Lateefat Ganiyu is an Ireland-based Nigerian professional footballer, who moved from playing for Portlaoise AFC to playing for CK United, both in Ireland. In this interview with PAUL OKAH, the versatile player speaks about her experiences in the two clubs, issues of racism and her readiness to play for the Super Falcons.
What was it like at Portlaoise AFC in Ireland?
During my formative years, from the age of 12 to 16, I enjoyed playing football for my local club, Portlaoise AFC. Playing for Portlaoise ignited in me a passion I had never felt before. The rush of stepping onto a pitch, not knowing the outcome, was breath-taking. For those ninety minutes, it was just you and your teammates and the objective every day was just to win.
It wasn’t always about scoring goals or perfecting my technique; it was an immersive experience that fuelled my love for soccer on a profound level. Something that also made my time at Portlaoise AFC memorable was the friendships I made along the way. I met my best friends Leah and Jessica through soccer. It was great being able to play and grow up with your best friends from under 12s to eventually the senior level. Together, we shared victories, faced challenges and celebrated a lot of victories and forever formed a trio of inseparable friends whose bonds extended beyond just the pitch. Portlaoise AFC has helped shape me into the person I am today, on and off the pitch. Playing soccer has instilled in me the values that I still live by. They have instilled into me the values of friendship and respect. There, I learned how to control my emotions in moments of defeat and how to deal with the pressure that comes with triumphs. Lastly, I want to acknowledge the coaching staff at Portlaoise AFC and how, without their training and coaching, I would never be in the position I am in today.
Which match was the toughest while at Portlaoise AFC?
Every match is both mentally and physically tough in every possible way; no matter who you’re playing against. You will always have to overcome adversity in every match you play, whether triumph or defeat. However, the match that sticks out to me personally at my time at Portlaoise was my first match back at Portlaoise for the Under-19. The match was against a team from Dublin called Sportslink. They are a very good side and coming into that match, we had never won against them. The match had been a really competitive fixture. Within 80 minutes, it was five goals apiece for each team. I was happy with my performance as I had picked up a couple of assists and one goal.
However, an error made by me had given the opposition team a free kick around our box. They converted the chance, and they ended up winning the match 6-5. I was devastated looking around at my defeated teammates, knowing my mistake had cost us. This match taught me how to bounce back from defeats and be able to carry on when times are tough; on and off the field. It also highlighted to me the importance of teamwork and how you’ll always have your teammates to fall back on.
What prompted your leaving Portlaoise AFC to CK United?
After many successful years at Portlaoise AFC, I wanted to move on to new challenges. I felt like I needed more and I felt I had more to give. I wanted to get better, both physically and mentally, and knew I had to leave the comfort of my local club in order to do so. A couple of my previous teammates at Portlaoise had already made the jump to CK United, which play in the League of Ireland.
I had gone to trials in January of 2022 and successfully signed with the Under 19s. This had been the challenge and step up that was needed for me to develop into the player I am now, as this was going to be more physically and emotionally draining than I had ever experienced.
What is life like at CK United?
My overall experience at CK United has been positive. I’ve really enjoyed my experience here so far. It’s like a big family over there. The team is really close as well, which I like. It’s nice to know, whether lose win or draw, they will always have your back. The coaching staffers there are also incredible. Our head coach this year, Craig Hurley, has been very influential in my development at CK United. He pushes every single one of us to be better players and people on and off the pitch. He pushes us beyond our limits every training session, which is good. We do a lot of running, which I think also helps me in my mental side of the game as well as the physical side.
I think it teaches us to keep pushing even if you’re tired and you think you can’t do it. In most cases, you will have to do it. You just need to believe you can. Another good thing about playing for CK United is that you get to go round the whole country playing against the best in the country, week in week out. You get to meet new people from all over and I really like that. My time at CK has really made me develop into a well-rounded athlete. I’m hoping I will get to play at the senior level with CK United in the next coming years.
Have you faced issues of racism during your professional career?
Thankfully, I have never experienced racism as a whole in my career of playing soccer. However, I feel like it is an issue that must be addressed in football as a whole. I know many people have experienced racism in football and in their lives as well.
Early this year, I had experienced some online racial abuse from someone I knew closely. The experience has actually changed me as a person and I think that the experience will stay with me for the rest of my life. Racism is a serious issue that needs to be addressed as a whole. People should never have to feel afraid just because of their skin colour or anything else.
How do you handle your emotions when you lose a match?
Thankfully, I have really supportive teammates. In my different teams, they have been really supportive of my journey. As I mentioned earlier, my best friends, Leah and Jess, have been supportive. They come to my games and even do extra training and runs with me. I don’t think I could have done this journey without them. My teammates have always been supportive: whether we win, lose or draw. It’s the togetherness you feel even in times of defeats. They will always be there for you on and off the pitch.
Handling your emotions after a loss is very important. Some players would like to lash out and blame others, but I personally like to self-reflect. You have to identify what you did and what you could have done better. There is no point of just giving out to people afterwards just because of their mistakes and not call out your own. Everybody makes mistakes; you could never grow as a player if you didn’t. It’s about how you react and learn from your mistakes that shows what a player you will be.
Which position do you prefer to play as a footballer?
Throughout my years of playing soccer, I’ve played in various positions. At the start, I actually played in goals. It was never really my thing, so I decided to start playing out field. From the age groups of under-13 to under-16, I basically played anywhere. I like to think that I’m a versatile player. In one match, I could have been playing left back and then the next match, I could have been playing as a striker.
At around U17, I started to really play a central role at the heart of our attack. I mostly played on the left wing with my pace and strength being my main attributes. My ability to play, to make runs in behind the opposition’s defence and cut in, take shots, is a strong skill of mine. Right now, my coach has me playing as a striker. I play more as a false nine, being able to hold up the ball well and making forward passes in behind their defence.
Have you considered playing for the Super Falcons of Nigeria?
Yes, because of my family roots are in Nigeria; I would consider playing for the Super Falcons. I love Nigeria and have always dreamed of playing for my mother’s home country. If offered, I will gladly accept the invitation to play for Nigeria. My whole family lives in Nigeria and it would be good to play for a country I have roots in. My mother grew up there, so it would be good to play for her home nation.
What advice would you have for the federal government, with regards to encouraging female footballers?
I would encourage the NFF and federal government to continue encouraging and supporting women’s football in Nigeria. They should put more resources into other aspects of the game to make sure Nigeria continues to make better and stronger female athletes.