would start the game. He told me, ‘go there and show us what you are displaying here in training, if you lose the ball, make sure you get it back as soon as possible.’

In 2019, your club then Wydad Casablanca lost the CAF Champions League final to Esperance after the ref failed to consult VAR a Wydad disallowed goal and your teammates refused to continue playing unless VAR was consulted…

It was a drama filled day. I was on the bench with Gabriel Okechukwu when we scored the equaliser through Walid El Karti’s header but it was disallowed for a foul. And since VAR was in place to check, my teammates led by the captain, asked the referee to check to allow the goal stand, but he disallowed it. And that was when the problem started. We protested to the referee, demanding VAR be used to check the goal again but he refused. Even the former Confederation of African Football president Ahmad Ahmad pleaded with us to continue the game, but some of our club officials told the players to stay on the pitch until the goal was checked. After the wait, the referee awarded the victory to Esperance, who retained the title. It was very disappointing because I was hoping to win that title with Wydad.

You have played for several clubs in Europe, Africa and the Middle East. Which of these teams did you enjoy playing for the most?

I enjoyed football everywhere I signed to play, except for some teams who did not pay my salaries as at when due. Aside that, I never had problems at any team I played for.

Who’s the most difficult player you’ve played against and why?

It’s Fernandinho. I played against him when I was at Volyn and Kryvbass. He’s made of steel. He is so strong that I was so scared to take him on, unlike other defensive midfielders.

 Tell us about your best and worst football moments?

My injury worries were the only worst moments I had in football, while representing Nigeria at the World Cup in Brazil remains my best moment in football. Winning the league title in Morocco was special because the fans made a song for me then too.

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