By Emeka Obasi
There was everything extraordinary about Green Eagles goalkeeper, Emmanuel Anthony Oguejiofo Okala when he demobilised one of Africa’s best, Diables Rouges (Red Devils) at the Revolution Stadium, Brazaville on July 13, 1975. The Congolese may yet recover from that shock 1-0 defeat.
It was the Second Round of the Ethiopia ’76 African Nations Cup qualifiers. Sunny Oyarekhua put the Nigerians ahead in the very first minute. And that was the last anyone saw of the visitors. The next 89 minutes were played away from the Devil’s half.
Congo won the Cameroon ’72 African Nations Cup. They finished fourth at the next Championships and were the only team that beat eventual winners, Leopards of Congo Democratic Republic (Zaire). That same year, 1974, CARA of Brazaville lifted the African Cup for Champion Clubs ( today’s CAF Champions League).
CARA dethroned defending champions, Vita of Zaire before dismissing Mehala of Egypt, home and away in the finals. What Okala faced was a combination of 1972 African champions and 1974 winners. A star studded formation that was handled by Rumanian, Cicekone Manolache.
Francois M’Pele had joined French side, Paris Saint Germain. He played with Les Blues star, Marius Tressor at Ajaccio. PSG Manager,Just Fontaine, top scorer of the 1958 World Cup with 13 goals in six matches, believed so much in the Congolese striker.M’Pele scored 21 goals for PSG in the 1974/1975 season and till date remains the club’s leading scorer in Coupe de France with 28 goals.
July 13 was M’Pele’s birthday. Born in Brazaville in 1947, he turned 28 on that day. That was none of Okala’s business. The goalkeeper was not in the mood for a party. Two months earlier, he was more interested in taking Enugu Rangers to the quarter finals of a continental club Championships than his own birthday.
Jean-Michel M’bono was Golden Boot winner at the Cameroon ’72 African Nations Cup with four goals. Moukila Paul, African Footballer of the Year, 1974 joined Strasbourg after lifting the Cup of Champion Clubs with CARA. His fans called him ‘Sayal’.
Noel Minga Tchibinda, better known as ‘ Minga Pepe’, Jonas Bahamboula, Jean-Jacques N’Domba and goalie Maxime Matsima were Nations Cup veterans. The CARA brigade of keeper Tandou Paul, Right back, Gabriel Dengaki, hit man, Sebastine Lakou and Gaston Nganga-Mulvi, Joseph Ngassaki, Andre Mbouta- Bella and Gilbert Ponty also had Nations Cup pedigree.
With all these names, the 50, 000 crowd expected Okala to succumb. He simply stood like Man Mountain and refused to be cowed. At the end of 90 minutes, that lone goal scored by Oyarekhua was all that counted. The Nigerian goalkeeper made it happen. The Eagles won the second leg 2-1 in Lagos and were sure of an Ethiopia ’76 African Nations Cup ticket.
What the opposition failed to realise was that Okala was also a Red Devil and had lived with another Red Devil in their Ogbe-Otu, Onitsha home. Okala joined Enugu Rangers in 1970 from Onitsha Red Devils. His uncle, Walter kept for Port Harcourt Red Devils when the Nigerian National team wore Red Devils as identity.
Today, Okala can only tell stories of the bravado in Brazaville for that battle does not exist anywhere in Nigerian records. The commentaries were lost due to technical hitches.
Okala said : “ Talking about memorable matches, there were so many saves. When we qualified for the 1976 African Nations Cup, in the Second Round,we played against Congo. In Brazaville, we scored them in the first minute of the match. Sunny Oyarekhua scored our only goal and it turned out to be the only goal of the match.
“The game was played between the Congolese team and myself. Unfortunately, the match was not recorded by Nigeria. We traveled with
Bisi Lawrence of Radio Nigeria, who ran the commentary. Surprisingly, when we returned to Lagos, they said the commentary did not reach Nigeria. So we have no record at all of that match.”
While Nigerians remain in the dark about Okala’s Red Letter Day, the Congolese have not forgotten.Poetic Journalist, Uzor Maxim Uzoatu was reminded of that epic battle many years after, by a Congolese in the United States.
Uzoatu took to Facebook. “ I once met a Congolese soccer fan in Pittsburgh, United States who promptly asked me if the goalkeeper, Emmanuel Okala is still alive… The old man promptly told me that Okala is the greatest goalkeeper that ever lived”, he said.
Curiously, after all the heroics in Brazaville, Okala was not part of the Green Eagles squad to the Ethiopia ’76 Nations Cup. The NFA settled for Joseph Effiong Erico Okafor, an Arochukwu man born to an Odukpani mother, as first choice keeper. Prince Zion Ogunfehinmi was reserve goalie.
Enugu Rangers had issues with the NFA. Captain Christian Chukwu did not travel with the team but made it eventually. In his absence, Aloy Atuegbu of Mighty Jets stood in as skipper. Three other Flying Antelopes, Ogidi Ibeabuchi, Ikechukwu Ezidinma and Alex Nwosu made the trip.
Okala was indeed a legend. All through his years as player, he did not lose to Cameroon in regulation time, both at club and national level. He dwarfed Thomas Nkono in the finals of the 1977 African Winners Cup which Rangers won.
As a result of Okala’s superlative outing, Cameroonians claimed he was one of them and pleaded with him to come back home. Strangely, Okala is the name of a town in that country’s Centre Region. Their first Foreign Minister after Independence in 1960 was Charles Rene-Guy Okala. His daughter, Nicole Okala Bilai is a serving senator.
In 1990, I met Guinea and Hafia veteran, Petit Sorry at Zaranda Hotel Bauchi. When I said cava to him, he fired a question : “Where is Okala? And continued. “ Okala was a great goalkeeper. We feared him but I am glad I beat him in Lagos”.