By CHIMAOBI UCHENDU
Richard Owubokiri was one of the best products that came out from the Nigerian League in the ’80s, but to the amazement of his admirers, he could not replicate his fledging club prowess in any of the national teams.
The father of four played so well for his state team, Sharks FC of Port Harcourt, to the point that he was nicknamed the ‘Golden Boy of Sharks’. Though a fantastic player, Owubokiri, sensationally told TS Weekend on net recently that none of his sons could replicate his prowess in the round lather game.
According to him, his eldest son would always boast that he could play better than him, but he would dismiss his boast as the ranting of one in Fantasy Island.
Owubokiri is still at lost on why he was dropped from the squad that represented Nigeria at the 1994 World Cup in USA despite the fact that he was on top of his game then.
“I have four wonderful children – two boys and two girls. My daughters don’t like football and I respect their choice. But my eldest son would always talk about how great he would be as a footballer. I always laugh whenever he boasts about it because I know his capabilities and know that he cannot make it big as a footballer. He doesn’t have the trait. That is why I have not endorsed his request to play football. Instead, I advised him to face his studies squarely and take football only as a recreation.
On whether he enjoyed his playing career, the ex-footballer, who have travelled very wide said: “I have no regrets playing football. In fact, if I have another opportunity to choose a career, I will still go for football.
“I played for my state, Rivers, and also played in Brazil, Portugal and Asia. I had wanted to contribute my quota to the national team, but some forces that had kept Nigerian football in bad state stopped me.
“Those that know me would attest to the fact that I am a hard working person. I am honest and straightforward in my dealings with fellow human beings. But I get infuriated anytime a second party tries to undermine me efforts. I think that was the sin I committed against coaches in the national team, who would always connived with football officials in the country to perpetuate fraud in the name of moving Nigerian football forward.”
Owubokiri, however, revealed his high and low moments in his football career.
“I will forever rue my being left out of the FIFA World Cup in 1994 at a time I was among the best players in the world. However, my best time was when I scored 30 goals and became the second top scorer in Europe. No African player has ever done that feat till date. It was a big record for me and I thank God for making it possible. It was that record that made the officials to invite me to the Super Eagles.”
On how he came to the limelight, Owubokiri revealed that Coach Monday Sinclair really helped him to find his rhythm in football.
“The best coach I worked with was Monday Sinclair. He was my coach at Sharks FC of Port Harcourt. He believed in me, even when I was only a 17-year old boy. My mind tells me that without him, I wouldn’t have succeeded as a professional footballer.
“Sinclair was like a father and a motivator to me. His numerous advise to me helped in shaping my life. He was a complete coach, but unfortunately, he wasn’t given enough time to manage the national team.
“I also played under Aimore Moreira – a Brazilian. His brother, Jose Moreira, was one-time coach of Brazil’s national team. He was directly behind my success in Brazil.
He further revealed: “It was Manuel Jose that took me to Portugal when I was in my best elements, scoring from all angles. Jose was highly intelligent. He knew how to get the best out of me when I was at the peak of my career. I will forever remain grateful to him.”
When he was asked to assess the contemporary Nigerian players, Owubokiri, who topped the scorers’ chart at different seasons in his football career, responded: “We have a big problem in our hands. Quality players are no more out there, unlike in the past when we had great players like Segun Odegbami, Adokiye Amiesimaka, Samson Siasia, Rashidi Yekini and many others.
“The problem is that grassroots football is not well organised in Nigeria, unlike in Brazil where it is the foundation for discovering and grooming great players.
“Administrative, we are not doing well. We need responsible people to run our football. Most of our football administrators are not interested in the game, but after what gets into their pockets. That is why they will not house players in good hotels when they are in camp. Travel arrangements are poorly made, just like they would owe players their match bonuses. And that reminds me, till date, the NFA (Nigeria Football Association) still owes me the match bonus for the game I played against South Africa in 1992. I suggest that things should be done properly for our football to move forward.”
As he resides in Brazil with his family, Owubokiri has promised that he would make Eagles feel at home when they go to that country for the Confederations Cup in June.
“I live in Salvador in Brazil and the Super Eagles are scheduled to play here in June during the Confederations Cup. So, it would be an opportunity for me to help and cheer the team to victory. I will also use the opportunity to meet my good friend, Coach Stephen Keshi. I am waiting for them.”
Owubokiri, popularly known as ‘Ricky’ during his playing days, scored 30 goals in 34 matches for Boavista to emerge the top scorer in Portugal in 1992 and second highest overall scorer in Europe. His goal-scoring exploits took him to four continents, where he proved his prowess. He, therefore, passed a verdict on the current Nigerian strikers.
“The current Nigerian strikers are lazy. But it’s annoying that they don’t want to develop themselves. They tend to forget that training is the secret key to success for any good footballer. I get shamed watching some Nigerian strikers in the pitch of play.”
Owubokiri, who is a resident in Brazil continued: “I was in Port Harcourt in October 2011 and went to watch Sharks at their training pitch. I left that place depressed because of the caliber of strikers I saw. With due respect, I didn’t see the flair of quality in any of the acclaimed strikers I met on ground.”
The Rivers State-born player was the first Nigerian to play professional football in Brazil, when he joined a club, America, in Rio de Janeiro in 1983. By 1994, he was at the peak of his football career, yet Dutchman, Clemence Westerhof, the then Nigeria coach, surprisingly left him out of the Super Eagles’ squad that played in that year’s World Cup in USA.
Owubokiri began his professional football career with Sharks FC of Port Harcourt in 1978. He joined the club as a schoolboy while in his final year at Okrika Grammar School. His contemporaries were Benji Nzeakor and Rowland Orufe.
Owubokiri made his debut for Sharks in 1979 and became the top scorer in Division 2 in 1980 with 23 goals. That year, Sharks got promotion back to the top flight. Owubokiri also scored six goals during the period to take the club to the final of WAFU Cup, where they lost on 1-2 aggregate to the Police of Senegal.
In 1981, Ricky became one of the most dreaded strikers in the Nigerian League. His combination with Amiesimaka inspired Sharks to that year’s Challenge Cup semi-finals with the defending champions needing a replay to prevent Sharks from reaching the final.
Owubokiri was later transferred to ACB of Lagos in 1981 as well as to St Gregory’s College, Lagos for his A-level studies. That same year, he earned his national cap and represented Nigeria at the 1982 Africa Cup of Nations in Libya. He spent only a season in ACB and rejoined Sharks in 1983.
His return to Sharks coincided with the arrival of Luciano Abreu, a Brazilian coach and a new strike partner, Paul Uzokwe. With the new coach, the Brazilian style of play, akin to what he learnt from his mentor, Sinclair, was introduction in Sharks. So, with the Samba style of play, Owubokiri, again, topped the scorer’s chart with Sharks narrowly missing promotion that year.
The deadly striker, precociously gifted far above his peers, was never going to spend too much time in the domestic scene, as he became the first Nigerian to play in Brazil with the help of Coach Abreu, who later returned to his native country. After playing for few years in his first club in Brazil, America, he moved to another Brazilian club, Esporte Clube Vitoria, where his remarkable 35 goals in his first and only season in the club saw European fat cats scrambling for his signature.
Ricky later settled for the French Championnat with the Stade Lavallois Mayenne Football Club, where he scored 10 goals in the 1986/87 season. One of the big guns, Metz, was impressed with his effort and signed him on for the 1987/88 season.
Thereafter, Portugal became the next port of call for the 1.82m tall attacker as he went on to enjoy the best years of his professional career with Benfica, Estrela Amadora, Boavista, Vitoria and Belenenses between 1985 and 1995.
Owubokiri scored 81 goals during his time in the Portuguese Super Liga. He also had stints in Asia in the twilight of his career with Al Arabi in Qatar, where he scored 27 goals in 26 games.
He represented Nigeria between 1982 when he played at the Africa Cup of Nations in Libya and 1992, and become the first person to score a goal against Bafana Bafana during the qualifiers for the 1994 FIFA World Cup after South Africa was readmitted into international football.
Owubokiri retired from professional football in Brazil and has continued to live there with his wife and children. He established the Ricky Soccer Academy, where he trains young talents. He coached the Fluminenese in Brazil, but he is currently a fulltime FIFA footballers agent.
Owubokiri, who is excited about the forthcoming Brazil 2014 FIFA World Cup, fluently speaks Portuguese, French, Arabic, English and his native Wakrike languages. And with his multi-lingual gift, the ex-footballer easily interacts with his numerous fans across the continents, even on social media.