In the late 1970s and early 80s, Emmanuel Okala was a colossus between the goal post. He was Africa’s best-known goalkeeper of his time. Okala kept for Rangers International of Enugu and the Green Eagles, as the national team was then called.
Emmanuel Anthony Oguejiofo Okala spent his youth playing for club and country. In 1977, he created a record which may yet be equalled. He was in goal for Enugu Rangers against AS Police of Senegal in the first leg, quarter-finals of the African Winners Cup. It ended goalless in Lagos.“Twenty hours later, he captained the Green Eagles to ECOWAS Games soccer gold over Ghana. Scores: 2-1.
Okala moved on to win the Winners Cup with Rangers. In 1978, Okala was voted African Footballer of the Year by African Sports Journalists Union. In 1973, he won All Africa Games gold. In 1980, Okala won African Nations Cup gold. The only goalie to have won the FA Cup three times consecutively in 1974, 1975, 1976. Okala was a terror to many attackers who got frightened on seeing his huge frame between the sticks. Most of them lose their composure on sighting him. Often he picked the ball easily off their feet.
Writing to commemorate Okala’s 69th birthday, Chief Segun Odegbami, who was his international teammate, submitted thus: “he was the most famous footballer on the African continent to the present time. He hated the very thought of losing any match. So, no sacrifice was too much to make us win a match.”
And that was how the man, nicknamed Man Mountain by the late ace sportscaster, Ernest Okonkwo, ‘infected’ the entire Rangers squad and the national team, the Green Eagles.
However, today, the man who gave his all to both club and country is not a happy man. He wouldn’t talk about his past, maybe because it brings back mixed memories; how he gave his all to the country but got nothing in return. He may have thought, rightly too, that his dedication, commitment and patriotism that were unequalled, were enough to earn him a secure and blissful future.
We put a call across to Okala for a chat on Nigerian football and about himself.
Okala rejected the idea and declined the interview. Instead, he chose to “remain quiet” in order to have his peace.
“I am sorry, I am not talking to you because I don’t want any controversy,” he said.
We insisted that we needed to talk to him and asked that he drew the line between what he wanted to talk about and areas we should not ask questions about.
“There is no way you won’t ask about the national team, the coach and NFF,” he said. “I don’t want to interfere in the NFF or their decisions on any issue for now. I don’t want to go into those issues or be looked at as a difficult man.
“You, as a journalist, you know everything about what is wrong with our football, go and write it. Why must it come from me.”
We asked, “can you let us tell you areas we want to ask questions because it is a going to be all about you; a personality interview.” He insisted, “No. No. No. I don’t need any interviews, I am very sorry. It doesn’t project me well in the eyes of the administrators. We are forgotten, we are forgotten. Can’t you write about that? Don’t you know that ex-internationals have been forgotten? Write it if you know. So why must it come from me?”
You want me to create enemies. Go and do your investigative journalism.”
Undaunted, we asked, “can you listen to us, Sir?”
He cuts in, “No. I will not listen to you. You, listen to me: You have more knowledge about Nigerian football now, than me; that’s your duty. You know everything about Nigerian football. Why do you people want to personalise things?”
Persisting, we asked, “you don’t want to listen to us, sir?”
“No. I don’t want to listen. I don’t want interviews, please. Let me have my peace.”
With all the achievements he attained, one would expect the Federal government to honour this legend. “Note that his younger brother, Patrick, was also a Nigerian international. When he died in 1991, Emmanuel expected the government to support the family.” Nigeria has not done much for Okala.
Rangers have not fared better either. “Okala was forced to retire from the national team after NFA officials refused coach Otto Gloria to field him in the AFCON grand finale against Algeria even when victory was almost certain and Nigeria was 3-0 up. Gloria and physical trainer, Carlesso wanted to watch Okala keep goal since they heard so about him. “Okala was hot cake in Cameroon after Rangers lifted the Winners Cup in 1977.
Okala is also a Cameroonian name. That country’s first Foreign minister was Charles Okala. They wanted the Nigerian to switch nationality. “Today, Okala says Nigeria has not been fair to some of them. Sports Minister, Sunday Dare, visited him during the lockdown.” Okala was once hired as Super Eagles keeper’s Trainer.
He hardly settled down before the NFA fired him. “Soccer took its toll on this giant. “ After winning laurels with Rangers, he was also humiliated by the same team. The Flying Antelopes sacked him for not possessing certificates. An angry Okala asked why he was not fired when he was winning laurels for Rangers.