Emmanuel Okala is often referred to as the tallest goalkeeper in Nigerian football history. In the era of the 1970s, he was undoubtedly the continent’s most efficient shot stopper, going as far as winning the Footballer of The Year in 1978 – the first Nigerian to clinch the honour and indeed the first official winner of the continental award.
At 62, the man whose imposing frame earned him such accolades as “Man Mountain” and “The Gentle Giant” is still an avid follower of the round leather game that gave him fame and fortune. BIODUN KUPOLUYI spoke to him recently at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport on his life after active football and what keeps him going few minutes to his flight to Burundi for a continental title match..
You are associated with the Rangers Football Club, what exactly do you do for the club?
I make sure sponsors and well-wishers support and I train the Rangers’ goal keepers.
What is your perception on Nigeria’s local league now?
Well, so far so good, all we are praying for is to have functional sponsors that can support the clubs because they are in a very bad shape financially.
You mean finance is the only problem the clubs are facing, or are there others?
A lot of problems abound, but finance is the major one, because if there is money, one will be able to do all that is needed to be done. Money comes before other things.
Do you blame this on policy of the government or is it corporate Nigeria’s problem?
There is also the problem of rivalry between the NFF and NFA. As an elder and former international player, how do you think it can be resolved?It’s corporate Nigeria’s problem because we don’t have sponsors. Last season, the clubs were begging to survive, so I hope things won’t be like that this season by the grace of God.
Well, somebody like Nduka Irabor is there now. He’s a very knowledgeable and well-experienced man; I pray he will be able to join hands with his colleagues and give us a good lift, and for the problems in the football house, the earlier they resolve it the better. They should try and resolve all the cases in the court amicably and peacefully. You know just like our coaches do tell us, you can’t resolve things when the Press is all around because they will blow it out of proportion, and before you know it , the news is everywhere. The court is not the place to settle football matter. Try to settle things amicably so that Nigeria can enjoy the glory Steven Keshi brought us from this past Nations Cup.
Let’s go back to your days as a goal keeper, can you recall those times you were between the poles and a goal was scored, and also your glorious moments?
I can’t stay here and start recounting them, they were many. In sports or in football, you have glorious moments and bad moments too. It’s a must that it must come, so as a goalkeeper, there is no goalkeeper in this world that doesn’t conceive goals. I am used to it. Today, it might be a good one and the other day, a bad one; you just have to take it as it comes. I don’t give it some kind of special thinking.
Was your height an advantage in goal keeping?
Yes, a very big one, because this is a gift from God. People see and imagine how a tall man will be able to bend down to pick ball but I do all that without any hitch, and even now, many people see me today and still recognize me.
If you are to come back to this world again, would you play football and like to be a goal keeper?
For the same country, Nigeria?
Nigeria of course and by that time, since I have learnt and garnered more experience, I will come and help our younger football players.
Do you wish you are still playing now, considering the big money in football this days?
No, I am better of, and as you know in this world, you can’t have everything. There are some things that one will not get and that’s why God is there. So I am okay as I am, and I thank God for everything.
How old are you now?
Do you still play football?
When my mates play football, I can play too, not when people like Kanu Nwankwo and J.J. Okocha are on the field, they will just kick me off the ground.
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