In 10 years since the resuscitation of Major League Soccer (MLS) no known Nigerian player has been featured in the league. Yet, Abbey Okulaja, Gazelle Football Club President, emerged as the best MLS referee in 2004, his second year as a referee in the soccer league. He described the MLS as the fittest league in the world in an interview with Joseph Omoremi, editor of The Chicago Inquirer.
Interview by Joseph Omoremi
Inquirer: How has it been in MLS?
Abbey: It’s been really good and exciting. I won the best referee of the year last year. And I’m looking forward to a better outing again this year.
Inquirer: What does it take to win the MLS referee of the year?
Abbey: It is based on performance recognized by the players, coaches and sports reporters as well as games’ reports.
Inquirer: Has it opened other doors for you like officiating FIFA games or World Cup?
Abbey: My age may not allow that. I still have a chance and could still get on the list this year but my age is not in support of that. You have to be on the list before you are 40. And you have to get out before you are 45. I’m already above 40.
Inquirer: Could that be a regret?
Abbey: No. We have the African soccer festival we host yearly across the country and players and coaches want me to help out in Nigeria.
Inquirer: How many Africans are in the MLS?
Abbey: I did a game between L. A. Galaxy and NY-Metrostars. There was an African from Metrostar. He is from Togo. He came to me after the game and asked, Are you a Togolese? His name is Abbey Ibrahim.
Inquirer: What are the challenges in MLS?
Abbey: Refereeing is the same thing all over the world because the players want you to be fair. My motto when I go to any game is to be courageous and deal with people fairly. That was my second year in MLS that I won the award. Now I have to improve on the outing. It is tough because you have to be fit and maintain your fitness. I was lucky I didn’t start as referee soon and I didn’t get burn out early.
Inquirer: How did you get into referee vocation?
Abbey: I played club level in Chicago. I came to US in 1981 and I joined Gazelle and other non-Nigerian clubs and one Mr. Robert Balciunas, the director of referee for the state of Illinois told me I would be a good referee. He has been recruiting me since I was 24 but at that time I was still too much into soccer. I got into the game when I was getting into the 30s.
Inquirer: How does one get into refereeing?
Abbey: To get into it is easy. One has to get a license and anyone itching to get a license can contact me. Registration is easy. If you like the game, it is easy. To become a referee is easy but to stay as a referee is hard because you are going to deal with different characters. It is a matter of doing it.
Inquirer: People complain about racism in America. Have you encountered one in MLS?
Abbey: I try to be careful when I comment on the topic. When I started as a referee, I probably would have made it to the highest level before now. I mean the level I’m officiating right now but I remember my second year I started refereeing here, a man probably derailed my advancement for a couple of years and that is what is causing me from reaching the highest standard like FIFA before the age of 40.
Inquirer: What is your advice to youngsters?
Abbey: I was brought up by a Christian mother who taught me that no matter what goes on anywhere in the world, you should always remember, “who is who and where you come from.” Don’t ever forget where you come from.
Inquirer:What is the future of soccer here?
Abbey: US soccer is still developing in terms of management and all sorts of thing. MLS in my own opinion as a referee is the fittest league in the world. I compare it with any league. The skill level may not be as high as European and African, but they are the fittest. MLS cannot be compared with European soccer because of the money invested in Europe over the years.
Inquirer: Why would you say MLS is the fittest?
Abbey: What Americans lack in years past in skills, they make up for it in courage, determination and fitness. Let’s compare the last world cup game between USA vs. Germany. Germany was regarded as the machine because of their fitness, but Americans run them into almost submission in the game. I’ve been blessed to officiate a couple of games in Europe and I’ve been blessed to officiate here and I’ve been blessed to do some games in Nigeria and I can tell you it is a continuous running game here. These MLS guys can run for 30 minutes non-stop unlike other places that are played differently. It is not about holding the ball like Europe and Africa that is what I mean by the fittest in the world.
Inquirer: Beastly Damascus joined PSV Endohen from the Chicago Fire. The same goes to Damani Ralph, the Jamaican player now in Russia. Apart from Chicago, there are other MLS players being recruited from Europe. Does that mean MLS is being appreciated in Europe?
Abbey: When Europeans see a good player in Nigeria or Africa, they go for it. That is what is happening with MLS. Look at Barcelona, Real Madrid or Chelsea. They buy the best players in the world.
Inquirer: You played soccer in Nigeria and America and officiated here, Europe and Africa. What are significant differences noticed in these different continents?
Abbey: In Nigeria, it is pure management. We played Rwanda today and drew 1-1. We invited the so-called superstars and they ignored the call to duty. England came in last week, they played US last week Saturday and on Tuesday they played Columbia. On Thursday, Bekhem and Mike Owens couldn’t play against US because they had club commitment. It is the management part of it that we are lacking and the love for the country. They forgot that the reason we are making the money we are actually making now is because of the up-bringing and experience in Africa. It is like the country owns them something. For US players, when you call them to camp, it is like an honor. With our guys in Africa and all these places, it is like the country owns them something. MLS has a very bright future. It may not be now but in the future.
Inquirer: But why MLS is not recruiting from Africa?
Abbey: It all depends on your agent. An agent has to tell a team I have a player I want you to have a look at. Or an agent should be willing or ready to put his money down to bring the player over. Not many teams will just go to Africa or Europe. You have the under 20-world cup coming up in Netherlands. If you are blessed enough to represent your country, that is where clubs go to look at players. It is not that they don’t recruit from Africa; it is a matter of exposure.
Inquirer: What about Tijani Ayegbusi?
Abbey: We don’t know what the teams are looking for at a time. You may have the skill, but if a club has no need of you at a time, they can’t recruit you right away. In my own personal opinion, if Tijani had gone to the USL 1st Division League otherwise known as A League who says he won’t be playing in the MLS today? If he goes to the A-league, he gets the chance to actually expose his talent to other clubs to see his capability. It was a (bad) choice he made not to go to the A-league.
If you go to London today or any European club, they will not put you on their club but on their developmental team. Sending you to a league shows they show interest in you. They didn’t send you away. He plays for Storm. I learnt he is in Bangladesh for trials.
Inquirer: Is that going to help him?
Abbey: Within weeks after he rejected the opportunity to go to the A- league in Milwaukee, Beastly left for Europe, another player was injured and they were missing three or four key players. Where would they go? By that time, he would have had the chance to show what he got. As in business, if I offered you an opportunity which you did not take the first time, I’m not coming your way again. Even though they might like his skills, they are done with him.
Inquirer:What do you think of indoor soccer?
Abbey: Indoor soccer is a different kind of soccer. It is pure running. It is not about skills. I actually refereed an indoor game early this year. Tijani Ayegbusi has the skills and everything but he is probably destroying his chances of outdoor if he keeps playing indoor. It is a different style of game and it will affect you. You don’t see any MLS guy playing indoor. The MLS teams would not let them sign that kind of contract.
Inquirer: What is your relationship with Gazelle?
Abbey: I’m the president of Gazette. We are playing national soccer. I just wish the Nigerian community would find something to do. Founded in 1976, Gazelle is not a stopping stone to MLS. However, if you come around and have the potential, I probably could link you up with a team to give you a trial.