By NBF News
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United States (U.S.)-based coach Sam Okpodu was one of the most gifted wingers that rose from the Nigerian school sports system to play for the junior national team, the Flying Eagles, and later, the Green Eagles. The story of his soccer career started at the Roman Catholic Mission Primary School in Warri, Delta State, in the mid 1960s and later at New Era Secondary School in Benin City in 1973. Former Governor of Bendel State, Samuel Ogbemudia, had set up the New Era School to cater for young sportsmen and women, who helped the state to win the first National Sports Festival in Lagos.

The mercurial winger was so good on the field that his presence always sent jitters down the spine of his opponents throughout his active days as a player. After spending two years at New Era, Okpodu left for Sapele Technical College in 1975, where he teamed up with the likes of Samson Ozogula to rule the prestigious Principals' Cup competition in Bendel State, conquering the famous Urhobo College in the final of 1978 edition played at the Warri Township Stadium. The victory gave Okpodu a ticket to the Flying Eagles in 1978, thus making him one of the first set of players to dorn the team's jersey alongside Francis Monidafe, Fatai Atere, Taju Disu, Humphrey Edobor, Matthew Onyemah, Nathaniel Ogedegbe, Thompson Usiyan, Wole Odegbami and Paul Okoku.

Again in 1979, the young Okpodu was named in the Bendel State team to the National Sports Festival - the Oluyole '79 – and soon after, he joined Bendel Insurance FC, a club he helped to win the 1980 edition of the National Challenge Cup in Lagos after beating the crowd-pulling Stationery Stores in front of its vocal and passionate supporters.

Okpodu, who is a member of the National Soccer Coaches Association of America, where he serves as consultant for state associations, regional soccer programmes and counties around the Caribbean, narrates the story of his life in this interview with GOWON AKPODONOR from his base in Newberry, South Carolina, disclosing that Dr. Samuel Ogbemudia's great vision opened the door of success for him and thousands of sportsmen and women to pursue education while representing the state.

TILL date, many supporters of the defunct Stationery Stores FC are yet to forget the agony and torture they suffered in the hands of Sam Okpodu in the final of 1980 National Challenge Cup at the National Stadium in Surulere, Lagos. On that bright Saturday afternoon, players, officials and supporters of the crowd-pulling Stationery Stores were full of expectations, hoping that the club would end the long wait for a Challenge Cup title.

The Adebajo Babes, as Stores was fondly called, had won the Challenge Cup in the thick of the Nigerian Civil War in 1968 and the supporters had fasted and prayed for 12 years for another opportunity to come. The 1980 edition provided the chance, but it turned out to be a shattered dream for both players and supporters of the club. Their opponent, Bendel Insurance FC, had in its fold a mercurial winger, Sam Okpodu, whose mesmerising skills and great dribble sent Stores' supporters to early bed at the end of the encounter.

As early as 8.00a.m, the National Stadium was already filled to capacity with flag-and-banner-waving Stores supporters, singing and dancing round major streets in Surulere. To them, the visiting Bendel Insurance will find it difficult to survive considering the caliber of players Stores was parading. Among them were Haruna Ilerika, Yomi Peters, Tarila Okorowanta, Alabi Yisa and goalkeeper Peter Rufai. The supporters were also banking on the magic of the team manager, Baba Joo.

Okpodu recalled with nostalgia: 'It was a game I won't forget in a hurry. The match was so explosive and everybody thought it was going the way of Stores, but at the end, God gave us the victory. I created a penalty by beating Stores' defenders and goalkeeper Rufai and I was brought down. I was very young then but big with Bendal Insurance FC.'

The tense encounter was heading to an end with scoreline at 0-0 when Okpodu's mesmerising skills brought relief to the rescue of Insurance. A loose ball from the midfield was connected by Okpodu at the edge of Stores' defence with three players breathing on his neck. Realising that an extra time game might not be favourable to his team, Okpodu performed his magic, swerved to the left and in the process freed himself from one of the defenders.

With the ball glued to his right foot, Okpodu attempted to shoot at goal, but he was fouled by one of the defenders in the process and referee Eyo Honesty pointed to the spot. For a moment, the stadium was like a graveyard and as Henry Ogbore stepped forward to take the spot kick for Insurance, Stores' supporters started raining curses on the referee, accusing him of 'dashing' Bendel Insurance 'undeserved' penalty. With that, Insurance won the match 1-0.

For Stores supporters, it was the beginning of another long wait for a Challenge Cup glory. Some die-hard supporters of the club, who could not hold back their emotions, wept openly saying, omo kekere ti pa wa, (small boy Okpodu has ruined us). And for many months after the match, some Stores' supporters laid ambush for referee Honesty at strategic areas in Lagos.

Okpodu and the 'gang' led Insurance to that year's edition of the Africa Champions Cup but lost to Cannon Sportiff of Cameroun in the quarter-final. That was after Okpodu had led the team to beat Etoile in faraway Congo. Okpodu, who hails from the present-day Delta State (then Bendel), began his sports career at the Roman Catholic Mission Primary School in Warri in the mid-60s as a track and field athlete, combining the 100, 4×400 metres, long and triple jumps, before crossing to the field of soccer.

'I was actually anchoring the third leg of our school 4×400 metres relay team before I moved to football,' he said. 'Some of my teammates were Paul Arikefa and Akama. At home, Ebiyon Dediara and his wife gave me love and care and showed me how best to guide a talented youth player to achieve the top level of football performance. Ebiyon is a true professional and I will continue to remember him and his wife for the role they played in my education and sports career.'

Okpodu's football career was planted at Roman Catholic Mission Primary School, but it was nurtured to growth when he commenced his post-elementary education at both New Era Secondary School in Benin City and Sapele Technical College. He recalled: 'While I was in school, I was invited to join the Nigerian Ports Authority FC through Paul Obire, who was my first true coach.

'He opened the door to my world of football and early football development in Warri. I continued playing with NPA for few years before I joined McDermott Football Club, also of Warri. The schoolboy connections helped us to propel McDermott FC to the final of Bendel State FA Cup against Bendel Insurance in 1978. Some of my teammates in McDermott were Fawola Ogbein, Sunny Cartor and John Omoghelli.'

According to Okpodu, the ideal of setting up New Era School in 1973 was muted by Governor Samuel Ogbemudia after many rookies helped Bendel State to win the first National Sports Festival in Lagos that year. He said: 'Several of the players were drafted to start New Era as a sports school created by Ogbemudia, a visionary individual when it comes to discovering, development and building of sportsmen and women in Nigeria.

'Through Ogbemudia, a lot of young sportsmen and women achieved and competed passionately for the state and the country. He also made it possible for sportsmen and women to further their educational career while representing the state.'

In 1975, Okpodu left New Era for Sapele Technical College and soon after, formed what he described as one of the 'most sound' technical and tactical school teams ever to exist in Bendel State. With teammates such as Samson Ozogula, the school conquered all opponents on its way to the final of the 1978 Principals' Cup, where it defeated the dreaded Urhobo College to lift the trophy at the Warri Township Stadium, a feat Okpodu said was one of his memorable moments as a school athletes.

Another memorable moment for the young Okpodu was when he was named in the Bendel State team to the Oluyole '79 National Sports Festival in Ibadan: 'I was working hard to develop my game and career in football at that time when I was included in the sports festival team,' he noted.

'We got to the final but lost the gold medal to a team from the East, but coaches who came to watch the game were satisfied with my performance. My attacking exploits remained some of the great moments in the history of sports festival in Nigeria. That performance at Oluyole '79 Festival gave me a second call-up to the Green Eagles team.'

Before then, Okpodu had been invited to the Flying Eagles camp in 1978, thus becoming one of the first set of players to dorn the junior team's colour preparing for the African qualifiers ahead of the 1979 edition of FIFA U-20 World Cup in Tokyo, Japan. Nigeria did not participate in the maiden edition of the competition in 1977, a year that saw the emergence of Diego Maradona in world football.

When the Flying Eagles joined the race in 1978, it was not a good story to tell, as Nigeria lost at home to Guinea in the third round and crashed out. By then, Okpodu had been moved from the Flying Eagles to the senior team (Green Eagles) on the order of then foreign technical adviser, Father Tiko.

'I initially started with the Flying Eagles and after a couple of weeks in camping, I was promoted to the Green Eagles on the recommendation of the Flying Eagles' coach, a foreigner, who said that my ability and skill levels were very strong,' he said. 'He then made a case for me to be promoted to the senior team. That was how I joined the Green Eagles in 1978 with Father Tiko as the coach. I was still in secondary school at that time. My Flying Eagles teammates included Stephen Keshi, Franklin Howard, Henry Nwosu and Nathaniel Ogedegbe.

'After several weeks in camp with the Green Eagles, l returned to my school in Sapele. At that time, some NFA officials had this bad habit of discouraging anyone training to combine academics and football, but players like Segun Odegbami, Felix Owolabi and Adokiye Amiesimaka became role models to young players and were instrumental to my furthering my education.

'These guys were in the university and some had graduated. Adokiye was in the Law School and was my roommate during my Green Eagles days at the FESTAC Hotel along Badagry Road. He was a big motivation to me because I realised that one could combine and achieve success with academics and sports.

'My other teammates in the Green Eagles were Francis Monidafe, Okey Isima, Sylvanus Okpala, Best Ogedegbe, Henry Nwosu, Nathaniel Ogedegbe, Sam Owoh, Fawola Ogbein, Kadiri Ikhana, Christian Chukwu and Muda Lawal.'

His quest for education saw Okpodu play few matches for the Green Eagles. He was part of the team on the tour of Brazil and some African countries preparatory to the 1982 Nations Cup and the World Cup. He played against some Brazilian clubs like Flamingo, Vasco da Gama, Brasilia and Botafogo as well as the matches against Mozambique, Sierra Leone and Ethiopia.

Looking back to his days as a school player, Okpodu said: 'My experience with school sporting activities back in the days was commitment and loyalty to school and the community. The games were more competitive, healthy and passionate with regards to opposing players' respect for one another and fans. Games back in the days were very organised and planned. We went to camp for months preparing for major events and competitions.

'The state government committed time and money to achieving major successes and championships. Coaches were committed to development of young players and did not ask players for money to play, like it is presently happening in Nigeria. I will forever remain grateful to Dr. Samuel Ogbemudia for his great vision. I doubt if Nigeria will have such a governor in years to come.

'I have been praying that the sports authority back home should remember people like us so that I can contribute my quota by helping my country build a better youth football structure. I want to head the technical department of the Nigeria Football Federation so that I can impact in the system some of the things we benefited from the vision of Ogbemudia. I am ready to serve, but it has to come from the NFF.'

In 2002, Okpodu was named head coach of the Super Falcons and he performed very well, leading the team to win the African Women Championship (AWC) title in Warri before leading Nigeria to the 2003 edition of the FIFA Women World Cup in the United States.

For now, he serves as a national instructor, teaching coaches modern methodology around the world. He is the chairman of NSCAA-Black Soccer Coach Committee and also a member of the NSCAA board, which is the largest coaching association in the world.