Lest we forget: The back-flipping Celestine Babayaro

Celestine Babayaro
Former Chelsea and Nigeria international, Celestine Babayaro

We take a look at players for whom we have a great deal of lingering fondness, sometimes for reasons unclear. We are putting together quite a collection

From where did he appear?

He cameth from Anderlecht, where I can glean a small amount of information on his performances for the team in possession of boring nicknames both in Dutch (the Purple and Whites) and in Flemish (Sporting).

We can all remember where we were, a few months fresh from our 16th birthdays, lording it over the school from our lofty perch in sixth form, starting to believe that we might not get ID’d, this time, getting sent off in a Champions League game and setting a record as the youngest player to do that, while winning the Belgian league in our debut season.

Such strange, truncated, and you’d think, emotionally disturbing timetables young footballers who suddenly become valuable have to keep.

And, to quote Alan Shearer, it doesn’t necessarily seem the best recipe for long-term success. For every Arjen Robben or Lionel Messi who made it work thanks to gargantuan amounts of talent, or James Milner thanks to gargantuan amounts of beige-hued mental stability, there’s a world of Bojans, Lee Bowyers, Michael Owens and Freddy Adus, all of whom were not eventually what they were prophesied to be. And indeed though playing it in a minor key, Babayaro himself.

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He didn’t start at Anderlecht; he started at Plateau United, a football team from the city of Jos. Related to that team, I can only offer you this: in 2013, the feeder team for Plateau was indicted and banned for ten years for their role in a match-fixing scam. What alerted the authorities? A 79-0 victory over Akurba FC.

On a bigger stage, he was both a member of a U-17 World Cup-winning Nigerian team, and a few years later, unforgettably, a gold-medal Olympian in 1996, part of a team where every player was worth a look, from Jay-Jay Okocha to Taribo West to Nwankwo Kanu to quite the most beautifully named of all footballers, Sunday Oliseh.

And in the final of course refereed by Pierluigi Collina after scoring Nigeria’s first against a team featuring literally every single future name of that era’s Argentina, from Zanetti at the back to Crespo at the front, Celestine did a back-flip then sauntered like a drunken sailor towards the corner flag.

So that was the back story, and all of his rangy, action-packed, enthusiastic work from left-back had alerted a Chelsea scout, and over here he came to join a Chelsea side that was by then (1997) fully in the groove of throwing off its dour trappings when every player was called Newton and Sinclair, and replacing them with far more appealing names like Gullit, Zola, and Vialli. Into that mix came Celestine.

How did it go?

Let us never pretend that, for some Premier League players, we can retain a crystal-clear image of their individual contribution.

To some degree, they’re simply names we can’t forget, a mind’s second tier behind the names of people we knew at school. But beyond that, they exist at least for me like a caricature of themselves, a sudden flash of long legs and bolting athleticism up the left side, a shonky touch, enthusiasm undimmed, a back-flip, as other swirls of memory Gianfranco Zola’s pretty footwork then sudden thunderbolts, Roberto Di Matteo smoothly transitioning defence to attack, Dennis Wise lunging into a tackle then leaping up like a small, angry dog appear in the same mental neighborhood.

In terms of the facts, it was a bountiful time for Chelsea. I seem to recall them participating in every single cup final, and indeed in Celestine’s debut season alongside the not inconsiderable new contributions to the Chelsea effort of Tore Andre Flo, Gus Poyet and a young John Terry they reached and won the League Cup final, having won the FA Cup the previous year, and reached and won the Cup Winners’ Cup final.

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That was the cup run featuring, you might recall, Chelsea playing Tromso in what you’d class as ‘heavy snow’, 200-odd miles from the Arctic circle. The ball was switched for an orange one, the playing surface submerged under a white carpet I have so much respect for professional footballers, in these moments. Gianluca Vialli scored two goals that both implied he was still taking this seriously, trying to make proper runs, execute chances, whilst breathing in lungfuls of torturously cold air.

You wouldn’t do that, you’d just run around slipping over and hoofing at things. Not that any of it was necessary of that much interest to Celestine; he got injured in December and missed the whole of the season.

But once he’d regained fitness, he was a valuable outlet for that Chelsea side, who I recall being a wildcard of complete delight, purveyors of the most swaggering kind of football, just behind the more professional and effective heavyweights of United and Arsenal. In a sense, they’d both bought wonderfully, and badly Zola, Poyet, Di Matteo and Vialli all graced any football pitch, but only the middle of it.

Width was in short supply, and hence, having a left-back with boundless running and exuberance to streak past all the congested midfield happenings and put balls into the box, especially for Tor Andre Flo, was exactly what they needed.

In his second season, Chelsea came third, a very new thing for them, participating in a slightly demented final table where despite the top three only losing ten games between them, they also contrived to draw 40, so no-one’s got many points, and Chelsea missed the title by four.

Two of their draws converted to wins and Celestine’s a title-winner. Instead, a few more cups were added, charitably including the 2000 Charity Shield and that, as far as a successful career goes, was that. As Chelsea moved in fits and spurts into the last throes of being a loveable team, Celestine was there on the left side doing his exuberant thing. And then how about this, as a chillingly humdrum line: he was declared bankrupt in 2011. Oh Celestine, what have you done?

What was his defining moment?

It would be cruel and misplaced to judge the success of a football player’s career by whether they bring it to a safe, stable conclusion. I’m surprised by any successful footballer that isn’t bankrupt, given the age at which they get their money and the culture that surrounds the getting of it. Not sure I was particularly good at picking advisors and planning exit strategies aged 25 either.

I read a report by an academic who surveyed a huge number of African players, interviewing Marcel Desailly (born in Ghana), Emmanuel Eboue, Samuel Eto’o, Victor Wanyama among many others, and every single one interviewed said they felt both culturally and morally bound to send money back home and invest in local projects.

As you can imagine, the beginnings of many African professionals required all kinds of help – for equipment, to travel to places where scouts might be, to afford foreign visas – and hence, they feel a pressing debt to their origins.

Furthermore, they reference cultural ties that run broader and deeper in Africa than in the nuclear families of Europe. The financial obligation is growing. Plus, you’re such a visible ‘earner’, there’s no way you can disappear into the foreign diaspora and plead hardship. Not to bum you out too much, but I’ve read an article from the Newcastle Chronicle referencing a house in Middlesex where, having declared bankruptcy, Babayaro was now living.

And where auditioning for the role of petty Englander par excellence, a neighbour tells us “they came and asked to borrow my lawnmower, but I had to say no because the grass was too long, and it would have broken it”, Witness the different senses of community obligation in different places.

Why would the Newcastle Chronicle have taken interest in a player who played for them about 40 times and did almost nothing of note? Because almost nothing is not quite nothing, and in 2007, 12 hours after his brother died of tuberculosis, he declared he nonetheless wanted to play for the team.

I remembered it too, a moment flashed in time, Glenn Roeder’s appreciation in a press conference, just another moment on that vast subconscious tapestry of ‘things that happened’ we football fans are all carting around.

How is he now?

More cheerful than you might think, having recast himself as an agent, though all notes of enthusiasm he sounds for the prospects of African football, for Nigerian players seem tempered by the desire to not get too carried away that all those who have been burnt by misplaced optimism will recognise.

This is nice though, talking about his son, who currently playing in Newcastle’s academy: “He does do the back-flips, I’m being completely serious with you, he saw a video of me doing them. He decided he had to learn how to do them so now he does them without even putting his hands on the floor which is great. I love watching him play.”

Toby Sprigings for Planet Football

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