Emma Okala at 70 and a return from amnesia!

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Obviously, Emmanuel Okala qualifies to be rated as the best goalkeeper ever to have come out of Nigeria. But curent football followers who never saw him in action might argue this point on the account that he never won the CAF Champions League and never played in the World Cup – former Enyimba goalkeeper, Vincent Enyeama achieved these glorious feats! Does that make him Nigeria’s all time best goalkeeper? It is a discussion for another day.

Dramatically, Okala made his debut on November 11, 1972 in a friendly encounter against Tanzania in Lagos. He came in as a substitute, taking over from Essien Eyo in the game Eagles won 3-2. That match was absolutely dramatic because on March 8, 1980 when Nigeria filed out for the first game in her Nations Cup glorious campaign, Eagles opponent was Tanzania who lost 3-1 with fantastic Muda Lawal, dangerman Ifeanyi Onyedika and mathematical Segun Odegbami on scorers’ sheet.

In all Okala was in goal for Nigeria 53 times and he conceded 30 goals. He led the Eagles in exceptional 33 wins. Historically, Okala forced out tears from Ghanaians fans eyes when he inspired the Eagles to a 1 – 2 triumph over the then almighty Black Stars in Accra on August 24, 1975. An away game specialist, Okala stood like the Rock of Gubrilatar in the excruciating African Nations Cup qualifier against Congo in Brazaville and Nigeria recorded an astonishing 0-1 victory. Recall that at that time Congo was one of the best teams in Africa as it had represented the continent in the World Cup Finals. A goalkeeper with an amazing confidence and agility, Tunisian football fans and stakeholders almost stoned Okala in Kumasi on March 16, 1978 during a Nations Cup encounter. Okala frustrated all their efforts at scoring a goal in that epic but bitter game. Meanwhile Baba Otu Muhammad had put Nigeria into the lead. Frustrated and devastated, the Tuniasians walked out of the game and CAF awarded Nigeria two goals and two points.

It must also have to be pointed out that while Okala manned the post for Nigeria, the Eagles were never at any time cowed by the Lions aura even as they were never swallowed by the “King of the jungle”. Look at it: The first time Nigeria and Cameroon met was on January 22, 1975 in a friendly outing at the National Stadium, Surulere, Lagos. Okala was in goal and Nigeria won, 1 – 0. The second was during the third edition of the All Africa Games in Algiers. Okala, of course, was the goalkeeper and it ended in non score draw on July 17, 1978. Again, on February 2, 1980, Okala was the shot stopper in a friendly encounter against Cameroon and it ended 0 – 0 as it was his last outing for Nigeria. Whether in club or national team assignment, Okala never lost to Cameroon.

However, the moment Okala retired, Cameroon started making a mince of Nigeria. First was in the Nations Cup final in 1984 in Cote d’Ivoire where Eagles lost to the Lions 1-3, leading to the other agonizing defeats in Nations Cup final games in 1988, 1990 and 2000. But Nigeria won in 1992 (third place), Tunisia 2002 (quarter final match) 2019 (quarter final) while drawing Algiers 90 group game.

In Rangers, Okala, the tallest man ever to have played for Nigeria – he stands at six feet six inches, taller than Nwankwo Kanu who stands at six feet five inches – lifted the Federation Cup three consecutive seasons of 1974, 75 and 76. All the three years were quite symbolic in many respects to wit: the 1974 Federation Cup glory was Dominic Eziani’s last official performance as Rangers captain as Christian Chukwu succesded him and the victory was against Mighty Jets of Jos, a Northern side. In 1975, Ogidi Ibeabuchi headed home the winner against Shooting Stars, a Western team. And in 1976, Rangers stopped Alyufsalam Rocks parading all Ghanaian players in the final. It was Chimezie Ngadi’s brace that did the magic. It is on record that Rocks from Ilorin had beaten Sharks of Port Harcourt, Mighty Jets and Shooting Stars en route to the final against Ranges but Okala never allowed them to score a goal!

It is imperative to note that Okala was in goal for the then high flying Antelopes when they lifted the Premier League title back – to – back in 1974 and 1975. As a matter of fact, the skills of Okala were both magical and fantastic when Rangers won the CAF Confederation Cup in 1977. In the eventful semi final game between Rangers and Shooting Stars decided in Kaduna on a one leg arrangement, the encounter was dragged into penalty shoot out. Okala saved Best Ogedegbe’s kick and scored his to give the Enugu based team the day.

A mysterious goalkeepe, Okala started with a friendly game in 1972 against Tanzania and ended equally with a friendly encounter in 1980.

Okala’s football story will grossly be incomplete without the asking the question: why was he omitted in the 1976 Nations Cup Finals in Ethiopia when he was fit? Two, it must also be noted that on the final day of 1980 Nations Cup against Algeria, the coach, Otto Gloria, towards the dying minutes, wanted Okala to have a feel of the moment and urged him to warn up to replace Best Ogedegbe who had been very outstanding. But the Eagles team manager, Cudjoe Alakija halted and overruled that decision. It did not take anything away from Okala.

At club level, Okala’s sad moment was on December 9, 1975 when Rangers fell on the aggregate of 2-1 Hafia of Guinea in the final of the CAF Champions League in Lagos. On the national plane, Okala still regrets the unfortunate November 12, 1977 last World Cup qualifier where Tunisia, via an own goal from strongman Godwin Odiye, stopped Nigeria from qualifying for the 1978 Mundial in Argentina.

It was a colourful and glorious career for Okala who is today a Senior Adviser to Governor Willie Obiano of Anambra State.

Happy birthday the tallest player ever to have come out of Nigeria, Emma Okala!

Source: Ori Martins

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