He was the ‘best player in the world’ at 15. How Barca starlet Haruna Babangida missed his chance at greatness
Haruna Babangida alongside Barcelona academy teammates including Andres Iniesta and Mikel Arteta
Haruna Babangida was one of those – a product of Barcelona’s famous La Masia academy, the Nigerian was meant to be one of the world’s greatest players.
Just ask Arsenal boss Mikel Arteta, who played alongside him in Barcelona’s youth ranks.
“In our dorms at Barcelona, we had Pepe Reina, Victor Valdes, Andres Iniesta and Carlos Puyol,” Arteta told The Athletic in 2019.
“But I remember there was this guy called Haruna Babangida. Wow, at 15 he was the best player in the world. I cannot put into words how talented he was. He ended up in Greece, Cyprus and Russia. He should have been a star.”
Now 37 and retired, he spoke to The Athletic about his incredible ability – and where it all went wrong.
“I know exactly why Arteta would say to you that I was the best player in the world,” he said.
“And let me say this: if you have a chance to interview the other players from that era, ask them and they will tell you the same thing. This is 100 per cent sure. I know this because these players talked to me personally. They wanted to know why I had never been given a chance.
“They would say to me: ‘You have to play because the club (Barcelona) are signing players who can’t even play as well as your left leg.’ For reference, I am right-footed.”
Babangida arrived at La Masia in 1997 from Dutch giants Ajax. His older brother Tijani was a winger at the Dutch giants, playing there for seven years in a career that took him to five countries on three continents – and the 1998 World Cup.
Haruna was lightning-quick. Like so many Barcelona products his dribbling was elite, and his deftness and imaginative passing could rival some of the great Barca stars to emerge in his time.
And yet, despite 42 goals in 110 appearances for Barcelona B – as a midfielder – he never broke into the first team.
He left in 2004 to Ukraine, and never challenged the heights of European football.
WRONG COACH, WRONG TIME?
Ask Babangida why he failed to reach greatness, and he’ll tell you that he “never got the chance.”
Perhaps it was the coach.
From 1997 to 2000, then again in 2002-03, Dutchman Louis van Gaal was in the Barcelona dugout. In the period between his two stints in charge, coaches Lorenzo Serra Ferrer and Carlos Rexach were hardly worth writing about.
Van Gaal, a master of discipline and a ruthless perfectionist.
“Van Gaal does believe in young players,” Babangida told The Athletic. “But he is a very tough guy and he was very strict.”
“He tried to control everything, inside the dressing room, outside the dressing room,” with the former player explaining that the manager had memorised every player’s phone ringtone. “So if mine went off, he was going crazy, crazy, crazy … He was a tough man.”
“Every trainer likes a difference-maker in his team but with the style of Van Gaal, I don’t think he likes players who are chipping the ball or dribbling too much. He likes players for more simple passing.”
Nevertheless, Babangida continued to make waves for Barcelona’s reserves. At 15, he was invited to train with the first team, and took part in a pre-season tour with the senior side.
“Then one day they told me, ‘Tomorrow, don’t be late, you are training with the first team.’ It was difficult to sleep that night, knowing I was about to train with Rivaldo and Luis Figo.
“I was scared to enter the dressing room. Figo came up to me though and said, ‘Hey Haruna!’ He already heard about me because all the newspapers were talking about me. Was I scared to tackle them? I don’t tackle! They had to try to tackle me.
“I remember I was already in the team training and defenders like Sergi and Miguel Angel Nadal told me: ‘Haruna, believe me, if you run today, if you don’t pass the ball, we are going to kick you. So get the ball and pass the f***ing ball.’
“My style was: ‘Pass the ball to my legs and then we play.’ All the coaches used to say to the midfielders, ‘Get the ball and give it to Haruna.’ I believed in my dribble.”
“On pre-season, I was in the newspaper every day … me, this young African boy. The last game we played was 0-0 and Van Gaal told me I wasn’t going to play. It was the 80th minute and Van Gaal told me to go on without warming up. I scored the winner and it went crazy. Then it became: ‘Will Haruna get a chance? Will it make life difficult for Figo?’’
“Everyone was talking about me, but the proper chance never came. I always heard from other people that I was unlucky. In every season, I was the best player in Barca B. I scored the most but it was always the same thing. I never had the chance. I would like to know from one of the coaches the real reason because nobody ever said anything to me.
“I do believe it could have been different with another coach. One hundred per cent. If it was (Pep) Guardiola or Luis Enrique, for sure, and not because they knew me personally.
“They believe so much in talent and young players. No matter who is in the first team, if he is not as good as you, he won’t play. During my time, it was not the same.
“You need somebody who believes in you and trusts you.”