November 21, 2015

VERA OKOLO: My father disowned me for playing football

VERA OKOLO: My father disowned  me for playing football

Vera Okolo

•Recalls Nigeria’s shame of 2004 in SA
•We drank Garri before matches
•Points the way out for female football

Former Super Falcons star, Vera Okolo, in this interview with  JOHN EGBOKHAN, shares her pathetic experience representing Nigeria at the 2004 African Women’s Championship in South Africa and how her passion for the round leather game got her disinherited by her father.

What have you been doing since you retired from the Super Falcons?
Life has been fine with me. I have been in the National Institute of Sports for a one year programme.

What was the programme about?
It’s an advanced coaching programme.

How was it?
It was fine

What’s the next thing for you now?
It’s to look for a club to do my attachment with. I am looking forward to working under an experienced coach to learn practical things about coaching. I am planing to be a very good coach because I learnt a lot in NIS.

What were the other things you learnt in NIS?
I learnt a lot. Being a player and a coach are two different things. Playing the game is one thing but coaching the game is a different matter entirely. I now appreciate what coaches go through.

Before coming to the National Institute of Sports, I had my mindset, thinking it was going to be all about football. But after going through the school, I now know better that there is more to this place than just football or sports. I was thinking it was all about just playing football. But when I got here, it was a different ball game. We had the practical aspect, done on the pitch and the theoretical side, done in the class. We took courses like Psychology, Mathematics, Anatomy and others, which if not academically inclined you would find them difficult to cope with. There was an aspect of management too.

Vera Okolo

Vera Okolo in action

From what you have learnt, what are the challenges that aspiring and young coaches like you must navigate in your quest to succeed?
I think the challenges we have in Nigeria are organisation-based. One of the things I learnt from my lecturers was that organisation can make or mar a team’s success. We have good players in Nigeria but selection remains our major undoing.

What is your view on the age-long poor treatment that the Falcons face when they travel to represent Nigeria in competitions. You were in the squad to the 2004 Africa Women’s Championship in South Africa, where the players refused to come back home after winning the cup. Even your coach then, Godwin Izilien is still crying over unpaid salaries?
This issue continues to worry me because we never learn from the past and they continue to blame the players. In fact, most people will even do worse if they were in our situation. At that time, they were just trying to intimidate us. I cannot imagine a team representing a country as popular and blessed as Nigeria , to go for a tournament like that and be treated shabbily. If I open up on the terrible things that happened in South Africa, you will pity the players and heap praises on us.

We played that tournament with two pairs of white jerseys and one pair of green jerseys. Those were what we played with for over two-week long tournament with. And a lot of things happened in that tournament that shocked me. I was part of it and was very much involved in the events that unfolded to our bewilderment. I played all the matches. In fact, I played two matches with groin injury, all in the name of wanting to win for Nigeria.

Normally, when you go for such tournaments, as long as you win, you get your match bonus after a game. But it was a different ball game in South Africa. After winning our first match, we got to the hotel, expecting our bonus. It started from the kits. After giving us three jerseys, we asked why, they said they were bringing kits from Nigeria, that we should make do with what we have. We said, no problem as we were focused on retaining the cup.

For some of us, who just came back from the Olympics, the thing did not really affect us much as we had spare kits to wear. But the new players were being demoralised with the treatment but we told them to cheer up that it was not normal and they should stay focused.

It was strange but we told them that it was not really the jersey that plays the game but the players. On match days we avoided exchanging jerseys. It became a crime to do so. We told them that we were not going back to Nigeria without the cup. And when the bonuses were not being paid after wining our matches, they became deeply worried and we rose to tell them not to allow that to weigh them down.

We told them that they should give the NFF officials the benefit of the doubt, that since they said they were coming with the jerseys and money from Nigeria that we would wait for their arrival. It was cold in South Africa and with three jerseys, the weather was affecting the players. No thick wears. They did not kit us with winter wears. The likes of Peterside Idah encouraged us a lot. Each time I called to complain that the players said they were not going to play, he would tell me that “if they didn’t play, Nigerians would forget them but if you play and win, Nigerians would back you up”. He said we should keep playing and hope to win the cup. I said, it’s true and remembered in 2013 at the World Cup. I was in the team, captained by Florence Omagbemi, who took me like a sister and always encouraged me.

There was a time that we had similar issues in the USA. We did not win but she made me understand that in case we went for any tournament and were not paid, that we should not shun our matches. Her argument was that if you were not being paid and you did not play, you would not get anything.
I relayed this message to my teammates, who agreed that we must stay focused. We also wanted to play for one of our teammates, who got injured during our match against Cameroon and was hospitalised but on the final day, we asked for her to be brought to the stadium to watch us win the cup for her against Cameroon.

At the end of the game, we defeated Cameroon 5-0 and that was how she fully recovered from the injury. We played that tournament without a single match bonus. Even the food we ate, did not come regularly. Cameroon were fed sumptuous meals daily by their Embassy officials. It was not like that for us. We drank garri before playing two matches for Nigeria in South Africa. We couldn’t feed well. It was even after the tournament that many Nigerians in South Africa heard what was happening to us. They were shocked and started bringing food to us. We had food then than during the tournament. Nigeria could not take care of us. They could not even feed us but good Samaritans did.

This discrimination against female players has been on for long?
Yes. Even in Algiers 2007, it happened. Before most of our matches, we drank garri. But we felt good even with it. After the tournament in South Africa, Kikelomo Ajayi who was our captain, was mandated by us to go and meet the officials to pay us the bonuses but we were shocked when she returned to tell us that they said we should go back to Nigeria to collect the money. That was when we said no, that if we got to Nigeria, they would not pay. Experiences have shown that our officials don’t stand by their words, so we refused to go back home until the money was paid.

That was how we made up our mind that we were not going back when it happened again in South Africa. Even when the embassy officials said that we were on our own and they would only provide for our breakfast, we were not moved. It was at that time that Nigerians in South Africa knew of our plight and said that as long as they were alive that we would not lack anything good in South Africa.

They were bringing us food, in fact, we had so much that we were even giving out to visitors and friends. We had more than we had during the tournament. They said we should have told them all this while but we were not supposed to wash our dirty linens outside. But it just got to that extent that we could not hide it any more. There was a time that the former Governor of Rivers State, Dr. peter Odili had to intervene. He called Idah, when he heard of our travails, to feed the players and send the bill to him. It was like that until the money was now given to us and immediately, they said we should pack to go to Nigeria.

But they said you held the country to ransom?
It was not our fault that it got to that level. I have no regrets because we have always tried our best to represent the country well but it would not be good for us to give our country the best and be treated shabbily. We give God the glory that when we came back , the then President, Olusegun Obasanjo gave us N1m each, after hearing what happened.

The players were paid, but the coaches like Izilien have not been paid till today
I don’t know if they hid the truth from President Obasanjo, because when they were asking us questions, we were afraid because all the NFF officials were there. The President noticed and after someone whispered to his ear, he told us the players to follow him to a room where we narrated how we played the tournament with only three jerseys, he felt bad. And something happened in South Africa that was somehow embarrassing to us. Each time we finished playing a match, we were approached by our opponents, who wanted to exchange jerseys with us. I had to lie to them that we were warned not to change jerseys because of the fear of witchcraft and until the final match. I had to do so because if I exchanged that jersey, which would I use in the next match then there would be nothing to use. That was just the strategy we were using. But the truth was that we only had two pairs of white jerseys and one pair of green jersey for the tournament.

If I change my green jersey now and we are to wear green jersey in our next match, what will I put on? And the normal things is that you are given another jersey at half time so that you are not soaked in your sweat especially when it is cold. But it was never so for Nigeria.
And something else happened when we were coming back as they seized our passports and we had to start fighting our secretary to give us our passports. It was a terrible experience.

What roles should the likes of Omagbemi and Mercy Akhide be playing in female football in Nigeria?
If they are interested, they should be coaching the national team. In the western world, former players are now heading their respective teams. We should extend such to ours.

But the experiment with Uche Eucharia did not work?
Yes but that is not enough reason why others have not been given their chance to show their performance.

Why are we no longer a strong force to reckon with in female football in Africa, looking at the fact that we would not be playing at the next Olympics in Rio?
It baffles me a lot. Before I joined the team, we were a winning team and we won during my time. I thank God for Coach Isamaila Mabo for giving me the opportunity to play for Nigeria. Even when I was injured, he told the doctor to work on me and I was injected and played the final match of Algiers 2007, where I scored the winning goal with that same leg that was hurting.

I don’t know who to blame for what is going on now. I saw a good players at the World Cup in Canada. I was disappointed that a coach will play 90 minutes without substitutions. He may have his reasons but I don’t think there are any reasons because he had 22 players to use but he was okay to play only 11. Why were the rest on the bench? He should have introduced new players. Somebody can make a difference. Most matches are won from the bench.

But in the last game against USA, I was expecting Perpetual Nwokocha to play as an old and experienced player. When it comes to female football, experience matters. When I saw the likes of Amy Wanbach in the American team, I was shocked because I met her in the 2004 team and she was hot then. That was why I expected Nwokocha to be fielded in that team. Her presence would have motivated the young ones. She should have been the pillar of the team, but I was surprised that she was on the bench during our last match and it was Wanbach, who scored the only goal against us. Playing Precious Dede in goal was okay but Nwokocha should have played, if not as a top striker but maybe as a supporting forward. She had everything to inspire our players. The stage was good for her but she was not given the chance to perform.

Have you ever heard of male coaches demanding for sex from players to get into the team?
I have actually been hearing such stories but I haven’t experienced such. If I experienced such, I would speak out against it. I don’t think it’s an ideal thing for male coaches to use their positions to get undue advantage over their players

And what about lesbianism?
I have also heard about it but never experienced it. I speak about things I see, now what I hear.

And your next aspirations?
This is another career that I am embarking on. I want to do my attachment with my former team, Delta Queens. I am through with playing football. Even when I was playing herein the NIS, people used to tell me to return to active football but I tell them no. I went through a lot of injuries and last year, I had a major surgery to remove fibroid.

Are you going to try for baby now that the fibroid is out?
Not really. I have a daughter, who was born 20 years ago. She is now an undergraduate at the Obafemi Awolowo University, studying Soil Science. She wants to play football but I would not allow her because I could not further my education because of football. My father disowned me for playing soccer. Although he is late now, he said if I played football that he would disown me.

And what did you do?
I didn’t listen to him. I followed my heart by playing football and he disowned me. It did not bother me because I believed that I was going to be a good player if I put in my best. And when fame came along the way, he became proud of me and started telling people that he was my father.