DON'T BLAME LAGERBACK
Paul Okoku belonged to the golden and nostalgic era of Nigerian football when the national teams were a force to reckon with on the continent. He was a member of the Flying Eagles to Nigeria's first Under-21 World Cup in Mexico in 1983, and the silver-winning Green Eagles to the Africa Nations Cup in Ivory Coast in 1984. He later sojourned to the United States of America.
Paulo, as Okoku is fondly called, had arranged to fly down to New Jersey for this interview during this reporter's recent visit to the United States, but somehow, he could not catch a connecting flight that weekend. Tendering a profuse apology on the telephone, the ex-international turned finance and management expert and licensed real estate agent, explained that his work schedule was responsible for his inability to make the trip, but promised to respond if a questionnaire was mailed to him.
In this interview, part of which was conducted on the telephone, Okoku knocks administrators in the country for the poor state of football development, as evidenced by the Super Eagles' dismal performance at the just concluded World Cup in South Africa, and proffers solution that will take Nigerian football back to its glorious days. Excerpts:
I was born and raised in Lagos at Olaleye Village in Iponri (Costain). Sadly, the state government has demolished the house where I was born (along with Godwin Odiye's father's house).
My parents hailed from Igbe Ogume in Kwale Local Government Area of Delta State. I attended St. Paul's Primary School, Apapa Road, Lagos, and thereafter, went to St. Finbarr's College, Akoka, also in Lagos. I played for the college team.
Beginning of career
My soccer career started as far back as I could remember with the rubber ball known then in Lagos as 'felele'. I played from Desalu in Ebute Metta to New City in Mushin, Teku at Isale Eko to Evans Square, and to Campus. The late Adeniran Ogunsanya awarded me scholarship to university level after a final match, but I never utilised it. Ogunsanya was then the governorship candidate for Lagos State under the Nigeria People's Party in the 1979 election. But he lost to the UPN (Unity Party of Nigeria) candidate, Alhaji Lateef Jakande.
Later, I was a recipient of another scholarship award by the Federal Government of Nigeria up to the university level anywhere in the world. This was after the Flying Eagles qualified Nigeria for her first ever FIFA-organised soccer competition in Mexico in 1983. But till date, Nigeria has yet to honour the award.
I won several trophies and medals for Lagos State, YSFON (Youth Sports Federation of Nigeria), and Nigeria. I was selected to play for the world against the USA team after the Dallas Cup tournament in 1981. I was the vice captain of the 1983 Flying Eagles to Mexico and a member of the 1984 Africa Cup of Nations silver-winning Green Eagles team.
He left for abroad
I left Nigeria for the US on August 24, 1984 and I reside in Atlanta, Georgia.
Man of charity
I work as a finance and management supervisor. I was recently elevated to the leadership position by the charities I support financially because of my consistent donations. The charities include Feed the Children, Catholic Relief Funds, Atlanta Union Mission and Feed the Poor. In 2002, through my donations to Feed the Children alone, I was able to supply food that fed over 2,000 hungry children in the US. It has steadily increased since then, and by the grace of God, as at last year, 2009, I was able to supply food that fed over 3,500 hungry children in the US through my donations.
I get the satisfaction when I read letters from these kids about how my monthly donations put foods on their table. I also set up a weekly automatic donation to my church through my bank's auto banking, so that even if there is a week I don't make it to church, my donation will still be sent regardless of where I am. This is where my passion is, and I am happy to add that every year when I get a raise at my place of work, I increase my tithe accordingly.
My dream is to start the Paul Okoku Foundation someday, possibly in conjunction with respective organisations that share my goal. I hope to use the foundation to bring awareness to abused children in Lagos and in Nigeria as a whole. These children never asked that they would be born yet their biological parents are abusing and starving them everyday.
It is a controversial project but I am willing to take it up.
I learned many things in the US, one of which is how the celebrities establish foundations using their names and popularity to support the charities they believe in. They organise concerts, sponsor celebrity soccer tournaments and solicit for funds from businesses. How I wish I knew then what I know now during my soccer glory days. The states and the US government rarely support charities directly. The only support they get from government is tax break, which can be significant to their existence to enable them carry on with their community services.
Nigeria in 2010 World Cup
It was disappointment. But it was clear that most Nigerians did not have high expectations for the team. I witnessed the lack of confidence in the team by many Nigerians when I visited Nigeria in May before the World Cup. I wished the team had played the first two games as it played against South Korea. For me, you cannot blame the players that much.
The question is, why wait until three to four months to the World Cup to get a new coach for the Super Eagles? The team did not have enough time for preparations for the Mundial.
In my opinion, mistakes were made when they excluded a young and promising attacker like Victor Anichebe and went ahead to drop all the local players. Being professionals does not guarantee a winning team. They still need to play together as a team and excluding younger players from the squad was bizarre.
Anichebe would have made a difference
Anichebe is young, promising and able. He is one of the few Nigerian players in the EPL (English Premier League) playing for his team on a regular basis. The officials couldn't convince Nigerians why he was dropped. They merely cited injury as the reason. It's wrong. There were other underlying reasons they wouldn't share with us. I think the young man would have made the difference.
Having formidable Eagles
I believe the team should be overhauled completely and we should go back to the drawing board. In reshuffling the team, a few of the current players and the local players should form the bedrock of a new Super Eagles. Our local players must not be excluded in the reshuffling exercise.
Lagerback did his best
I wouldn't dare blame Coach Lars Lagerback. He did his best with the limited time he had. What do you expect? The same thing happened just before the 2002 World Cup in Korea/Japan commenced, when the coach that qualified the team for the Mundial then was replaced. Coach (Adegboye) Onigbinde was unjustly blamed for Nigeria's poor outing thereafter.
I wouldn't go that far to discredit the tremendous improvement we have made in African football. Nonetheless, we still have a whole lot of work to do. Surely, our ordeal lies with lack of proper football management on the part of the officials. Total dependent on professionals and abandoning the home-based players was a grave mistake for most African teams at the last World Cup in South Africa.
Also, extending football management to career politicians is part of the problem in Africa. There are major differences in individual prowess as against playing as a team. We believe in already-made players. That is why we rely so much on ageing players.
R eviving Nigerian football
Rather than engaging career politicians in the administration of Nigerian football, what we needs to run the game are individuals who have the interest of advancing our football. Opportunity should be given to those who played the game; I mean ex-internationals with the requisite exposure and experience. Lagos State has become the harbinger, positively, in all areas affecting livelihood, which has been extended to sports. Almost everyone occupying a position in sports management in the state had one time or the other participated in sports.
Another way forward is to go back to the grassroots, from inter-house sports in primary schools to high school, with the ministries of sports and education working hand in hand to promote sports and education.
Back then in the '70s and '80s, we used to have games master in primary schools and the games were just as interesting. My primary school, St Paul's, produced the likes of Godwin Odiye, Ade Coker, who played professionally for West Ham in the '70s in Britain and later played for the USA national team in the '80s, Emeka James and myself. Our rivals, Ebenezer Primary School produced the likes of Stephen Keshi and the late Christopher Anigala.
There is a need now, more than in the past, to encourage private football club ownership by individuals and corporate bodies by extending tax credit to them. During my playing days in the '80s, we had Leventis United, Abiola Babes and National Bank football clubs among many others. Nigerians enjoyed good, entertaining football. So, why can't they start with the 'Greater Tomorrow' to be the curtain raiser before most games to keep soccer spectators' appetite craving for more? We started from there and majority of us ended up playing for big clubs in Nigeria and for the Flying Eagles and Green Eagles. Some of those who emerged from the Greater Tomorrow teams were footballers like Raymond King, the late Obey Adedeji, Stephen Keshi, Henry Nwosu, Franklin Howard, Edema Benson, the late Austin Fregene, Simeon 'Bremner' Alada, Michael Dominic, Taju Disu, Patrick Macaulay, Brown Okegbe, Emmanuel Akpan and Emeka James.
They should also establish and maintain a Super Eagles' Team B as the feeder for Team A. I was privileged to be a member of the Green Eagles' Team B in 1981 along with some of my teammates – Stephen Keshi (captain), Franklin Howard, the late Austin Fregene, Lukmon Oshun, Nicholas Ukadike, Peter Rufai, Francis Okaro, Tarila Okorowanta and Wakilu Oyenuga. Most of us played for the Green Eagles.
Another area is that we should cultivate the culture of maintaining our sporting facilities. We were successful in the past so why not now? Lagos State under the leadership of Babatunde Fashola is a pacesetter in the area of maintenance of the state's sports facilities.
The local players should also be well paid to encourage them to be committed to the local leagues. It is disheartening and a national disgrace that we lose our players to teams in Sudan and Malaysia. Indigenous coaches should sign lucrative contracts like the expatriate ones we employ. They should be given long-term contracts and sent overseas to update their coaching credentials as a way of adding value to their already acquired experience.
Most of all, football authorities must unconditionally respect the opinions of indigenous coaches without any form of intimidation or retaliation. We want leaders who will refuse to accept failure, but then treat people with dignity in the process.
Another way to stimulate interest in the local league is to extend opportunities to the close-to-be retired footballers to play their last one or two years games in the local league. Historically, most of the successful leagues in the world do that. When their players have a year or two left to retire, they return to help in boosting their local league. I recall that the stadium was jam-packed the day Rasheed Yekini came out of retirement to play again. Think about what would have happened if Jay Jay Okocha had played his last one or two years of football in Nigeria before retiring?
This is why I support absolutely the move by former footballers to have a major role to play in football administration in Nigeria. Absolutely, I agree with them without sentiments. President Goodluck Jonathan has started in the right direction by temporarily appointing a few of the ex-internationals to sanitise and provide antidote to our contaminated football administration. It is a welcome approach.
Ex-internationals abroad not shy to serve Nigeria
It is an unfortunate myth. If the opportunity is extended to us, we will take it. As Less Green, a motivational speaker once put it: 'I would rather be prepared for an opportunity and not get one than to get an opportunity and not be prepared.'
Perhaps, I have been a silent contributor on how to bring Nigeria's deplorable football back to prominence. I was invited at my expense to attend a meeting in Nigeria in May 2009 to help Nigerian football. At that forum we discussed how to move our football forward, to curb age cheating in soccer and to represent the interests of our past heroes.
Hence, the name Sports Initiative of Nigeria came into existence. The group's focus included extending financial assistance to ex-internationals so that they would not become destitute or living from hand to mouth after their career; to have a pension plan in place for them after retiring from active football. Part of it is how to help our past heroes with their basic medical needs so that they could always get on their feet. I can't help but have teary eyes, in private, when I saw past soccer heroes in bad shape; the players I idolized growing up.
It might interest you to know that the following were participants at the meeting: Hon. Adeniji Adele (Lagos State Commissioner for Sports), Segun Odegbami, Okey Isima, Victor Ikpeba, Francis Moniedafe, Tajudeen Disu, Joe Erico, Paul Hamilton, Shola Akinwale, Ismaila Mabo and Shakiru Lawal. I was charged with the responsibility of representing the interest of the players in the Diaspora.
There were other representatives from NSSF, NUGA, NIPOGA, NICEGA and NPUGA at the meeting.
I have also travelled far and wide at my expense, to lend support to Nigeria during the Under-20 World Cup in Holland in 2005 and the 2008 Olympics in China. I am constantly in touch with Taju Disu, Dahiru Sadi and occasionally, Austin Popo. I am for what is right rather than who is right. So pledging alliance to a specific organisation is of no significance to me, personally. Perhaps, you are surprised to learn from me now that it is a wrong premise to suggest that we, the ex-internationals abroad shy away from serving our country.
Jonathan's hammer on NFF
The Sani Lulu-led board got what it deserved. The government's action also came at the right time because they were planning to postpone the elections till December. Again, that was a clear message from President Goodluck Jonathan that it isn't going to be business as usual.
Our administrators failed to plan ahead of the World Cup, which is their greatest undoing. The NFF gave us enough NSF (non-sufficient funds) cheques that we cannot cash at the bank. They galvanized support from the states FA chairmen to bring them back to power so that they can continue to give us bad cheques. To ensure their plot worked, they sponsored the states FA chairmen to South Africa to watch the World Cup. Well, Mr President ruined their parade.
By lifting the ban, after suspending the nation from all international competitions for two years, the President demonstrated that he is hard-headed, but soft-minded. He listened to the nation's cry for a change in the administration of football. And I am expecting a positive change towards the right direction. I alluded earlier that President Jonathan started in the right direction by temporarily appointing a few ex-internationals to bring sanity to our football administration. I pray for such developments to come.
Memorable moments in national team
There were so many memorable moments for me, but I will mention a few. When I made the first team under Coach (Adegboye) Onigbinde, we had embarked on a trip to Lagos from the Benbo Games Village in Ibadan, where we were camped. Our destination was Rabat, Morocco. The team had played a goalless draw two weeks earlier in Nigeria. As we got to the airport, the supposedly key players, who were to meet us in Lagos from Benin, did not show up.
While training in Morocco two days before the game, the captain, Stephen Keshi, approached Coach Onigbinde and after a brief moment with him, Onigbinde stopped the game and asked me to join the first team. That was my first international game for the Green Eagles, on August 28, 1983. It still feels like yesterday. We won the game on penalties and thus qualified Nigeria for the 1984 Africa Nations Cup in Ivory Coast. We eventually lost in the finals to the Roger Miller-led Cameroon team.
Mind you, Onigbinde elevated six of us (myself, Humphrey Edobor, Yisa Shofoluwe, Wilfred Agbonavbare, Tarila Okorowanta and Chibuzor Ehilegbu) from the Flying Eagles. After the game, Onigbinde hugged me, Ehilegbu and Shofoluwe simultaneously, calling us 'My Golden Boys.' How can I forget that?
Another interesting moment was the day preceding the game in Morocco. At the hotel's dining room, the late Ernest Okonkwo approached me and introduced himself to me. 'Who are you?' he asked curiously. 'Paul Okoku,' I nervously replied.
'The little giant, midfield dynamo,' he said. For me, he was larger than life listening to him on the radio from when I was 10 years old, and here he was talking to me face to face.
This one was a heart-dropping moment for me, when Morocco played under protest against Nigeria because I used a passport with Lucky Okoku, when my registered name was Paul Okoku. That was during the final game for the 1984 Olympics qualification against Morocco in Casablanca. But we lost to Morocco, which went on to represent Africa in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. I don't know what would have happened if we had won the match and Nigeria would be deprived of the chance to represent Africa at that year's Olympics on account of the mix-up. I wouldn't know if Coach Onigbinde still remembers the episode.
Yet another one was the day Nigerians supported Ivory Coast against their own team during the 1983 WAFU Cup semi-final match at the National Stadium in Surulere, Lagos.
That was because for the first time as much as I could recall in the history of Nigerian football, we wore red jerseys, red shorts and red hoses, while the Ivoriens wore white jerseys with orange and green stripes and green shorts. Those outfits got Nigerians confused. So, for the first three to five minutes of the game, they thought that we were the Ivoriens.
I am not sure if this one qualifies as a memorable moment during my playing days. This occurred in 1984 when over 15 to 20 soldiers arrested me along with the late Bala Ali, Ehilegbu and Adeshina at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Lagos, just as we were checking in our luggage to board a Nigerian Airways flight. We were on our way to play professionally in Britain for Wolverhampton (The Wolves).
We were ambitious young kids, determined to better our lives and the lives of our respective families. We were driven straight to the National Stadium and queried. I never knew a dungeon like that existed at the National Stadium. That was during the military regime of General Muhammadu Buhari and Brigadier Tunde Idiagbon. No one could challenge them.
It is my children's decision to choose the sports they participate in. I started teaching my kids how to play soccer at a very young age. To pay a close attention to their progress, I volunteered to be their coach. Eventually, I became the coach for the Under-17 girls' team. When I later introduced them to basketball, I discovered that they showed unequivocal dedication to the sport. That is their choice and I have respected that. In fact, I play basketball with my kids in our backyard to solidify my support for their choice. Sometimes, when my nephews visit me in Atlanta from Texas during their long vacation, the basketball game gets intensified.
Kids in US colours
Again, I allow my kids to make their choices, albeit, I have instilled self-pride in them. I have thought them the values my parents bestowed on me and that is to be proud of their heritage. Be informed, though, that they have been thought from early stage in kindergarten to be proud Americans. I remember when my kids were five years old, in a funny sort of way they would profess; 'I am American.'
That notwithstanding, my kids love the Nigerian culture; they watch our movies and listen to our music. They eat fufu, egusi, jollof rice, etc. It is incredible that the Ramsey Noahs, the Jim Iykes, the Jide Alabis, the Desmond Elliots and the Genevieve Nnajis are making us proud, promoting the African movie industry in the US. Similarly, Timaya, D'Banj, P-Square, 9ice and 2Face are putting their stamps on the music world stage and making waves in the US.
Sadly, our soccer is in a sorry condition. When I take my kids to Nigerian parties in the United States, they sing along with the Nigerian artistes and do a good job at it. One Nigerian movie my kids would watch over and over again is titled 'Peace Maker.' I watched the movie on VHS with my kids and my mom, and fortunately it's out on DVD after almost nine to 10 years when it first came out. My children made sure that I got the DVD copy. My kids still remember the names of the characters in the movie like Achebe and Nduka. No one will argue that the actors and actresses like Emeka Ike, Emeka Enyiocha, Nkiru Sylvanus, Benita Nzeribe, Amaechi Muonagor, Rita Edochie and Fabian Adibe performed well, they were excellent.