By Emeka Obasi
FIFA preaches fair play to the soccer world. One Nigerian super star who was badly treated by club and country after achieving so much and sacrificing a whole lot is Emmanuel Anthony Oguejiofo Okala, Africa’s Best Goalkeeper in 1978.
Okala was part of the Green Eagles from 1972 to 1980. He won All Africa Games gold in 1973, lifted the Africa Nations Cup in 1980 and ECOWAS Games gold in 1977. Four times, the keeper grabbed the challenge cup with Enugu Rangers. He remains the only goalie to have won the cup thrice consecutively [1974, 1975, 1976].The Flying Antelopes won the Africa Winners Cup in 1977 with him in goal.
The keeper also won the Premier League with the Coal City team in 1974,1975,1977 and 1981 respectively. At the first National Sports Festival, Lagos ’73, Okala made sure his East Central State Spartans won the soccer gold medal with a 1-0 victory over Benue Plateau. He saved a penalty kick. Spartans and Okala retained the gold medal in 1975.
To crown Okala’s commitment to club and country, he did something no one else has been able to do till date. In 1977, Rangers drew goalless with AS Police of Senegal in the Lagos first leg of the Africa Winners Cup. That was on a Saturday. In the next 24 hours, Okala captained the Eagles to win ECOWAS Games gold. Two international matches, in 48 hours, for Rangers and Nigeria.
It is strange that this same ‘towering hands’ was ridiculed by Nigeria and sacked by Rangers. Okala’s younger brother, Patrick, was also a Green Eagle and did what his elder brother never achieved: play in the Nations Cup grand finale. Patrick died in 1991.
I am so happy today that Okala is reaping the dividends of his talent and name, thanks to Governor Willie Obiano of Anambra State. He is Special Adviser, Sports to the governor, the ‘Akpokuo Dike’ himself.
Showers of gratitude, that’s what Obiano deserves. The story is devoid of politics. And it shows a lot of statesmanship. I watched Okala on a Channels Television programme: ‘The Chat,’ anchored by Mani Onumonu. And he said it all.
According to the ex-international, former Secretary to the Anambra State Government, Oseloka Obaze, mentioned him to Obiano. The governor did not look back: “If it is the Okala I know, let him resume with me immediately,” Obiano was said to have told Obaze.
Today, Obaze is in PDP. The governor belongs to APGA. Obaze even contested the last elections with his former boss. It did not in any way, affect Okala’s job. That does not sound like Nigerian politics where pettiness rules. For this, Obiano, has grown even taller than the keeper. Kudos.
I saw a better looking Okala, irrespective of the obvious health challenges. I saw a very romantic Okala who said to his wife: “ My dear, keep it up. I love you.” Thanks to Obiano, the superstar is living decently. That is how to reward our heroes past.
Okala still regrets the treatment he got from Nigerians on the day Nigeria defeated Algeria to win the Nations Cup in 1980. Coach Otto Gloria and fitness trainer, Carlesso, both Brazilians, had heard so much about the legend. He was not as good as, Best Ogedegbe, during the championships but they wanted to honour him.
Otto Gloria asked the players to mount a guard of honour for Okala in the group match against Cote D’Ivore. In the final, with Eagles leading 3-0, the coach wanted to bring in Okala. Some NFA officials did not like that. The Brazilian was shocked. He walked away wondering how a prophet was not respected at home. Okala also quit the national team after that. In 1981, he won a double with the Flying Antelopes.
Rangers kicked Okala away, like football. From player he became Assistant Coach, Team Manager and technical Committee member at various times. In 1992, he was appointed member of the Board. There were complaints. Much later they talked about certificate.
That one did not really make sense for a man who put in his best for the Enugu team. Okala was embarrassed. “ They talked of certificate. When I was busy with Rangers from Lagos to Kaduna, Ibadan. They forgot all that.”
Today, his four children, two boys, two girls are university graduates. Okala tried to keep them away from sports so that they do not go through the same humiliation that greeted Daddy’s selfless service.
Okala is not happy with the plight of some of his senior colleagues.” Look at Chukwuma, ‘It’s a goal Igweonu,’ he is 80 this year. Dr. Johnny Egbuonu, a star who was invited to Ghana by, Dr Kwame Nkrumah, to join the Ghana All Stars team in 1965, before he traveled to Germany. Do we still remember them?”
Okala comes from a family of keepers. His uncle, Walter, played Christ the King College[CKC] Onitsha and Port Harcourt Red Devils. Another brother, Charles, did well until injury forced him out. The ex-Rangers goalie was converted by his Holy Cross School, Umuawo, Awka, Games Master, C.N.O. Ukpaka.
Tallest, as he is called by friends, is not one to shut up in the face of undue threat. “ I can die fighting for my right,” he thundered.
The great Okala is a hero outside Nigeria. In 1990, I met Petit Sory, the deadly Hafia, striker who scored one of the goals that gave the Guineans 3-1 aggregate victory Rangers in the 1975 CAF Champions League finals. And he did not forget that experience.
“ Where is Okala,” Sory asked me. He was a great goalkeeper but I am happy I beat him in 1975.” It really was tough to find a way round the lion hearted keeper.
Okala’s best game was in Congo in 1975 on the way to the Montreal ’76 Olympic Games. Nigeria won 1-0 with Sunny Oyarekua’s early minute goal. After that, it was Okala versus the Red Devils.