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Okocha playing Backwards

By Ikeddy Isiguzo
THE most current issue with our football is whether Austin Jay Jay Okocha, former captain of the national team should be recalled to active service. These are desperate times and the tendency persists to think that the past holds lots of promises, more promises than the present.

Okocha
Okocha

It is interesting that Adokie Amesimeka, one-time engaging Eagles winger, former Attorney General of Rivers State, an icon for the admixture of sports and education that we merely advocate, is the one calling for Okocha’s return, two years after Okocha bade international football farewell.

Leaning on Adokie’s own experience, there would be no reason to bring Okocha back. Twenty-eight years ago, Adokie said he had had enough. He won the 1980 Nations Cup with the Super Eagles and after the Olympics in Moscow, he left the team. We begged, we cajoled, we threatened, and some insinuated some of the players were ungrateful  we gave them a car, a house, a national honour and money  yet they were leaving.

Adokie did not discuss the matter, he wanted a break from a long tenure in the national team. At that time, one earned a place in the national team. Competition for places in the Green Eagles was intense and enhanced the performances of those days’ Eagles.

The departure of many of those players precipitated the decline of the Green Eagles. They had put in long services and little thought was given to their retirement. Their captain Christian Chukwu left, Adokie left. In all more than half of the team was not available for further service.

A crisis was in the offing as the qualifiers for the 1982 World Cup approached. An inept NFA (nothing new in that), and a training tour that took the team to Reykjavík in Iceland, saw to the defeat of the Eagles at the National Stadium on  10  October 1981, a brutalising defeat, coming less than two years after the Eagles won the Nations Cup at the expense of Algeria, at the same National Stadium.

Few people know what happened better than Adokie. His former captain Chukwu was one of those persuaded to return to the Eagles. It was agreed that there was a hole in the central defence and that only Chukwu could feel it, sounds like the same sentiments that are growing around Okocha.

Chukwu had retired to Rangers where he had become more of a coach than a player. The pressure was intense, Chukwu fell for it. He was already double the size of the man who did great exploits for Nigeria. Some thought something was wrong with Chukwu’s return.

On match day, it was obvious. We were dealing with a different Chukwu, who was not fit for the game, but yielded to the pressure of a nation in desperation.

The loss to Algeria should have great lessons for us as we knock on Okocha’s door, hoping that he returns to active service for the game of September 6  only 50 days away. There are deeper implications. Would Okocha play on September 6 and thereafter resume his retirement? Are we preparing a place for him in the 2010 World Cup team, assuming we qualify?

With Chukwu things were easier because we fell to Algeria. Had we won and made it to the 1982 World Cup, Chukwu would have been pressed into further action. His presence would have done further damage to the rebuilding of the Super Eagles, which took another 12 years to qualify for the World Cup.

Etubom Bassey Ekpo Bassey, journalist, politician and famous for his vast interests, stunned me on Monday with his take on the Super Eagles. He wants Nwankwo Kalu retired. He fears for the chances of the Eagles after seeing the FIFA Confederation Cup. The Eagles have no speed, he said, causing a lessening of options for the team. He finds Kalu mostly guilty of lowering the pace of a poorly paced team.

I did not remind him that debates are on to add Okocha to the team. The Super Eagles should be at their best against Tunisia, we cannot afford to find excuses for them, by the inclusion of Okocha, who was a great captain while it lasted.

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