Forty one years after the death of Teslim ‘Thunder’ Balogun, Nigeria’s first player to star in the English Football League, his son, Kayode, tells OLUFEMI ATOYEBI that after his father returned from the UK, all was not well with the prolific striker who led Nigeria football team to the 1968 Olympics
How did your father combine his legendary role in Nigerian football with his functions as a father?
I knew little about my father because he died when we were young and most importantly, he travelled a lot. But I read a lot about him and heard so much about the type of person he was through his friends and my mother.
From the little time he spent with us, I will say he was a father with two faces. He was a strict disciplinarian who would never overlook a mistake made by any of his children. It was a feature he got as a footballer. Every sportsman must be disciplined to excel on the field. My father was no exemption and he ensured that he instilled the same quality in his children. It did not matter how old you were in those days, once you erred at home, you must be ready to face the penalty.
On the other hand, he was such a caring father because after telling you that you were wrong, he would bring you closer and embrace you as a child. He protected us all and provided for the family. During the short time he spent with his family, he did not ignore his responsibilities as a father. He was not rich but he was always there at the point of our needs.
Above all, my father was a religious person. He feared God and served Him with all he had. We observed all the prayers together and celebrated in a modest way when it was time to mark any of his children’s birthday or any event in the house. He helped many people and although I was young in those days, I noticed that many people came around to seek favours from my father. He gave what he had to people even if it meant that he would suffer.
How much of his career did you know?
My father was a celebrity, but he tried as much as possible to live a quiet live. That was why he trained his children to be humble. He did not drive a car befitting of his social or economic status. He was also always ready to help Nigeria whenever he was called upon. He died in 1972 at 45 but today, it was as if he lived up to 100 years. People loved him and they still show their love for him. Many people did not see him play but they eulogise him at every anniversary of his death.
Did he ever have the opportunity to call his children and tell them stories about himself?
He died at a time no one expected a healthy man to die. I am sure that as a normal human being, he did not prepare to die so soon. Otherwise, he would have called us together and told us things we did not know about him. However, we grew up to know about his background better.
His father, Oseni, was a star cricketer in the 20s; this was the period that my father was born. He grew up to know sports as a family business and he chose football as his own path to stardom. He had what sportsmen usually referred to as bow legs, which aided his skills as a footballer. He was seven feet tall and he used the height to his advantage.
He attended St. Patricks School, Oko-Awo in Lagos and St. Mary’s School, Port Harcourt and later Cosmopolitan Evening School. All along, he played for the schools’ football teams. By 19, he was the star of Apapa Bombers FC and scored the lone goal when they defeated one of the most formidable teams in Nigeria at the time, Railways XI. He moved on to play for Marine Athletic Club in 1946, UAC XI in 1947 and Railways in 1948. He also played for Union Line in the same year.
By 22, he had represented Nigeria many times and was selected as one of the players to represent the country during the UK Tour where Nigeria played many friendly matches against top clubs in the UK. They did not play with boots but bare feet, sometimes with only bandages around their feet. He joined Jos XI on his return and helped the team reach the final of the Challenge Cup for the first time in 1951 losing to Lagos Railways. After playing for eight first division clubs in 11 years, he left for the UK in 1955 to study printing technology but he was signed by Peterborough United.
In those days, football had more entertainment value than financial importance. If he had played today, he would have been a very rich man. Between 1955 and 1961 when he returned home, he played for a number of clubs, including Queens Park Rangers. He also did a coaching course to become the first UK-trained African coach. He played for Nigeria for 17 years and was the first Nigerian coach to lead Nigeria football team to the Olympics in 1968, drawing 3-3 with Brazil.
Why was your father given the name ‘Thunder’?
His fans gave him the name because he had great shot in both feet which could be likened to the force of thunder.
Where were you when he played in England?
We were all there with him but he brought everybody back when he was returning home in 1961. He did not want to come back but my mother persuaded him to return to Nigeria. When he was leaving in 1955, Nigeria did not want him to go so he travelled through Ghana.
Did you ever watch him play?
I had no opportunity to watch him play live on the pitch. The only time I would have watched him was during a friendly match at the Liberty Stadium in Ibadan (now Obafemi Awolowo Stadium), but the match was put off. I can’t remember why it was cancelled but that was my last chance to see him live in action.
Is it true that your father tore a goalkeeper’s stomach with a shot?
People said a lot of things about my father. Some of them are true, others false. Sometimes, I laugh after hearing some funny tales about my father. One of the funny tales is that of the goalkeeper who died after trying to stop my father’s shot. Well, the truth is that he did not tear his stomach with the shot. The goalkeeper had an injury trying to stop his shot and because the medical facility at the time was not as efficient as we have today, he died of injury. But my father did not have the intention of killing the goalkeeper with the shot. It was a match and he only tried to score for his side. My mother and uncles, who saw more of my father, told the children a lot about him.
How did your father get the special skills he displayed on the pitch?
He had many firsts in his life and when others were playing with boots, he played bare-footed in extreme cold regions in the UK. But those were attributes given by God. He gave few people such talent in each generation just as He had done with the greatest inventors of past generations. My father’s talent was recognised by the Queen of England and when he died, she sent a letter to my mother. We don’t know where the letter is again because my mother almost ran mad when my father died. So, she just put the letter somewhere. But she told us that the Queen sent a condolence letter.
Where were you when he died?
I was in the boarding house at the Comprehensive High School, Ayetoro. I was in form two. My two other brothers were also in the school. The last born in our family was a baby when our father died. Our guardian and counsellor, the late M.A. Kuti came to me in the hostel and told me that I had to travel to Ibadan with my brothers. We were confused because the last time my father came to coach the school’s football team, he told us he would take us abroad when he visited again. So, we thought it was time to go. I gave out some of my clothes to my friends thinking that I would be going abroad. I had never seen a dead man before so when I saw my dad corpse, I thought he was sleeping. I asked my mother why he was sleeping in a box (coffin) and why we had so many people in the house. She was just crying. Then I knew something bad had happened to the family.
His corpse was taken in a motorcade to Onikan Stadium in Lagos but when we arrived at the stadium, Lagosians became aggressive and started sending away every man with tribal mark. They said Ibadan people did not treat my father well and that was why he died early. The late Chief Lekan Salami had to disguise to enter the stadium for the lying-in-state.
Did your father have problems with Ibadan people?
He lived all his life serving Nigeria and worked as chief coach of the old Western Region, with Ibadan as his base. He was given the job by the late Chief Obafemi Awolowo but the former Premier did not know that my father was not treated well in Ibadan. He had a turbulent period working there because some of his entitlements were not paid. Maybe he was treated so because he was not an Ibadan man but he helped them train many great coaches including Jide Johnson. He was at a time abandoned but my mother persuaded him to continue. My mother told me everything.
How did your mother cope with the training of eight children alone?
It was a tough time for the family. We went through difficult times to survive but all thanks to God and my mother. There was no assistance from anywhere and she sold almost all her belongings including expensive jewellery, to train us.
How did your father die?
My mother said he called her in the night and they spoke about their life journey until around 2am when he eventually went to sleep. It was an unusual conversation but there was nothing to suggest that he was spending his last night with the family. In the morning, she tried to wake him up but he was gone. She called our family doctor, Dr. Olusanya, who confirmed that he was dead.
Could you remember your last meeting with him?
It was when he came to train my school team at Comprehensive High School Ayetoro. One of my brothers was the best player in the school but my father told the team after training that my brother, whom we all thought was a great dribbler, was after all a bad player. We were all dumbfounded by his remark. That was our last meeting before he died.
How about your mother?
Unfortunately, we lost her after all the troubles. She suffered a lot but she did not live long enough to enjoy the fruits of her labour. She developed high blood pressure after losing my father but we managed her condition for more than 30 years before she died. We celebrated our mother’s 60th birthday in 1998 but on the same day, she went into a coma for 18 days before she died. Chief Molade Okoya was the chairman during the birthday ceremony.
Did she have any regret before she died?
She was not happy with Oyo State because of the way the Ibadan people treated my father. The state did not support our family after my father’s death.
Did she tell you how she met your father?
My mother, Mulikat, was a table tennis player and very elegant. She had no male friends but through her brothers who were footballers, my father had access to her and approached her. They married in the 50s. Chief Molade Okoya played a role in my parents’ relationship. My mother was in her late 20s when we lost our father.
You and your siblings took after your father by playing football. How was it like stepping into his shoes?
That was not possible. No one can be like Thunder Balogun and when I played for clubs in Nigeria, I was not looking forward to be like him. All of us knew that he was a special individual and we did not have his talent. We were able to assist my mother with the training of our younger siblings from the income we got from playing football.
I played more than the rest, playing for NEPA, Stores, Water Corporation, First Bank and Abiola Babes. I would have earned more money in Abiola Babes but my mother told me to leave because she did not want me to play for the late Chief MKO Abiola club. I think she was reacting to something that happened a long time ago. I chose to play for Abiola to show that our family had nothing against him but my mother insisted that I should quit the club.
I remember sharing the same room with Mitchel Obi (sports journalist) in the university. Each time we had a match, he would come to me and give me a meal ticket so that I could have strength. It was a big support, one among the many I never got.
Where are your other siblings?
I have seven siblings. They are Tunde, Tokunbo, Olamide, Jibola, Iyabo, Bioye and Oluwole. Most of them have returned to the UK. We are all doing well now but it’s painful that our mother is not alive to witness what we have been doing to immortalise our father.
Will you say that Nigeria has done enough to recognise your father’s contribution to the development of sports in the country?
Well at least, Lagos State has done well to recognise him. A major stadium is named after him and there is a foundation in his name wihich the late Olu Lagunju was fully involved its establishment. We are celebrating the 41st anniversary of my father’s death and it’s unfortunate that Lagunju is not around again to play his role. I must also thank the Lagos State Governor Babatunde Fashola who has done a lot to immortalise my father.
Did your father die a fulfilled man?
Like I said earlier, he was a special individual and I believed that he enjoyed himself. He had fun playing around the world and socially, he enjoyed himself. He loved taking a little beer when he was relaxed. He had great time with his children, taking us to the field and teaching us how to play football.
Would you have wished that he was not a famous person if that would have preserved his life?
God brought him to this world to fulfil a purpose and He chose a path for him to excel. We have no power over that. Being famous made him a respected person and I think I would pray that he comes back to this world as a sportsman.
7 things you didn’t know about my parents
• He died in his sleep
• He travelled to the UK through Ghana because Nigeria did not want him to go
• He spoke with my mum till 2am on the day he died
• He was not flamboyant
• He was the first African to be awarded a coaching certificate in the UK
• He taught his children how to play football
•The Queen of England sent a condolence letter when he died
Culled from Sunday Punch.