June 6, 2020

Sylvanus Okpala: I was small but mighty

Sylvanus Okpala

Sylvanus Okpala

•Intrigues that made coach Otto Gloria threaten to quit
•Explains why he was called Quicksilver
•Recalls his on-the-pitch encounter with Dhiab Tarak of Tunisia in 1981

Sylvanus Okpala is a household name in Nigerian football. He was one of the few players who featured for the national team from secondary school. He shot to limelight in the late 1970s when he captained the first U-20 national team from where he graduated to the senior national team.

He spoke with Jacob Ajom on his role in the historic 1980-AFCON winning Green Eagles where he rubbed shoulders with the all-time greates like Adokiye Amiesimaka, Christian Chukwu, Segun Odegbami, Emma Okala, Felix Owolabi, Alloysius Atuegbu,Tunde Bamidele, Godwin Odiye, among others too numerous to mention. Read on.

How did you feel making the 1980 Green Eagles squad?

You know I joined the Green Eagles from secondary school. I was the first captain of the U-20 national team, the Flying Eagles. About the same time, I also joined Rangers from the Metropolitan Secondary School. It was wonderful making that squad. A school leaver, playing in the national team and in one of the best clubs in Africa, Rangers International.

From there we went to Brazil in 1979, stayed there for three months, came home to Nigeria to play the tournament, which we won.

It was quite amazing for a secondary school leaver to own a Peugeot 504 car, a house and a national honour, MON, plus other gifts from individuals and corporate bodies. The sky was our limit then. We worked so hard to win the tournament. All that was on our minds was how to win the trophy, nothing less. Thankfully, we eventually won it..

We had a great team then, great spirit, oneness, determination and the will to win and we had the passion. Most of those who played football those days had passion for the game. It’s quite pleasing to note that after forty years, such achievement was being remembered. It became a fresh news. I am happy to be alive to witness this, forty years after that milestone was achieved.

How did you get into the team. Tell us in detail, how it was possible for you to make the senior team despite your age?

You know I was playing for te Flying Eagles and Rangers. I was being watched. I think it owed more to my playing for Rangers than the Flying Eagles that I made the Green Eagles. We played a league match against Bendel Insurance after which I was called to camp in Ife. We were so many in Ife, I scaled through, among the big players, you can imagine players like Odegbami, Okala, Chukwu, Best Ogedegbe, Amiesimaka, Alloysius Atuegbu, Felix Owolabi, Muda Lawal, among others, who were the big names in Nigerian football then. Imagine a secondary school leaver, playing among these big names.

It was overwhelming. We continued from there and we had screening and I continued to succeed from one screening to another. Mark you, none of the coaches that did the screening came from Rangers. We had Coach Alabi Essien and one other coach from Benin.

They were the ones doing the selection and I was selected among the big boys. These coaches were there for the screening only. After the screening late Coach Carl Oduaya, who was the Principal Coach of the National Sports Commission joined us and we went to Brazil for training. Late Coach Nnado went with us too. In Brazil late Coach Otto Gloria took over. It was when we returned from Brazil that Coach [Professor] Eto Amechina joined us.We called him Professor.

When we returned to Nigeria we continued with the training. Finally only 22 had to be registered, among the lot. Otto Gloria made his list and submitted, I didn’t know who and who were there. Then one incident happened.

My name was included, I never knew. When they were taking pictures, Otto Gloria saw that I was yet to be attended to – many people, including some of the big players never knew what I am about to tell you happened.

The coach came to me and asked why I had not taken my picture. I told him I didn’t know because I had not been called yet. He then went to those that were taking the passport photos and asked why they had not called me for my passport photo?

Unknown to the coach, it appeared they wanted to replace my name with someone else’s. Otto Gloria insisted they must put my name because I was a better player than the one they wanted to replace me with. He threatened he would go back to Brazil if I was not included in the squad. He demanded they should call me to take my passport photo or he would leave immediately. They thought he was joking.

He went in, parked his things and made to leave. They begged him to come back and assured that I was included in the team. I was then called to take my own passport. That was how I made the team. When all this was done, the first thing Otto Gloria told me was, “boy, you are a very good player and you will go places with football.” He said he was doing his selection based on merit, not sentiments. And, like he predicted, I went places because of football.

So, after I hung my boots as a player and became a coach, I said to myself, what Otto Gloria did for me, I will do for many players that pass through me and I stand by it till today. All I have been doing in football is by merit, whether you are my brother or not, I don’t care. Go and ask, anywhere I have worked they will tell you ‘ah that coach, he doesn’t look back. If Okpala says you are good, then you are and if he says you are not good that means you are not good’.

Would you say you owe your meteoric rise to the national team to Otto Gloria?

Remember, it was not Otto Gloria that called me to camp in the first place. There were others who saw me and called me to camp, especially, coach Alabi Essien.

Which position did you play in the team that gave Nigeria her first triumph at the Nations Cup?

I was playing defensive midfield, that had been my position. But later, after the Nations Cup, there were other matches the Eagles played that I played from right back, number 2. In modern football they call it wing back. If you watch the wing back that is being played today, that was what I played forty years ago. They called me overlapping Okpala(Quick Sylva). I was a wing back but playing like a winger. I was doing it on my own, nobody taught me how to do that.

Let me tell you how I started playing that style. After the Nations Cup, we were called back to camp for the World Cup qualifiers against Tunisia. Remember it was Tunisia that stopped us from going to the 1978 World Cup in Argentina. After we won the Nations Cup, our first game was against Tunisia. When we were called to camp, Otto Gloria recalled those that played in the final of the 1980 Nations Cup, and they formed the first team. I was in the second team and I realised we had too many midfielders-the likes of Sefiu Mohammed, Eugene Ohabunwa, Austin Fregene and many others who I cannot remember because they were not with us during the Nations Cup. I am talking about the second team or Team B, because I did not play in the final match of the Nations Cup.

Although I played in the semi final, Khadiri Ikana was called in to play in the final and he did very well, so he maintained the number 4 shirt of team A. I decided to go and play in the defence of Team B because we already had too many midfielders.. After that evening’s training, Otto Gloria sent for me and said I played very well and would want me to continue playing at the right back position. I said no.

But he insisted that during the training session, I played the way he wanted his right back to be playing. That was how I became a right back, When I was playing I was a utility player too. Sometimes I played right back and other times I played from the defensive midfield position. I was alternating like that.

However, I did not allow those things get into my head. As a player, once I finished playing a match, I put that behind me and don’t even talk about how I played that game. Instead, I would be thinking about what I am going to do in the next game. I don’t know where I got that spirit from. So when we won the Nations Cup after the celebration that followed on the field, for me that was overt. For me that had become history, I was only looking forward to what I would do next in my career.

How did that match against Tunisia end?

We went to Tunisia to play the first leg. Otto Gloria dragged me to play the right back, instead of David Adiele. On that morning of the match (it was an away match), Segun Odegbami, who was then our captain, after Christian Chukwu had retired, walked into my room and told me that Tunisia had one dangerous player, an outside left by name Dhiab Tarak who was very good when they played in 1977.

If you recall, Tunisia went to the World Cup in 1978 at Nigeria’s expense and they did very well – they played 0-0 with Germany, beat Mexico 3-1 and lost narrowly to Poland 1-0.

I assured Odegbami that I would take care of him. In my active days, I was very strong and fearless. Once we came out of the tunnel and lined up on the pitch, I would be yearning for action. I hated all the pre-match formalities, like guest of honour shaking hands with players, taking pictures, etc. For me that was time wasting. I couldn’t wait to start. Eventually, I did not start the match as the coach preferred to start Adiele because of the winger, Tarak.

After the game, Best Ogedegbe came to me and apologised that he made a mistake. Best told me that because as I was not as experienced as Adiele, that was why he opted for Adiele as, according to him, I was playing that wing for the first time. In those days we did not take anything personal. Best was our goalkeeper and took that decision for the good of the team, so I did not see his decision as personal. He wanted the best for the team. He was one of my best friends till he died.

At half time of that game with the Tunisians, they were leading us 2-0. they dominated and dealt with us seriously. I walked up to coach Otto Gloria and told him I wanted to play. He said okay, he removed one player and brought me in. He instructed that I should go in there and stop Tarak from playing. He was a wonderful left footed player.

I assured him I would, but made one demand; I told him I would be going forward as well. He said he had no problem with that. When I went in I did the job as I was asked to. I stopped him from surging forward through the flanks. I did so much that during the game, when he saw that I was disturbing him too much, he said to me, in smarttering English,”me, you…friend … friend… easy…easy,” I told him ‘get away, who is your friend?’ As far as I was concerned, we were enemies on the pitch not friends. I did not even look at his face.

One thing is, if a player asked the coach to include him and the coach does that, the player should do enough to justify the coach’s confidence in him, not when a player said they should field him and he goes in and mess things up. So when I went in, I showed the coach why I wanted to play, why he should have started me in the first place. For the 25 minutes or so that I played, I stabilised the team and the flow of the game changed and we started pushing the Tunisians to their own half.

Although the game ended 2-0 in Tunisia’s favour we did enough in the second half to have scored and even equalised the match. They scored their two goals in the first half. The second half I came in and stabilised the match. So after the game in Tunisia Otto Gloria called me and offered me a beer, I declined courteously. He said I surprised him because I asked that I wanted to play and when I went in I performed wonderfully well. He said I was a wonderful player because of what I did that day.

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In the second leg I started the game and it was something else, it was extraordinary. We continued from there and eventually, we met Algeria in the final of the African qualifiers. We were stopped. Why we could not make it through to the World Cup was because there was a lot of confusion in the team. We had a very good team but there was a lot of crisis within the team, so much that I don’t want to say now. Algeria wouldn’t have defeated us. There was no peace in the team. But that is now history. After the World Cup qualifiers, I left for Europe to start professional football.

After the Nations Cup triumph in Lagos, Libya hosted the next Nations Cup tournament and Nigeria couldn’t defend the trophy beyond the group stages. What happened?

We couldn’t qualify from the group stage. When we were doing the final phase of preparation in Morocco, because we flew from there to Tripoli, just about four or three days to the tournament I sustained an ankle injury during one of our training sessions. That prevented me from featuring in the ’82 Nations Cup. That would have been my second AFCON.

You talked about confusion in the team that deprived you from qualifying for the 1982 World Cup. Would you say that also caused Nigeria’s failed defence of the AFCON trophy you won in Lagos?

I don’t know whether it was a carry over, but again most of the players had left the team and by the time we got to the 1982 Nations Cup the team were no longer as good as the 1980 team. Soon after the Nations Cup, we had a very good team that would have continued but by the next Nations Cup we no longer had a good team. I don’t think we were that good again. The core of the AFCON-winning team had retired and because I was also injured and couldn’t play, I can’t say much.

What do you expect the country to do for you now because people are saying the 1980 Eagles should be better recognised than what has been done already. Do you think the government did not do enough?

As that time, yes, I would say were adequately rewarded. But as at today that we are living, for instance, in that match against Tunisia, I had an ankle injury, I twisted my ankle that brought me so much pain. In the second half I told the coach I was not going to continue because of the injury. But they had their own plan for me to continue in the game. I was injected four times inside my ankle and it is not good to do that. In another game I had a knee injury and I was also injected so I could contnue playing. It is still telling on me today as I am growing older. The thing is relapsing occasionally because those injections were not good. If you see the ankle in question and the knee, they are slightly swollen and bigger than the other. I am suffering it to this day.

After the injection you went back to play the game against Tunisia?

I played the full 90 minutes but when we returned to the hotel later that night, my ankle was packed with iced block but I cried throughout the night.

Do you think you deserved more as at that time?

I wouldn’t say they didn’t do enough if you checked how many people were driving 504 GR with aircondition as at that time. How many people in Nigeria had national honours and how many people owned houses? I think they appreciated what we achieved, no one can say it was not good enough. But I think as Oliver Twist, human beings will always ask for more. We made history and nothing can be termed as too much for us.

When we spoke with Adokiye Amiesimaka, he said you didn’t expect anything more that increased match bonus, maybe $2000, or perhaps a Volkswagen car or something less.

Indeed like Adokiye said, I, for one, was not expecting anything near what we eventually got. Maybe I was expecting something like N500 each. I did not think of a car. If you ask me, no group of those who have been playing and winning laurels for Nigeria, before and after us has been so lucky to get what we were given by the Alhaji Shehu Shagari and Dr Alex Ekweme administration. That was the highest gift that has ever been given to footballers.

In 2013, the group that won it, led by late Stephen Keshi were equally rewarded with plenty of money and plots of land and national honours.

He cuts in… I was part of the 2013 group, when I graduated from MON to OON(Officer of the Order of the Niger). It is not easy.

After all your achievements, awards and all, what do you think you owe to football?

What I owe football is to give back to football. That is what I am trying to do now. You know I have established the Quicksilver Football Club for players between ages 18 and 23. We look forward to people we can train and win laurels for Nigeria, players that will make Nigeria proud in the nearest future.

What are your plans for Quicksilver Football Club?

We are just a few months old, because we actually started training last February. All we had done in the past was screening. So our plan is to compete in the Enugu state league but the Coronavirus has suspended everything and forced us to go on break. You know the NFF has stopped all football comprtitions so we are on break for now.

Thanks for your time, Quicksilver.

It’s my pleasure.