For a certain generation of football video gamers, the mere mention of the name Tijani Babangida is enough to bring happy memories flooding back.
Babangida was the first true icon of Konami’s Pro Evolution Soccer franchise, at a time when its games outstripped FIFA on almost every conceivable level, save for a few official licences.
Not only was the gameplay streets ahead of the competition, PES also boasted the much vaunted Master League feature, which allowed players to manage their own team. Imagine Football Manager, but with less admin.
Those early incarnations of PES on the PS2 may have featured the likes of Roberto Carlos and Ryan Giggs – or Roberto Larcos and Ryan Greggs as they were known on the game – but it was Babangida who was the first player you signed on Master League.
Available on the cheap from Ajax, or Rijnkanaal to give them their PES name, Babangida was like the footballing love child of Lionel Messi and Usain Bolt.
Out of 100, Babangida scored 94 for top speed, 96 for agility, 97 for dribble speed and a blistering 99 for acceleration.
As such, he was the perfect player to get the best out of the rest of PES Master League’s default XI, scoring goals and setting up chances for stalwarts like Castolo and Huylens.
Despite his relatively unknown status outside of Holland and Nigeria, the winger emerged as one of the game’s worst kept secrets in much the same way players like Kennedy Bakircioglu and Cherno Samba did on Championship Manager.
Babangida was a cult hero among PES gamers. Legend has it one fan even ended up dumping his girlfriend after she tried to suggest the Nigerian wasn’t a real footballer.
Unfortunately, much like Bakircioglu and Samba, the career of the Babangida found in the games played out a little differently to the one witnessed in real life.
One of nine siblings, it was Tijani’s brother Haruna Babangida who looked to be the breakout star of the family after becoming the youngest player in Spanish football history to have a buy-out clause inserted into his contract.
Haruna made his Barcelona debut in 1998 aged 15 and went on to score 21 goals in his first 11 games for the B team. But his career quickly fizzled out.
Tijani Babangida enjoyed a far steadier ascent.
“I developed a lot of interest in football when I saw most of my idols play,” he later reflected.
“I made up my mind that I wanted to become a professional football player. Even when we were playing as children, watching the big players and the great Pele of Brazil on videos, it encouraged me more to go into football.”
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Babangida honed his skills playing in the backstreets of the city of Kaduna alongside fellow future Nigeria internationals Garba Lawal and Daniel Amokachi – he would go on to marry and eventually divorce Amokachi’s sister.
It didn’t take long for the short but stocky midfielder to catch the eye, thanks in no small part to his incredible pace.
“My speed is natural,” he told one interviewer. “It cannot be explained.”
Babangida certainly appeared to be a natural at the 1991 All Africa Games in Cairo, impressing enough aged just 17 to earn a move to Roda JC in Holland.
Immediately loaned out to local rivals VVV-Venlo, Babangida hit the ground running, literally and metaphorically, with three goals in his first six Eredivisie appearances.
That was not enough to prevent the club from going down but Babangida went on to play a key role as VVV-Venlo earned promotion at the first time of asking, bagging 16 goals in 28 games.
He returned to Roda the following summer brimming with confidence and quickly established himself as a fan favourite with 11 league goals as the club came sixth, within a point of qualifying for the UEFA Cup.
That kicked off a golden period for the Dutch underdogs, who finished the 1994-95 campaign as runners up, second only to Louis van Gaal’s all-conquering Ajax team who went the entire season unbeaten and went on to win the Champions League.
Many footballers can look back on a particular moment in their career and think “what if?”
For Babangida, it came in the summer of 1995 when Manchester United began to show an interest in signing him as a replacement for Andrei Kanchelskis.
“They wanted a winger and Alex Ferguson was at the club like three times because then they normally informed us when interest comes from a big club,” Babangida said. “But somehow along the line I really don’t know what happened as the deal failed to materialize.”
Though the emergence of a certain David Beckham played a part, Babangida didn’t let the missed opportunity affect him on the pitch. He was Roda’s top scorer during the 1995-96 season and even found the net in the UEFA Cup.
His situation would change soon enough, but first he had the small matter of representing Nigeria at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.
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Up until then, Babangida’s route into the Super Eagles starting eleven had been blocked by the presence of Finidi George. However, with the Ajax star absent from the squad for the Olympics, Babangida was left to stake a claim for a starting spot.
He went on to star as part of a Nigeria ‘Dream Team’ that etched its name into football history as the first African team to win Olympic gold in football, claiming memorable comeback wins against pre-tournament favourites Brazil and Argentina in the semis and final.
The success sparked a transfer frenzy. Nwankwo Kanu and Taribo West headed to Inter Milan, Jay-Jay Okocha joined Fenerbahce and Babangida signed for Ajax.
Purchased for €5million, Babangida was brought in as a direct replacement for Finidi, who moved to Real Betis that summer.
Despite the weight of expectation surrounding the deal, Babangida flourished under Van Gaal.
“He is one of the toughest coaches in the world,” Babangida said. “He would look into your eyes and tell you what he thinks about you without pretence.”
“I learned so many things about football under him. I grew rapidly under his tutelage and he will always remain my mentor and my best coach.”
Though Ajax endured a trophyless 1996/97 campaign, on a personal level Babangida’s debut season in Amsterdam was a roaring success with the winger making an impressive contribution to Ajax’s Champions League campaign that included goals against Auxerre and Atletico Madrid.
His goal against Atletico in their quarter-final second leg is still fondly remembered by Ajax fans.
With the game tied at 2-2 deep in extra time at the Vicente Calderon, Babangida collected a deflected pass on the right-hand side of the penalty area and, with the Atleti goalkeeper bearing down on him, gently lifted the ball over the onrushing shot-stopper and into the empty net.
The goal sparked pandemonium, with Babangida dashing to the touchline to share the moment in a warm embrace with Van Gaal.
Tijani Babangida 🇳🇬 audacious chip that sends Ajax into the semi finals
📍Atlético Madrid 2–3 Ajax [a.e.t]
🏆UEFA Champions League
📅19 March 1997
🏟️Vicente Calderón Stadium, Madrid pic.twitter.com/srzvQyLVR1
— AfricaFootballClassics (@AfricaClassic) July 23, 2019
It would prove to be one of their last happy moments together.
Van Gaal departed for Barcelona that summer. Yet Babangida went from strength to strength under successor Morten Olsen, scoring 13 goals in 26 Eredivisie games.
Ajax were utterly dominant that season, finishing 17 points clear of PSV Eindhoven and beating their bitter rivals 5-0 in the KNVB Cup final with Babangida opening the scoring.
He couldn’t have known it at the time, but this would be as good as it would ever get for the Nigerian.
The beginning of the end
A bit-part player for much of the 1998 World Cup, with Finidi once again preferred in attack, Babangida watched on from the sidelines that summer as the much-fancied Super Eagles had their wings clipped in the round of 16 by Denmark.
By the time he fired the ball past Peter Schmeichel in the Danish net, having come on as a substitute, it was already too late with Nigeria going down 4-1 to the Scandinavians.
A disappointing summer was compounded when Babangida ended up missing the start of the following season after catching malaria.
When he eventually returned to action, he found Ajax in the midst of a rotten campaign. Dumped out of the Champions League at the group stage and way off the pace in the Eredivisie, Babangida struggled for form and fitness, making just 18 appearances and seven starts in the league.
The sacking of Olsen in December did the Nigerian few favours either, with his replacement Jan Wouters opting to omit the winger from the Ajax squad after the club reached the KNVB Cup final.
Babangida featured just eight times for the club in the Eredivisie and found himself demoted to the reserves after opting to represent Nigeria at the 2000 Africa Cup of Nations.
— Oluwashina Okeleji (@oluwashina) July 10, 2019
Not that it was a decision he came to regret. With Finidi retired from international duty, Babangida featured more regularly at the tournament and once again flourished on the international stage.
Babangida featured in all five of Nigeria’s games with his crowning moment coming in the semi-finals, where he scored with two sublime finishes to set up a final encounter with Cameroon. The Indomitable Lions may have ultimately triumphed on penalties but there was a sense Babangida was back to something approaching his best.
Any hope of reconciliation with Ajax was extinguished under new manager Co Adriaanse, with Babangida one of five senior pros frozen out.
“’I long for a new start abroad,” told one Dutch newspaper at the time. “The level doesn’t really matter to me. Give me a year and I’ll be in the market for a top club again.”
Despite reported interest from Charlton Athletic, Babangida ended up moving on to Turkish Super Lig side Genclerbirligi.
Though he scored against Besiktas in a famous win and played his part in helping Genclerbirligi win the Turkish Cup, Babangida missed the final, having fallen out with the hierarchy after opting to ditch his club duties to go and play in an Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against Zambia.
His dedication to Nigeria did have at least one minor benefit for gamers – it meant he continued to feature on PES.
However, in reality, Babangida was hit with a hefty fine for his actions and soon landed himself in hot water again after crashing his brother-in-law Daniel Amokachi’s Mercedes before a game.
Excluded from the first team squad, he eventually returned to Ajax and initially looked set to join Auxerre. But in what would prove to be a fateful move, Babangida was instead coaxed to join a young Ronald Koeman at Vitesse Arnhem on loan.
“When Koeman asks you to play for him, there is no hesitation,” he explained at the time.
You can only imagine his reaction when, just a few months after he joined the club, Koeman jumped ship to manage Ajax.
He quickly went from starter to outcast under Koeman’s replacement, the defensively-minded Edward Sturing. Babangida failed to make another start for Vitesse and played just three more times in the Eredivisie.
A peripheral figure for Nigeria at the 2002 Africa Cup of Nations, Babangida found himself once again playing second fiddle to Finidi, following his compatriot’s decision to reverse his international retirement.
The last act
However, both players would end up missing that summer’s World Cup following a controversial cull of big name stars in the run-up to the finals. Babandiga had particular reason to feel aggrieved given that he had scored twice in a crucial win over Ghana in qualifying to seal the Super Eagles’ place.
A disastrous loan move to Al-Ittihad in Saudi Arabia followed, with Babangida lasting all of two months before being sacked, along with Brazilian World Cup-winning team-mate Bebeto, after a winless start to the season in which both players faced criticism over a perceived lack of professionalism.
But while a 38-year-old Bebeto could be forgiven, Babangida had yet to even turn 30 and was supposed to be at the peak of his powers.
He returned home to Ajax where, finally, his contract was terminated. Though Babangida continued to play in China for a few more years and even earned a brief recall for Nigeria he never reached the same heights again and retired in 2004, aged just 31.
“I think back to my career from time to time,” he said recently. “If I had to find a regret I would say that my dream was to move to a stronger club than Ajax, to take one more step in my career. However… I am very happy to have achieved what I have done with them.”
While moves to Manchester United, Auxerre and Charlton Athletic may not have happened, Babangida will always be an Olympic Gold medallist, always be an Ajax hero and always be the fastest man alive on Pro Evolution Soccer.