WE WERE TREATED LIKE KIDS â€“ Okocha
Questions have been raised severally on the level of commitment and dedication of players who find themselves in the Super Eagles considering the kind of nerve-racking performance they have churned out in recent times.
For Austin Jay Jay Okocha, who captained the Eagles to the Japan/Korea 2002, even though he sounded a bit diplomatic, yet he refused to blame the current generation of Eagles for the ugly trend.
'I won't blame the players if they are not showing enough commitment to the national team,' the skilful midfield maestro began in an interview recently.
Continuing, he said: 'Our players are used to having the best facilities around. But at the Korea/Japan 2002 World Cup, we had our worst outing at the finals because we had the worst preparations before that competition. We also had the worst treatment and above all, the Nigeria Football Association (NFA) disbanded the team that qualified for that edition of the World Cup. That was the first time I would experience players being screened for selection into the national team few weeks before a major tournament as big as the World Cup.'
The former Bolton skipper also revealed the saddest day of his career and why he refrained from confronting the NFA officials like his predecessor, Sunday Oliseh, even when things appeared to have gone awry. Excerpts:
Do you feel that the current Eagles usually show enough passion and determination when playing for the country?
You can argue for or against that issue, but for me, I won't blame the players if they are not showing any form of commitment to national assignments. Our players are used to having the best facilities around. But at the Korea/Japan 2002 for instance, we had our worst outing at the World Cup finals and the reason for that was because we had the worst preparations before that competition. The worst came when the NFA disbanded the original team that qualified the country for the World Cup finals.
That was the first time I would experience players being screened for selection into the national team few weeks before a major tournament as big as the World Cup. And then, the flight from London to Japan lasted for over 12 hours. To make matters worse, we flew in the economy class for that horrifying length of time. So, you can't expect the players to put in their best when their legs were still swollen following the effect of the long hours of flight.
Other serious countries that went to the 2002 World Cup sent their officials to Korea and Japan to make adequate arrangement days before the arrival of their teams, but the reverse was the case for Nigeria, as we were asked to travel while the officials stayed back in Nigeria to wait for the approval of funds for the World Cup.
In all those problems why didn't you speak out as the captain of the team?
How many people would I fight? The agitation Sunday Oliseh made when he was the captain of the national team landed him in trouble and I never wanted the same fate to befall me. We were warned to be mindful of what we say because at the end of our careers, we would come back to Nigeria.
What was the happiest moment of your career?
My happiest moment was the day I said it was all over. I looked at myself and realised that I could still walk and play with my friends. Coming out of my football career healthy was fulfilling for me.
What about the matches you played?
There were few games that would remain quite memorable like winning the Nations Cup in Tunisia in 1994, qualifying for the World Cup finals the same year and winning Olympic gold medal in the football event at the Atlanta '96 Olympic Games.
What of your saddest moment?
Losing to the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon in the final of the 2000 Nations Cup at the National Stadium, Lagos was the saddest day of my career. And to add salt to the injury, we didn't know that Victor Ikpeba's penalty kick actually crossed the line.
You know, I equalised to make it 2-2 in the second half and I was even boasting after scoring the equaliser that how could Cameroon beat us on our home soil. If I had known that we would eventually lose that game, I wouldn't have boasted after scoring that goal.