It is a great pleasure to celebrate my friend and countryman. Last Sunday, May 17, he turned 69. He told me on Tuesday how he spent the day in silence with his family in Enugu. But then, we talked a little more.
We go back in time to the first days of our first meeting, our relationship, our shared experiences and where we are now.
We talked about how times have changed, from when he was the most famous football player on the African continent to the present day, living in silence, away from the klieg light in Enugu, watching with some pain as the fundamentals of a game sweat sweat. and blood of pioneering players and administrators, are being systematically eroded by intruders and opportunists who overthrew and kept Nigerian domestic football on life support. Times have really changed, for the worse.
The "problem" with Babuje, for what I call Emmanuel Okala, is that he takes everything in life very seriously. I remember our years in the national field. He was not official Camp Commander that we would always keep the rest of us on the straight and narrow path. He fought, punished and shouted at any player who tried to violate the camp rules – sneaking, drinking, smoking, inviting girls to camp, etc. He hated the very thought of losing any game. Therefore, no sacrifice was too much to make us win a match.
It was this same spirit that led Enugu Rangers International FC after its formation after the Civil War. I am not sure now who infected the other with the spirit of never-dying-dying between Emmanuel Okala and the Club. Playing against Rangers at that time was like going to war. The team played as if the world ended up being lost.
You could see that spirit in Okala's eyes, in his words, in his mannerisms on and off the field, a determination to win that also defined his country life. Green Eagles.
That’s why to this day he’s still very angry with the results of two games of the great Rangers
Enugu International lost a lot. We talked about one of them again last Tuesday – the defeat of Enugu Rangers by a young Bendel Insurance team coached by Alabi Aissien in the 1978 FA Cup final. The other was the defeat in the same period by an Algerian club in Algiers, on a very cold night, when the Rangers played on the Astro-turf for the first time and without the right kind of tennis. In both games, Rangers were humiliated by three unanswered goals and Okala was in the goal. The two defeats still hurt him today.
Every time he talks about the departure of Insurance Bendel, it is with great pain. Although he promised to reveal what really happened that night one day soon, my reading of the match is that they disrespected Bendel Insurance FC and disregarded the warning signal issued by Bendel's previous defeat to Ibadan's Shooting Stars International, parading some of the best national team players at the time, in the semifinals by two clear goals.
The Rangers paid the price for this disrespect and received their own dose of the bitter pill in the finals. It was even worse. The invincible African goalkeeper and the terror of all the teams on the continent were forced to catch the ball three times in their own net! Okala still hurts, and insists that there was a sinister plot behind this defeat and that he once told it well. We expect.
So, it's about the part of Okala that hated losing games. There is another part that hated the idea of any striker scoring a goal against him.
One of his weapons was intimidation. In addition to his gigantic 6-foot, 6-inch frame that he imposed on attackers, and the hard, menacing look he wore as a mask on his face before games, he sometimes tormented attackers psychologically.
For example, when the two teams were preparing to go into the field in hiding and shared moments with the referees, Okala would stare at one or two players in particular, and sometimes verbally warn him not to approach the referee. goal or face the consequences. Words in that sense, with the smallest look on his face, would unnerve a "weak" player.
Okala once hit my colleague Phillip Boamah, the great Shooting Stars and Green Eagles extreme, in the head during the match, since a corner kick was about to be carried out against Rangers. He murmured and warned Phillip not to approach him or face the consequences. Phillip was startled and saw the ball go by, then confessed to me.
Several months later, again against Rangers in Kaduna, Phillip was unable to throw the ball when he came face to face with the & # 39; giant & # 39; at the end of the match. He panicked and literally passed the ball to Okala. That was the best chance in the entire match and scoring that goal would have sent Rangers out of the African Club Championship semi-finals and paved the way for Shooting Stars to reach the final and possibly win the South Africa Cup for the second time.
Emmanuel Okala was a & # 39; terror & # 39; across Africa. He joined the Green Eagles at the age of 21 in 1972 and immediately began to set unprecedented records. His height and sloppy structure soon accumulated strength and strength when he started to climb the ladder of fame.
The palm of the hand could easily involve a ball. The reach of his arms could almost cover the width of the goal posts. Your goal kicks are gentle traveled from one goal area to another. This meant that every time he kicked the ball, the opponent's goal area became the battlefield. So, playing against Rangers was playing against the incessant attacks launched by Okala's left foot! No withdrawal has ever crossed its goal mouth without being intercepted. All of these things were reality, not myths.
Okala was so good that in 1975 he became the first goalkeeper in African football history to be awarded African footballer of the year fur African Union of Sports Journalists, ASJU, which decided to create a more authentic continental award to replace continental awards with France Football Magazine who treated him independently before that. He received his award at the ASJU congress in Lomé, Togo. Unfortunately, this was the last time that ASJU awarded these awards. That is why many people are not aware of it. But that is in the story.
There is still a third part for Okala and his exploits in football. He hated seeking the corridor from within his goal. It was always as if the world was over.
For this reason, he trained hard not to grant any goal, even in training, and had a specific method to ensure its sharpness and never grant cheap goals. He trained like crazy, always challenging the best strikers to duels.
His contest with Thompson Usiyen in training was legendary. They bet on goals. Thompson was the smartest goal scoring machine. He would render most goalkeepers useless, with his strange ability to take the least chances and deflect the ball past the goalkeeper. Then Thompson and Okala had a regular battle, a dispute over Okala's will and determination against Usiyen's intelligence and abilities.
Thompson was so good that he won many of those competitions. This sharpened Okala's reflexes. When Thompson left for the United States of America, I automatically became his next Guinea pig. In my case, I was not such a prolific scorer, so there was little dispute. I do not remember having scored a goal in regular time against him in any of the several games we played against Rangers during our entire stay in the national team.
This is Okala for you – a very serious football player who struggled to win.
He wanted me to keep my goal sharp so that the national team would always win. Then, we became friends and roommates at the camp. He did this to keep an eye on me and keep me under control and away from the distractions of fame. He was the best competitor and player on the team, always determined to win, always giving his best and the best, always.
He was first dubbed President by the legendary radio commentator, deceased Ernest Okonkwo. When Christian Chukwu came on the scene, Ernest himself transferred the & # 39; Presidency & # 39; for Christian and renamed Okala, Man Mountain. Ernest also occasionally described him as "Higher". But I call him Babuje. I don't remember where that nickname came from, or what it meant, but it felt right, and he loved it. I believe it has the mark of the late Aloysius Atuegbu.
Whatever someone chooses to call this gentle giant goalkeeper, one thing is indisputable, Emmanuel Okala was a true giant and legend of African football.
I pray that the Creator of the Universe will continue to support him throughout his life's journey until he reaches 70 next year and then much, much, much further.
Congratulations and Happy birthday, Babuje!
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