At the age of 21, Tola Ogunlewe made a trip from Lagos to London, hoping to catch the eye of football scouts and set himself on the path to a successful football career. Instead, it all but ended.
“The first — and only — match I played, I didn’t last five minutes before the knee gave way. It was off my first dash,” Ogunlewe said.
A few months before graduating from the University of Lagos, Ogunlewe was on the receiving end of a tackle during a kickabout ahead of a university tournament.
“It was like something I’d never felt before,” he recollected.
Ogunlewe had planned his route into professional football after earning a law degree “for my parents” in 2010. He had trials set up in Europe and set out in pursuit of his own dreams.
But, ill-advised by medical practitioners who had no idea about the severity of the injury, he was urged to “massage it and they gave me Aboniki or Robb [hot balms]”, which helped only to reduce the swelling. With the cost of an MRI scan prohibitively expensive in Nigeria, Ogunlewe resorted to having an X-ray taken. Despite the hot balms, the discomfort in his knee persisted when he arrived in London and prepared himself for trials.
“I needed to get an MRI in England to be sure of the extent of the injury, and got to know that my ACL [anterior cruciate ligament] was torn. I had a partial medial collateral ligament tear and a partial meniscus tear. I had bone bruising, with the bones from my leg and thigh up against each other and there was debris in the knee, which needed to be cleaned.”
Anterior cruciate ligament injuries, even at the earliest diagnosis, are an athlete’s nightmare. After surgery, it takes between six to nine months to heal, and put paid to many a career.
For Ogunlewe, the dream was over before it began. He had been playing with the injury for months, further exacerbating it.
Jimi Osinaike, a sports medicine physician at the Summit Orthopaedic Hospital in Lagos, is one of the few evangelists of sports medicine in Nigeria. His experience of working with young footballers, including the Nigeria under-15 national team, has made clear to him how rampant ignorance is destroying the talent pool in the country.
“This has affected the health of these young athletes because, often times when they get injured, the coaches that should direct them to the right places are also not aware, so they just send them to a general hospital.”
Osinaike believes in a holistic approach to the health of a footballer.
“The sports medicine team is actually broad. We have a lot of professionals working in that field. We have a sports psychologist, nutritionist, physiotherapist and scientist,” he said.
Ogunlewe returned to Nigeria turned his attentions to his law studies. Today, he is an athletics performance analyst and sports lawyer.
It is common for aspiring players from Nigeria and other African countries to be ignorant of holistic health regimes. Adeyemi Adegboyega, a Nigerian football agent and freelance scout based in Bulgaria, has seen the effects of poor nutrition, and lack of attention to mental and physical health that cause many a young hopeful to fail.
Nigeria is considered one of the biggest exporters of footballing talent in Africa, and Lagos, its commercial hub, is home to many of the clubs and academies. Officially, more than 300 are affiliated to the Lagos State Football Association, with hundreds more unregistered in the state.
Many of these are purely geared towards making money by getting footballers to play in Europe.
“Every serious club [in Europe], even the amateur clubs, take their sport science seriously. Even the recovery of players after games is taken very seriously,” Adegboyega said.
“But we are many years behind in Nigeria. How many teams have real sport doctors?”
In 2018, Ayoade Ayinde*, 17, tore his knee ligaments during a kickabout in his hometown of Ijebu, in southwest Nigeria. He was rushed to a traditional bone-setter.
Bone-setting is commonplace in Nigeria and the practice is recognised by the World Health Organisation. Practitioners use their knowledge of herbs, lotions and balms, and often what is considered to be supernatural intervention.
For injuries similar to Ayinde’s, it is common practice to have a combination of herbal lotions, bandages and wooden rulers strapped to the affected area to support the fractured bone while it heals.
After seeing no progress, Ayinde, acting on the advice of his priest, sought a conventional medical practitioner and was referred to Onimisi Salami, the head of surgery at the Summit Orthopaedic Hospital .
“They don’t make diagnosis,” Salami said of the traditional bone-setters. “Most times, they treat all injuries the same way. So, an athlete going to a traditional bone-setter is at a loss already. No diagnosis, no X-ray is done and sometimes, the injury is even made worse.”
Pushing sports medicine
Salami works alongside Osinaike at the sports science centre in Lagos and gives discounts to young footballers who are unable to foot medical bills.
Ayoade, after arthroscopy surgery — paid for with funds raised by his church, coupled with Salami’s discount — is on his way to recovery after initial fears that he would have to give up the game.
To raise awareness of sports medicine in Nigeria and preserve the talent pool, Osinaike and Salami are leading the charge. Using a combination of his presence on social media platforms and his relationship with the local media, Osinaike is educating a larger audience.
“The coaches have a huge influence on the players,” Salami said. “Whatever they tell them, they [the players] believe.
“We are setting up some enlightenment programmes for coaches and players, and even club owners, telling them that when they get injured, the first thing they should do is get a proper diagnosis from a sports doctor.”
The Mees Palace Football Academy in the city of Jos started in 2017 and is one of the clubs adopting the new approach directed by the likes of Osinaike and Salami. A partnership with Dutch kit company Masita has meant they can invest in the medical health of their teams through the sport science centre.
As well as attending to young talents, the sport science centre attends to established players. One of their success stories is Terry Envoh, who feared his career was over after a horrible hip injury in 2014.
After successful surgery in 2017 the striker was able to return to football and is flourishing.
To help build the sports science sector in Nigeria, Salami says confidence has to built in the practice.
“We are getting a lot of good results … we already have established professional players coming from outside the country to get care here in Nigeria,” Salami said. “It’s a slow process, but we are on track.”
* A pseudonym