I screamed first time I saw Maradona at 1990 World Cup – Solaja


At the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, Nigeria’s Kunle Solaja was among 82 journalists honoured by FIFA and AIPS for their service to the World Cup. In this interview with ABIODUN ADEWALE, the veteran journalist, who’s attended nine FIFA World Cups, talks about his journey into sports reporting and more

Were you passionate about sports growing up?

I actually grew up in Ibadan within the vicinity of the Liberty Stadium in Oke-Ado. So, growing up, football was a passion for me, and somehow, I was robbed by lack of the strength and stature for it, because I was actually very skinny. So, in most cases I had to play with people who were below my age level then, so I couldn’t be a member of the school team. The Primary school I attended was Methodist School, Oke-Ado. I had always wanted to become a footballer since then.

In my secondary school in Sagamu, Ogun State, I still could not make it to the school team because of my small stature. I was even a junior athlete up to Form 4, because as at that time, they used weight and height to determine which category you belonged. So, I could not even make it to the senior team. But I was passionate about reading newspapers, about sports and football especially. So, by the time I was in Form 4, I had started covering football matches of my school team and pasted the handwritten reports on the notice board of the school. I remember a particular teacher then, one Mr. Tajudeen Ajetumobi, an English teacher, who was also following my writings, saying I would become a journalist. Also, during my days at the University of Lagos, all my projects and term papers were on sports. I had started inching towards sports journalism then. I remember on April 17, 1981, I just sat and wrote an article on the typewriter, which I titled, ‘Timely warning to the Green Eagles’ and I sent it by post to Tribune. Some days later, I was just going through a copy of the newspaper, and I started reading a particular story, I really can’t remember the headline now, but it looked familiar. I just looked at the author and saw my name there. A half page! That was the first time an article written by me was ever published. I still have the copy.

How has the journey been, working with different media organisations in Nigeria and abroad?

I started during my NYSC with Imo Newspapers, publishers of Statesman in 1983/1984. In 1985, I got a job with New Times Magazine and worked there till March 1986. Afterwards I joined African Concord Magazine. In 1989, I became the Group Sports Editor of Concord. I was with them till February 1997, before I moved to Guardian, where I worked as the Group Sports Editor till the 2002 World Cup, when a new publication in South Africa, Kick Off Magazine, approached me and I served as the pioneer Nigeria Editor till 2003, when I returned to the Guardian. In 2005, I joined The SUN as the pioneer Editor of Soccer Star and I transited to General Editor, Sports in 2013 to manage the daily sports and Soccer Star. In August 20, 2016, I was made the General Manager, Special Publications. By January 2017, I left The SUN and started my own blog, Sports Village Square, which I run till date. And then in 1994, my article first appeared in a foreign newspaper, the Washington Post. I wrote an article titled ‘Africans deserve some respect’ before Nigeria’s World Cup match against Argentina at the 1994 World Cup. It was published on June 27, 1994. I was approached for that work while I was arguing with some colleagues about African teams while covering the World Cup.

After covering a massive nine World Cups, can you share with us how it all started?

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It’s been very fulfilling and tasking at the same time. I just took a gamble and it worked. I remember I wrote to FIFA in 1990 applying for application. On February 2, 1990, I got a notification granting my request for the coverage. And as at that time, they introduced a $500 accreditation fee because they said at Mexico 1986, World Cup, all sorts of people applied for accreditation and at the end, the whole place was chaotic. So, they wanted to streamline it and ensure that only authentic journalists applied. So, you had to enclose your application with a cheque of $500, which would be refunded to you at the tournament. That system was stopped after the 1994 edition. I approached my editor at Concord, who tabled it before the MD, Dr. Doyin Abiola, and the cheque was raised for me. Before then, I had gone to Algiers 90’ to cover the Nations Cup on the request of Chief MKO Abiola, so that gave me a little fund for my Italia ‘90 trip because Abiola gave me $2,000 at the Nations Cup, so I kept that. By the time I was ready to depart, Concord also gave me $2,000 and having mentioned to Chief Abiola that I was the only Nigerian accredited for the World Cup, he also gave me another $2, 000. So, I was loaded. I must confess, the best reception I got in all my nine World Cups was the very first one in Italy. That time, there was a small card attached to our accreditation approval and they asked us to raise it upon entering Italy. Immediately I landed in Milan, I raised my approval and an announcement came up that everybody should please remain seated, adding, ‘we have in our midst an esteemed guest, a member of the 1990 FIFA World Cup.’ One air hostess quickly came to me and collected everything I was holding and they took me into a special lounge and my luggage was brought back to me. It was a memorable event for me, because, even all through my flight, I was wondering whether I was in this world because all the stars that I had read about, I was going to see them live. So, I was going to see (Jurgen) Klinsmann, (Diego) Maradona, (Marco) Van Basten, all the players I never thought I would see. Those were the thoughts running through my mind. On my arrival at the famous San Siro Stadium for the opening game between Argentina and Cameroon, I was amazed at the size and the beauty of it, but I was not happy with myself because I had parted with $600 to pay for the backlog of my hotel bookings. Immediately the players came out of the tunnel, I saw Diego Maradona, who was juggling the ball to the rhythm of the music at the stadium. I didn’t even when know when I started shouting, ‘I’ve been to the mountain top! I’ve been to the mountain top!’ and everyone stared at me. So, Italia 1990 was really worth the experience for me, to USA ’94, France 98, Korea/Japan 2002, Germany in 2006, South Africa 2010, Brazil 2014, Russia 2018 and Qatar 2022, it’s been fun and God willing, I hope to be at the next one, which will be the first to be hosted across three countries.

You’ve been to World Cups without Nigeria, what was the experience like?

As a matter of fact, I can tell you that covering a World Cup without Nigeria is always an easy tournament for one, because, you are not under pressure to follow one particular team. It’s like being given a free role. You use your discretion to decide the importance of games to cover and teams to follow. But when Nigeria is there, it is Nigeria first. Secondly, you find out that it is easier to approach a star from other countries for interviews than to even have a chat with the least player in the Nigerian squad. It’s sad, but that’s the reality. I don’t know what one can attribute it to, maybe arrogance or ignorance. I remember in 2002, I went to the Super Eagles hotel in Japan before their last game against England, which was a dead rubber. So, that morning when they were going for their last training session, the Japanese, who were working around there had quickly finished their chores and formed a guard of honour for them. Surprisingly, not a single player raised hand to acknowledge the gesture, and you could see the disappointment on the faces of the Japanese. How did you feel after you were honoured by FIFA and AIPS for covering nine World Cups?

It makes me feel great and fulfilled because I never thought that it could happen. I heard about Diego Luciero (the Uruguay journalist) being honoured at the 1986 FIFA Congress for his services to the World Cup. By the time I met him in 1990, he was the only man to have covered all the World Cups from 1930 to 1990. And I met him again in 1994, which was his last World Cup, before he died in 1995. Being honoured and being the only Blackman on the podium makes me very fulfilled and I thank AIPS and FIFA. Two days later, I met the FIFA president, Gianni Infantino, and he made some remarks about me as ‘one of the journalists the World Cup deserves.’ Such a comment from the FIFA president is elevating and I thank people who also made it possible for me to attend all these World Cups. Without their support, I would have been anonymous.

At Qatar 2022, some journalists passed on. How difficult was it for you to deal with this?

As a matter of fact, I also took ill, two days after the honour. I think I was watching Tunisia vs France, all of a sudden, I felt this choking cold. For two days, I had to cancel two matches that the tickets had been granted, because I needed to stay alone and get myself treated. It was like a flu blowing across, because by the time I started coming back to the media centre, virtually everyone was coughing. One flaw about this edition of the World Cup was the arrangement of the media entry. They probably didn’t put into consideration that media men were ageing, so having to walk a long distance from the point the bus would drop you to the entry of the stadium was stressful. And from the entrance of the stadium, you had to go round for another 20 minutes before you got to the media tribune and doing so, you passed through the crowd. But in other World Cups, the media entry was cut off from the crowd; the tribune was closer to the media centre, such that anyone you came across was an official, not spectators.


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