By Onochie Anibeze
The moment Stephen Keshi was confirmed Super Eagles coach in 2011, he went searching for two people, Abdulrahman Abdulrazaq, now governor of Kwara State and Noel Okorougo.
He had his reasons. The two men were what one may call silent workers. They did a lot for sports without being loud about it. Keshi needed the support from such people. Abdulrazaq was not in the country although Keshi later met him. I led the then new Eagles coach to the Asokoro resident of Chief Noel Ugomba Okorougo. Ideas were exchanged, promises made and plans mapped out. Keshi went on to qualify Nigeria for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil after winning the African Cup of Nations in South Africa in 2013. There were hands behind the scene.
Noel Okorougo was one of them. His passion for Nigerian football developed when he was still a youth, long before his emergence as a sports financier, marketing Nigerian football and sponsoring many soccer programmes. But many started appreciating him the more shortly after the USA ’94 World Cup when he signed on sportswear manufacturing giants, NIKE to kit Nigerian soccer teams and also dole out huge cash in sponsorship deal, the best Nigeria ever had till date. With Noel, it was kits galore for Nigeria.
When Nigeria wore Nike to win the Atlanta ’96 Olympic Games soccer gold he made sure Nigeria earned special bonuses. Players also leveraged from some endorsements. Noel made the football family happy and richer. Segun Odegbami, our football legend will always tell of how Noel sponsored the training of Chioma Ajunwa in Kenya for the Atlanta Olympic Games where the police girl won Nigeria’s first Olympic gold medal with her 7.12m effort at the Long Jump event.
Odegbami was Ajunwa’s manager and Noel did not hesitate to lend a helping hand when Odegbami approached him. It would have remained unknown until Odegbami revealed it. At France ’98 World Cup, he got Nike to sponsor a youth team to France for a soccer programe that preceded the games. Before then, Nigeria was searching for a coach after disengaging Phillipe Trousier. Noel led Bora Mullitinovic to Nigeria.
Nigeria’s soccer legend, Christian Chukwu became Kenya’s national team coach courtesy of Noel Okorougo. He was everywhere in Nigerian football. Later, he helped out in the financial and banking sectors. He sponsored many events but preferred not to make them media events. He also assisted many indigent families and in a way fought injustice.
In President Buhari’s first term, two ministers were involved in deals that affected shareholders of a first generation bank. The two ministers were among the group that positioned to buy the UK branch of the bank. Noel stood for the bank’s 65,000 shareholders even in litigation outside our shores. Noel was a silent worker. He was a kind man that helped many not only in business but also on compassionate grounds. He touched lives. He was a silent philanthropist, never loud about his great deeds.
When Covid 19 broke out and people were restricted from even going to church for mass, Noel never missed sending mass on videos for spiritual uplifting every Sunday. He sent this up till May 23, 2022 and sent another message to me two days later. We were communicating, exchanging videos and articles. Any brilliant piece he read, especially from Financial Times, he shared with me. He teased me on the passion I developed playing tennis, a sports I covered even more than football at a time. “Exercise is part of my medicals, I play tennis not only for the fun of it but also to help my health,” I told him in one of our discussions when he remarked that I was getting obsessed with the game of tennis.
He quickly reminded me that he would shoulder the bill for my next medical check up abroad. I thanked him and told him I looked forward to a game of tennis with him. Noel was my friend and brother.
On June 12 while I was in Qatar for the last 2022 intercontinental World Cup qualifiers I received a call from Ujunwa who explained that he was Noel’s younger brother. He dropped the shocker. Noel has passed on, he lost the battle with cancer on June 8 in Switzerland where he lived with his family. It was so shocking I developed fever. I never knew he was sick.
He was warm each time we chatted, very friendly and discursive, as usual. He kept his ailment to himself and immediate family. So, he was in bed when he offered to take care of my medical bills? What a kind man.
What a great Nigerian, a red cap chief in Igboland. I have lost a friend and a brother. Nigeria has lost a great man, a silent philanthropist and a true man of sports. My condolences to the wife, Nafisa, children, brothers and sisters and all loved ones. Good bye, my friend, good bye the silent philanthropist. To Noel, I say, it is well with your soul.
Sad I can’t have any tennis game with you. Goodbye my friend. To all I say, Let’s take consolation in the fact that he is resting in peace. Noel will be buried today in his home town Isuikwuato in Abia State. May God grant him eternal rest. AMEN