A quick look around at some of the recently put-together lists of Nigeria’s greatest ever footballers always throw up familiar names like Austin Okocha, Nwankwo Kanu, Emmanuel Amuneke, Mikel Obi, Rashidi Yekini, and the likes.
But long before these modern Nigerian legends learned to kick balls around, the country was already blessed with heroes whose heroics placed the country’s name on the football map.
There was Segun Odegbami, Christian Chukwu, Sylvanus Okpala, Henry Nwosu, Felix Owolabi. And then there was Mudashiru ‘Muda’ Babatunde Lawal.
After a maiden appearance at the 1963 African Cup of Nations hosted and won by Ghana, Nigeria failed to qualify for the subsequent five editions of the continental competition.
And when Zambia, following a 7-4 aggregate win, stopped the Green Eagles from making the 1974 tournament, it was apparent that new blood needed to be freshly injected into the flailing national team.
21-year-old Lawal, after a breakthrough season at IICC Shooting Stars, was one of the youngsters that Serbian coach Tiko Jelisavcic introduced to the national fold in 1975.
And remarkably, Nigeria not only qualified for the 1976 Afcon but returned from Ethiopia with her first medal at the tournament, following her third-place finish.
That same year, Lawal helped IICC to their first continental title, winning the African Cup Winners Cup – becoming the first Nigerian team to attain such heights.
And the young midfielder quickly became a mainstay in the middle of the park for the Green Eagles.
Again, with Lawal dictating play from midfield, Nigeria claimed another bronze medal at Ghana ’78 before finally winning their first AFCON title when they hosted the rest of the continent in 1980.
Now a regular under new Brazilian coach Otto Glória and a national team veteran at age 25, Lawal was an influential member of the Green Eagles team that lifted the Afcon trophy for the first time on home soil.
Lawal scored Nigeria’s last goal in the 3-0 defeat of Algeria in the final in one of his most accomplished performances ever.
The former Abiola Babes star earlier scored Nigeria’s first goal of the tournament, finding the net after just 11 minutes in the 3-1 triumph over Tanzania.
Lawal made it to two more editions of the Afcon, picking up another silver medal at Ivory Coast ’84.
The midfield maestro honoured his last international call-up in 1985.
But he was not done as he led Abiola Babes to lift the Nigerian FA Cup in 1987.
In 1989, Lawal returned to his beloved IICC Shooting Stars as a player/assistant coach until 1991, 16 years after bursting into the national consciousness with his raw talent, energy, and dynamism.
His death later that year shocked the football-loving section of Nigeria and beyond.
In recognition of his immense contribution to the beautiful game, the Ashero Stadium in his hometown of Abeokuta was renamed the Mudashiru Lawal Stadium.
Asero Stadium was the mecca of football in Ogun State at the time, serving as the home to great teams like Abiola Babes, Concord FC, and Gateway FC.
One of the biggest markets in the Bauchi metropolis in Bauchi State was also named after him.
The Confederation of African Football (CAF), in 2003, conferred on him a posthumous award for football development on the continent.
FIFA recently celebrated him for being the first African to make five consecutive appearances at the African Cup of Nations.
Muda Lawal was capped 86 times, and he scored 12 goals for his country.
What they say about Lawal
“Muda was among the very best that Nigeria ever produced, without a shadow of a doubt. Among the very best I played with, and one of the very best I played against.” Charles Okonkwo, ex-Green Eagles (1984-1989).
“(Muda Lawal) is regarded as one of the best players of the (1980 Afcon) victorious team. The auto-mechanic turned footballer had a remarkable career with the Eagles spanning over a decade and scored the third goal in the 3-0 win in the final. – CAF, the number one football-governing body in Africa.
“Mudashiru Babatunde Tiamiyu Lawal was a great guy, a world-class football player, a complete gentleman, a wonderful father and husband, and a friend in whom I am very proud. May he continue to rest peacefully.” – Segun Odegbami, ex-Green Eagles star
“The closest player to play on Muda’s level in those heady days, and much later was Henry Nwosu. Henry probably had a slight edge as an entertainer- he was a master dribbler! Muda was, however, super-efficient as he was all about business.” – Odolaye Aremu, veteran wordsmith.
“Muda was a true patriot and great footballer whose service to his nation was unbeaten and legendary. Thirty years after, this great footballer’s exploits and artistry on the field of play remains fresh in our memories.” – Nigeria Football Supporters Club Chairman Samuel Ikpea.
“I looked up to late Muda Lawal. I played against him and alongside him at NEPA FC. One day he said to me: ‘Forget about what you’ve done yesterday. Forget about your last game. Always think of today and what you have done for yourself that will make you a better person tomorrow. If you live in the past, then you will be an ex-international. Strive to become a veteran. Tomorrow has to be a function of today, and today is another day.” – Waidi Akanni, former Lagos State FA Chairman.