Ex-Green Eagles Star
In the legend of African football, he is the goalkeeper’s goalkeeper. And in the era of the 1970s, he was indubitably the continent’s most efficient shot stopper, going as far as winning the Footballer of The Year in 1978 – the first Nigerian to clinch the honour and indeed the first official winner of the continental award. In his heyday, Emmanuel Oguajiofor Okala’s name and frame put the fear of God in opponent strikers either at club level with Rangers International of Enugu or at the international stage with the Nigerian national team, the Green Eagles.
At 71, the man whose imposing frame earned him such accolades as “Man Mountain” and “The Gentle Giant” is still an avid follower of the round leather game that gave him fame and fortune. During a recent encounter with SUN Magazine at his Trans Ekulu home in Enugu, Okala reminisced about his halcyon days as a left-winger and, later, central defender before settling for the goal-tender position he became renowned for.
He also reflected on his trials and troubles in the Green Eagles and how he was schemed out of his deserved No. 1 position during the 1980 Nations Cup hosted and won by Nigeria. The legendary goalkeeper set the records straight, including the alleged rivalry between him and another celebrated Nigerian goalkeeper, the late Best Ogedegbe. Excerpts:
Where were you born and how did you get involved with football?
I was born in Onitsha on May 17, 1951. My parents were Ogbuefi Chukwuegbuka Okala and Mrs. Margrete Okala. As a young boy, I started playing football in Ogboti village and at that time football matches were inter village matches and it was always a thing of pride for your village team to return from matches as winners. I schooled at St. Joseph Primary School and played football but not as a goalkeeper.
So, how did you get into goalkeeping?
It was in my secondary school at Holy Cross High School, Onitsha and in one of our training sessions for the Coal Team, which was for students in the junior classes. Incidentally, one of our goalkeepers was not doing well and our games master asked if any other person could serve in that position; I opted to be in goal and found myself far better than the other goalkeeper.
After the training that evening, the games master told me that my position henceforth would be as a goal tender and before then, I had been playing either as a left winger or a central defender.
Aside from the influence of your games master, what really encouraged you to stick to goalkeeping?
I recall that Onitsha had a stadium that used to attract lots of teams and I used to go watch goalkeepers such as Emeka Okonkwo and Francis Ibiam. From my family, there was Walter Okala that was also a goalkeeper with the then CKC, Onitsha and later on my kid brother, Patrick who also took up goalkeeping. So, it was like it ran in our lineage. I learnt so much from them by watching and I worked hard on my reflexes; despite my height, I found out that I was good at diving for balls and could pick ground balls with ease. Immediately, after the Nigeria-Biafra War, I played for the Onitsha Red Devils before joining Rangers in the late 1970.
By February 1971, I was selected to play for Rangers in the finals of the Amachree Cup against the WNDC team and in 1972 I was called up to the national team.
Incidentally too, I was in goal for Nigeria in the first game to declare the National Stadium in Lagos open. At the first National Sports Festival, I kept goal for the East Central States in 1973.
What was competition for the number one shirt like in Rangers?
It was tough. I had a brother then named Cyril Okosieme who was my elder with many years and was the No. 1 choice goalkeeper for Rangers when we started, but when we came to Lagos for the final of the Amachree Cup, I was shocked to be called on to be in goal. In the course of that match I had a collision with one player that left almost all my front teeth broken into half. By 1972 when Cyril left for Bendel Insurance, I was already in the national team and became number one at the end of the day.
What opposition did you get from your family regarding your playing football?
The nearest opposition I got was when I was in my first year in St. Patrick’s Secondary School and was the goalkeeper for my school. During one of the inter school matches, my school defeated St. Paul’s High School, which happened to be my late elder brother’s school and he was not happy that I was partly responsible for that defeat. It pained him so much that when we returned home on holiday, he told my father that I was not concentrating on my studies and that all I was doing was to play football.
He did that out of sheer jealousy and my parents did caution me, telling me to mind my studies. But the truth then was that football that we played then had time and when we finished, we returned to classes.
Later, when I joined the Onitsha Red Devils and subsequently Rangers, one of my uncles came to our house and told my father that he must stop me from playing football. He said it was best for my father to send me to the university, as those who play football are ne’er-do-well. I pretended I didn’t hear what he said.
After what he told my dad, I made up my mind to prove him wrong. All my focus was just to do well as a player because I gave it my all. My desire to become a reference point in goalkeeping grew and at the end of the day, I can only say that my willpower and determination saw me through. I thank God for his mercies.
Would you agree that football affected your studies in any way?
Football really affected my studies, I must confess. When I finished training and got to the class, I found myself sleeping in class because I was weak. There were also situations where I’ve had to miss exams because I was in Enugu and the exam was taking place in Onitsha. When would I leave Enugu and get to Onitsha on time for the exam? So, the exams I could not meet up with, I let go and today even though, I would not advice anyone to follow my step, I’d tell you I have no regrets.
What was the atmosphere between Rangers and IICC players like in the National Camp?
I must say it was very cordial. I recall that in 1972, the national team played a two-stage match that saw us play in Benin and at the Onikan Stadium against Tanzania. In the game in Benin, we beat Tanzania 2 – 0 and the goals were scored by two Insurance players. In the party thrown by Brig. Gen. Samuel Ogbemudia, then administrator of the mid Western States, he said it was only Insurance players that were scoring for the national team and if players from other teams were not measuring up, then he would withdraw his players from the national team. We all laughed over it and when we got to Onikan Stadium for the second game, Eyo Essien was in goal and we were leading 3 – 0 but after 10 minutes into the second half of the game, the Tanzanians equalized and I was called up to replace Essien. From that moment that I was given the opportunity, I didn’t let it slip off my hands until I retired.
What was your experience like travelling out of Nigeria for the first time?
I must say that it was fun travelling out and I’m glad that it was football that provided me the opportunity. The seriousness I attached to the game always made me ensure that I was always putting up my best in any game I played.
It gladdened my heart a great deal that people accorded me recognition and wanted to know how I could cope with my height and still kept the goal effectively. By the time I retired from football, there was no African country that my name was not known. In fact, I was named the first African Footballer of the Year and I went all the way to Togo to receive the award that was instituted by a French magazine, Le Equip. The then President of Togo, Eyadema handed me the trophy at a ceremony. I received several letters from fans from several African countries all talking about meeting me and getting to know me better.
Some of these letters must have been from women who wanted you as their husband, how did you cope with that?
Indeed, most of the letters were from female fans, but I’m glad the interests ended with letters only. I will not lie to you, women flock around stars and we were no different but our saving grace was the restrictions that came with camping. We were always allowed visitors but it ended in the common room with the team captain and other NFA officials nosing around which indirectly prompted us to return to our room.
For those who go contrary to the rules, the consequences were often grave because discipline was the order of the day.
Did you get your wife through football?
Far from it, but I got married when it was time for me to do so. My wife came through my father’s connection and my grandmother who arranged my beautiful wife. I could not have disappointed my father by rejecting his choice of a wife for me because he meant the world to me.
I was an obedient child to him and because I came from a place with tradition, the moment the time came for me to take a wife, I had to. To the glory of God, we have four kids who are today adults in their own rights.
Many say that your biggest rival in the national team was the late Best Ogedegbe, how true is this?
The late Best Ogedegbe (May his soul rest in peace) was my very close friend throughout our time in the national team. At the 1980 Nations Cup, he kept all the matches until the final game against Algeria.
I remember vividly that during the group stages before we played against Ivory Coast, the coach called everyone to order through his interpreter and demanded that everyone remained standing except me. He confessed that when he came in as technical adviser to the Nigerian national team, he heard so many negative things about me from different quarters but that he had watched me closely and had come to realise that all that were said were lies. He noted that even when I was not selected to start a game, I’d always cooperate with my teammates both on and off the pitch and that he had seen that the team flowed around me. He said he was very impressed with me and that everyone should clap for me.
Otto Gloria said he wanted to honour me and to see me in goal even for 10 minutes but even after the substitution paper had been written and I had warmed up, the then Team Manager, Kojo Alakija and then Director of Sports, Isaac Akioye vowed that I would not go in and that was why I never had any action in that final. Their reasons for that action were never communicated to Otto Gloria or me.
The moment that happened, Otto Gloria left the bench and went straight to the dressing room while the match was still on. I didn’t take it as anything but before then, I had already made up my mind to quit at the end of the Nations Cup campaign.
That was why after all the fanfare that greeted our Nations Cup triumph, the national award, the car gifts and many more, I called it quits with the national team. In fact, I was the first player of the 1980 Nations Cup winning squad to leave but when Col. Okwechime took over from Sunday Dankaro as chairman of the Nigeria Football Association, he made several efforts to call me out of retirement through Christian Chukwu, but my mind was made up. I had nothing against anyone and didn’t understand why people would gang up against me.
Till I left the national team, I had no conflict with any player and that was why when Best died, I was present to pay him my last respect. He was a nice fellow and I would tell you that my best friend in the national team was my roommate, Segun Odegbami.
What impact did the national honour of MON has on your life?
The government of Alhaji Shehu Shagari, I must confess, changed my life with the gift of a car, national award and cash gifts. It’s not easy to get such recognition and I see myself as very fortunate.
At the ceremony held for us at the Dodan Barracks in Lagos, we never anticipated what we got. The President visited us every morning on a daily basis at the Trade Fair Motel on the Lagos – Badagry Express Way just to motivate us. During the 2nd All African Games in Lagos, we paid visits to Gen. Yakubu Gowon on our match days. And he would give us words of encouragement. That showed us that the government had us at heart and it encouraged us a great deal and they showed a great passion for sports at that time. Our athletes need such encouragement now to help them excel.
In all, how many matches would you say you kept for Nigeria?
That I can’t tell because we don’t have records and that is partly my fault and the NFA’s. I know that I played a lot of matches for Nigeria but the records were not kept.
What did you do after retirement?
In 1980 when I retired from the national team, Jim Nwobodo who was then governor of Enugu State rejected my resignation and requested that I continued with Rangers because he wanted the Challenge Cup. Fortunately, we won the trophy and he fulfilled his promise to us for the positions of Team Manager for me and the team’s coaching job for Chukwu on retirement from Rangers as players.
After that, I went into the training of goalkeepers and was the national team goalkeepers’ trainer under coach Phillip Troussier and at the national U-17 team, then back to Rangers as Team Manager and later as goalkeepers’ trainer again. Presently, I am a consultant coach to the Rangers management.
Looking back at your career as a player, what is your biggest regret?
I can’t remember anything that I regret. Nothing that bothered me as to cause me regrets.
What was your greatest moment as a football player?
I had lots of great moments in Rangers and the national team, the Green Eagles. Most times when Rangers or the national team was in difficult situations, I rose to the occasion. I knew I made an impact and contributed immensely to my team and the national team especially the growth of goalkeepers. Till date, people still accord me my respect and give me the recognition that I deserved. There are still lots of people who want to meet me and see my physically.
In your opinion, what do you think is responsible for the decline of the Nigerian sports especially football?
The fact is that my generation of players and sportsmen and women were conscious of serving the national team far better than this generation of sportsmen. What I’ve noticed is that they are in a haste to achieve and I won’t blame them because those of us that are heroes of yesteryears have been forgotten.
Most of my mates who served this nation are in terrible conditions and that might be the reason most of our players tread with caution. They don’t want to be injured and left to suffer. We played with a passion for our fatherland to earn a name and I must confess that the name we made for ourselves is what is still carrying us today. Football has kept me going and that’s why I have no regrets.
After your era, who would you rate as the best goalkeeper so far?
Peter Rufai was outstanding as a goalkeeper, followed by Ike Shorunmu and perhaps Vincent Enyeama lately. Unfortunately, most of our goalkeepers don’t last long because they start late.
Looking back, I can proudly say that I have trained a good number of goalkeepers at different times.
The match Rangers played against Hafia of Guinea in Lagos, you were quoted as saying you saw several balls as a result of juju. How true was this?
Don’t beg the question because there’s no juju in football. Anyone who told you that I saw several balls lied. The only incident I had was back in 1975 in a match against Mehala of Egypt where I had eye problem which my coaches were aware of and I was given an eye drop that was reflective because of the rays of the sun. I opted out of the game and we lost 3 – 1. On our return the news was that it was due to juju that we lost because I could not see. The return leg ended 1 – 2 against us in Lagos but not many people understood what went wrong.
In fact, we had difficulties travelling to Lagos from Enugu after we had asked the NFA to let us play the match in Enugu. The NFA vehemently refused our request because they felt that we would make lots of money from the match. On the day we were leaving for Lagos, you can’t imagine that we were struggling with other passengers. While the struggle was on, the stairways to the plane broke and the Captain said he was no longer going to fly the plane. For over two hours the passengers begged him to fly and he refused until much later. On getting to Lagos, we were put in a substandard hotel by the NFA and we did not like it. The Rangers management decided to look for an alternative place and by the time we settled down we were all worn-out. We scored first but lost as our opponents scored two goals against us. What happened was that we were not psychologically prepared for the game.
How would you compare the administration of football during your time and now?
During my era, those running football were known football players, but today, same is not the case. The basic truth is that only those that wear the shoe know where it pinches. Some of the administrators that run our football don’t even know those that have played for this country. They can’t recognise us and even when you introduce yourself, they look at you as if you have come from another planet. When you discuss football with them they look at you as an intruder. We deserve respect and should be allowed to give back to the country through advices.
Most of them that are administering our football have not kicked an orange in their lifetime and yet they are the ones in charge and don’t seem to care what the outcome is. There’s so much that the younger generation can learn from us and it won’t be too much to ask for a quota for former players on the board of the NFA. Those who run football must know and understand the game to make good administrators.
What do you think is responsible for the decline of the Nigerian league?
The candid truth is that our best legs are not in the country. In my era, all the players were at home and just knowing that you would see key players at the stadium on match days motivated fans to troop to the stadium. The quality of players in Rangers, IICC, Bendel Insurance, Racca Rovers etc compelled people to go to the stadium to watch matches, but we can’t find them these days because our best legs are all outside.
Secondly, the craze for European leagues has captivated everyone and as such the search for greener pastures has taken over our players.
For us to get the crowd back to watch our domestic league, we should experiment with playing our matches outside the days that the European leagues hold and when we begin to attract the crowd, we gradually return to the weekends. Take for instance the last three matches of the league that Rangers played and threw the gates open, the turn out was so encouraging that everyone was happy but the secret of that turnout was that the European leagues were on break.
The third reason for the decline in our league is that we don’t have a sponsor. Football the world over now is business and until we begin to see it as such, our football will remain backward. It is not in the interest of the growth of the game that clubs should pay the referees indemnities; what morality is there in such practice. The league has ended and there’s no prize money for the winners. The era of playing politics with the league should be over and done with. We need progress in the league and hopefully a sponsor for a smooth take-off that would guarantee the clubs some subvention to run the teams because government can wake up one day and say they are done with the clubs.
How do we keep our players in the domestic league for a longer period to help it grow?
There’s no way you can stop players from seeking greener pastures outside the shores of Nigeria because we cannot pay them like other clubs would do. I don’t blame them for it because what they get goes a long way to help them take care of their families. To get our players to spend longer periods here before going out of the country would require that we make the league attractive by paying them more.
You’re married with four children, how many of them are keen on taking after you?
My situation is a funny one because my first son is a Manchester United follower and knows every thing you can think of that club but not with a single idea about any club in the domestic league. The others have shown interest in sports but nothing close to getting actively involved. Maybe one of my grandchildren or great grandchildren may just remind Nigerians someday about Emmanuel Okala by becoming a goalkeeper and I pray God to keep me alive to witness it. It would make really glad.