At 40, I’m not thinking of retirement, says Rabiu Ali, ‘NPFL’s oldest player’

A few people in Kano are as popular as Rabiu Ali, captain of Pillars Football Club. It is a popularity that has spanned over a decade and still counting.  Advertisement

For a city whose people are renowned for commerce, culture, and politics, it raises curiosity that a football player would enjoy a huge dose of the limelight and popularity at the same time. Whether around his home in the ancient city, or on the Pillars’ training pitch, or during matches or even at social functions, the situation is the same. Ali is idolised to no end. “Pele, Pele, Pele, Pele…” is chanted as he makes his way past a sea of fans who usually swarm on him.

It could make the Brazilian legend Pele, after whom Ali is nicknamed, green with envy. Advertisement In fairness, though, Ali has played football all his life, starting as a kid in the densely populated Fagge area of Kano where his primary schoolmates had given him the name that would stick till this moment.

“I was just a precocious little boy at Fagge Primary School who loved playing football. I played it with so much passion that nothing else interested me more,” he said.

Advertisement “I think I did better than my mates and they soon began to see me as having the skills that they lacked. Before I knew it, they started to call me _Pelen yaro_ (translated in English as young Pele) and it really made me known in my school and beyond.”

For the talented kid, the flight to the top had begun. One local side called Soccer Boys Football Club snapped him up. Soon after, another club named Zumunta practically snatched him away, only for Junior Fancy to come calling after a few months.

Yet another side, Soccer Strikers, signed him. But it did not take long before Bank of the North desperately came for him. At that time, he had become a household name as a midfield player who had perfected the art of scoring vital goals.

Ali was destined to be a star in his native Kano. He was poached away from Bank of the North by Zamfara United Football Club. Notwithstanding that he shone at the club before he moved again to Nasarawa United, he returned to Kano in 2007 to play for Pillars.

Advertisement In the last 14 years, he has become synonymous with Sai Masu Gida, as Pillars are known. Ali has seen many players as coaches come and go while he remains.

He is a natural leader. But despite wielding so much influence as captain and team’s focal point, he has carried himself with exceptional humility. “I am aware of the popularity I enjoy among football fans especially in Kano and I must be honest to say I enjoy it so much.

But I give Allah all the praise because at the beginning when I became conscious of what I wanted to be, I asked Allah to either help me make it through football or just show me another path. I think He chose football for me and I am happy for what I have achieved so far,” he said. At 40, Ali is the oldest among all the professional players in Nigeria.

It is a feat which no player has ever attained. The fact that Ali leads Pillars out in every game says everything about his staying power. Advertisement

Yet, the former Nigeria international who featured prominently in the Super Eagles B Team says he is far from tired. “My strength comes from Allah and only him can determine when I would stop playing active football. As I said, he has taken me this far so I would concede to him when he says it is over,” he added.

For one who is idolised on account of his prodigious wizardry on the pitch, Ali also has idols. He found one in the Brazilian Pele. He once idolised younger Cristiano Ronaldo but not anymore.

These days, he has found favour with even much younger Paul Pogba who he says “excites me with his operation in the midfield, with regard to passing and aiming for goal.” Advertisement The veteran player gives kudos to managers of the Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL) for waddling through turbulence and still managing to sail on.

“For me, the only area of complaint is the confusion sometimes generated by congested fixtures. I think the League Management Company can do well by ensuring efficient arrangement of the fixtures in the interest of sanity,” he added.

Although Ali is aware that time would be called on his career someday, he has made provision for what he calls “adequate arrangement” for life after football. “I have always thought of doing business after my career and especially engaging in truck haulage. I have not shifted my focus from that and I am only waiting to go into it fully,” he said.

Apparently, Ali would not exploit his overwhelming popularity to make a foray into partisan politics like many in his position would do. He could be pressed to no end to even talk politics. “Sorry, I have got nothing to say” is sure to be his response. He willingly concedes that he could not have achieved the fame and fortune in football “without the help of my family, coaches, teammates, administrators, fans and media”.

He also sounds a note of warning to the aspiring stars to “imbibe discipline in addition to being trustworthy in their dealings.”

Aside from earning his stripes on the pitch for his outstanding efficiency with which he has netted more than 100 goals in a career spanning three decades, he has also earned his respect off it as administrators, fans and journalists are unanimous that “Rabiu is reliable.” Nothing can be more assuring.