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Emmanuel Okala… football legend, iroko in goalpost

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EMMANUEL Okala, Nigeria’s first ‘African Footballer of the Year’ stands out from the crowd in goal keeping, intimidating strikers with his height. He remains one of the safest hands Nigeria ever had in the goalpost.

He debuted for Nigeria with his first international call up in a 3-2 win over Tanzania in a friendly at the National Stadium, Surulere, Lagos, in 1972, and his last international cap against Cameroun in a 1-1 draw in 1980, in an African Games match. He made 59 appearances for the national team, Green Eagles, later rechristened Super Eagles.

Okala is among the league of players that had their siblings play for the Super Eagles, but his is peculiar, along with his younger brother, Patrick Okala, they remain the only siblings to have kept the post for Nigeria.

The senior Okala in the 1970s to the 1980, dived and parried away opponents schemes to score, while Patrick stopped opposing side moves to find the back of the net in the 1990s. The Okala brothers are the first Nigerian siblings to win African Nations Cup gold and silver medals. Emmanuel won gold in 1980, while Patrick latter picked a silver medal in 1984.

Nicknamed ‘Iroko’,  ‘Man Mountain’,  ‘The Gentle Giant,’ among others, Emmanuel Okala, took after his uncle, Walter Okala. Walter was a goalkeeper of Christ the King College (CKC), Onitsha, in his secondary school days. Recall that in 1938, CKC became national champions when they defeated St. Gregory’s College, Obalende, in Lagos. In 1977, CKC won the International Schools Sports Federation (ISSF) Football Championships in Dublin, Ireland.

Okala’s outstanding career in the game of football didn’t start with Rangers International of Enugu where his exploits were more pronounced; but started in 1963, when he was 12-years-old. He was then at Holy Cross High School, Onitsha, not even as goalkeeper but as a left-winger, later, central defender in the school’s football team before becoming a renowned goalkeeper.

 According to him, “I was brought into the first 11 to play at the outside left position. I had the height to cope with the other boys who were older and in the upper classes.

At some point during our training sessions for the Coal Team, which was for students in the junior classes, our games master, Mr. C .N. Ukpaka, wanted to change our goalkeeper who, in his judgment was not pulling his weight. Mr. C .N. Ukpaka  asked if any other person could serve in that position.

I volunteered to be in goal and found myself far better than the other goalkeeper. It was a good chance to use the height advantage which I had over the forward players. From that day, the games master said I was the school’s goalkeeper. It remained so until I left school in 1966.”

The six feet six inch goalkeeper, the only goalkeeper to win the Africa Best Footballer of the Year was born on May 17, 1951, in Onitsha, Anambra State to Ogbuefi Chukwuegbuka Okala and Mrs. Margrete Okala. He started his primary education at St. Joseph Primary School, Onitsha, and started playing football at Ogboti village, Onitsha, and at a time, people pride themselves to represent their village team and to return from matches as winners. Immediately after the Nigerian Civil War,

he played for the Onitsha Red Devils before joining Rangers in the late 1971. In 1972, after he was called up to the national team, he was selected to man the post for Nigeria in the first game to declare the National Stadium in Lagos open.

Okala’s desire to keep faith with playing football was born out of sheer will and determination to silence the opposition that was building against his budding career. One of such instances happened in his first year at St. Patrick’s Secondary School as the goalkeeper for his school during an inter school matches,

his school defeated St. Paul’s High School, which happened to be his late elder brother’s school and he was not happy that Okala was partly responsible for that defeat. His elder couldn’t bear the loss that when they returned home on holiday, he told their father that Emma was not concentrating on his studies and that all he was doing was to play football.

Another instance was when he left Onitsha Red Devil to join Enugu Rangers FC, one of his uncles came to their house and told his father that he must stop him from playing football. He said it was best for his father to send him to the university, as those who play football are never-do-wells.

The former shot stopper much later confessed that football affected his studies in some ways. “When I finished training and got to the class, I found myself sleeping in class because I was weak. There were also situations where I’ve had to miss exams because I was in Enugu and the exam was taking place in Onitsha.

When would I leave Enugu and get to Onitsha on time for the exam? So, the exams I could not meet up with, I let go and today, even though I would not advice anyone to follow my step, I’d tell you I have no regrets.”

Before joining Enugu Rangers, Okala moved through some other smaller clubs that were springing up after the war until he was drafted into the Eastern Spartans that transformed into the Rangers International.

 After joining Rangers in 1971, he was selected to play for Rangers in the finals of the Amachree Cup against the WNDC team. At the first National Sports Festival, he was at the post for the East Central States in 1973.

Okala recalled how he gained permanent jersey in the Green Eagles, an opportunity that offered him the platform to be one of the best goalkeepers in Nigeria and on the African continent. “In 1972, the national team played a two-stage match that saw us play in Benin and at the Onikan Stadium against Tanzania.

In the game in Benin, we beat Tanzania 2 – 0. When we got to Onikan Stadium for the second game, Eyo Essien was in goal and we were leading 3 – 0, but after 10 minutes into the second half of the game, the Tanzanians equalized and I was called up to replace Essien. From that moment that I was given the opportunity, I didn’t let it slip off my hands until I retired.”

The goal tender debunked remour of black magic (juju) in the match Rangers played against Hafia of Guinea in Lagos, as many allegedly quoted him saying that he saw several balls. Okala insists there is no juju in football.

“Anyone who told you that I saw several balls lied. The only incident I had was back in 1975 in a match against Mehala of Egypt where I had eye problem which my coaches were aware of and I was given an eye drop that was reflective because of the rays of the sun.

I opted out of the game and we lost 3 – 1. On our return, the news was that it was due to juju that we lost because I could not see. The return leg ended 1 – 2 against us in Lagos but not many people understood what went wrong.”

Okala also disagrees with perceived rivalry between him and the late Best Ogedengbe, who he described as a close friend; maintaining cordial relationship with him throughout their time in the national team. Ogedengbe kept all the matches at the 1980 Nations Cup.

“I remember vividly that during the group stages before we played against Ivory Coast, the coach called everyone to order and demanded that everyone remained standing except me. He confessed that when he came in as technical adviser to the Nigerian national team, he heard so many negative things about me from different quarters but that he had watched me closely and had come to realise that all that were said were lies.

He noted that even when I was not selected to start a game, I’d always cooperate with my teammates both on and off the pitch and that, he had seen that the team flowed around me. He said he was very impressed with me and that everyone should clap for me.”

In spite of Okala maintaining cordial relationship with the Green Eagles coaching crew and having no conflict with any player, he retired from the national team in acrimonious circumstances as some officials of the Nigeria Football Association worked against him.

He was even denied the honour of wearing Nigeria’s jersey in the final game of 1980 Nations Cup, “Otto Gloria said he wanted to honour me and to see me in goal even for 10 minutes but even after the substitution paper had been written and I had warmed up, the then Team Manager, Kojo Alakija and then Director of Sports, Isaac Akioye vowed that I would not go in and that was why I never had any action in that final.

“Their reasons for that action were never communicated to Otto Gloria or me. The moment that happened, Otto Gloria left the bench and went straight to the dressing room while the match was still on. I didn’t take it as anything but before then, I had already made up my mind to quit at the end of the Nations Cup campaign,” he said.

After quitting the national team with the triumph of the 1980 Nations Cup, he turned down several efforts by the new chairman of the Nigeria Football Association, Sunday Dankaro to call him out of retirement as his mind was made up already saying he had nothing against anyone and didn’t understand why people would gang up against him. 

Okala a recipient of Member of the Order of the Niger (MON), said he didn’t regret donning the green and white jersey of Nigeria.

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