I’ve forgotten about Odiye’s own goal – Okala

Okala

• Speaks On Transformation Of Sports In Anambra State
Till date, many football-loving Nigerians are yet to forget that sad moment in the nation’s soccer history on November 12, 1977 during a World Cup qualifier between the then Green Eagles of Nigeria and Tunisia at the National Stadium in Lagos.

It was a day defender Godwin Odiye was reduced to a man of bitter tears as he scored the only goal, heading the ball disastrously into his own goal in a match watched by over 80,000 Nigerians. Odiye was under pressure from an advancing Tunisian attacker, and without looking back he skillfully headed the ball backward towards goalkeeper Emmanuel Okala who was rushing out to retrieve the loose ball. It was a misjudged header and Nigeria’s race to Argentina ’78 FIFA World Cup went up in flame.

While the Tunisians were joyous and celebrating victory, the Green Eagles camp was understandably subdued. The coach, Father Tiko was motionless, while Odiye bowed down in shock as he watched the long towering Okala walked slowly towards the goal to retrieve the ball from his net. The stadium was silent.

That was over 40 years ago, and ‘Man Mountain’ Okala says he had put everything about that ill-fated match behind him. “That incident hunted some of us for many years, but at a point, I decided not to think about it anymore,” he said in a chat with The Guardian. “I have forgotten everything about that own goal. It was part of football where one has to make mistake for others to smile. Odiye did not do it deliberately. I did not at any time put the blame on him. Rather, I blamed it on ill luck and the attitude of the fans towards us (the Green Eagles) on that particular day. They wanted us to lose the match and we lost.”

Okala, who is a Senior Special Adviser on Sports to Governor Willie Obiano of Anambra State, recalled sadly, how the power of fans’ protest cost Nigeria the Argentina ‘78 World Cup ticket. He said the failure of the Green Eagles to beat Tunisia in Lagos was not mainly because of Odiye’s own goal, but as a result of agitation by football fans who were protesting a hike in gate fee, but still thronged the national stadium in their thousands.

“Every Nigerian wanted to be part of that match,” Okala reminiscent with nostalgic feeling. “So many of them thought the match was already under wraps. Don’t forget we played 0-0 in the first leg in Tunisia and we needed just a 1-0 win in Lagos to qualify for the 1978 World Cup in Argentina. So many things happened on the eve of the match. The then NFA decided to increase the gate fee as a way of curbing the expected huge turn out of fans. The fee hike did not go down well with the fans. Although they still came out in their thousands, but they decided to register their anger over the hike in their own way.

“I had vowed never to comment on that particular match again, but I have to break my vow for once. On the day of the match, for the first time in my playing career, we were booed in Lagos. As we (the Green Eagles) came out of the tunnel onto the pitch, to our greatest embarrassment, we were booed by our own fans who could not gain access to those NFA officials who increased the gate fees. They decided to vent their anger on us (the players).

“While they booed us, the Tunisians entered the pitch to a loud applause. It continued throughout the match as every of our move was booed while the Tunisians were cheered. We were on the pitch battling with emotions, trying to win for the country while those who took that decision to hike the gate fees were in their offices. We eventually lost. We were made to look like visitors in our own home ground. That was how powerful the power of protest by the fans could be. It got to a stage when the police had to shoot tear gas to disperse the crowd. As I said, Odiye scoring an own goal was not actually the cost of the defeat, so many factors were responsible for it,” he stated.

Okala, who was nicknamed ‘Man Mountain’ by Nigeria’s finest ace radio commentator, the inimitable Ernest Okonkwo of blessed memory, revealed that he traveled to the United States of America two years ago, where he had fruitful interactions with Odiye. “I don’t have any problem with him. We are friends and we remain friends.”

Speaking on his job as Senior Special Adviser on sports to Governor Obiano of Anambra State, the tall lanky Okala said that they are determined to change the face of sports in Anambra. “I am happy we have a governor who has listening ear as far as sports development is concerned. From football to athletics, basketball, wrestling, weightlifting, boxing, judo, volleyball and other sports, the governor is not leaving any stone unturned.

“Very soon, Nigerians will see Anambra State football club featuring in the elite league. The governor wants to float a state football club and it will go a long way in boosting sports development in the state. It will create jobs for the youths.

“But outside the football club, our governor has affected the life of the youths in many ways. Since he came on board, the governor has made it compulsory to reward people for their hard work. If a student returns from a competition with a medal, the governor rewards them with scholarship and even cash. For those who are no longer students, the governor provides employment opportunities for them. We also have the Traders Cup, where 36 teams contest for honour every year. The governor takes care of their jerseys and there are financial rewards for them. I am enjoying every moment here in Anambra State,” Okala stated.

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