Retired Super Eagles defender, Uche Okechukwu, has lamented the unending building process of the Super Eagles by coach Gernot Rohr, speaking with CHARLES OGUNDIYA in a recent interview, the former national team captain called on the Nigeria Football Federation to ask the coach pertinent questions. Excerpts…
Recently, the Super Eagles failed to defeat Sierra Leone in an Africa Cup of Nations qualifier despite leading 4-0 at some point against them in Nigeria, what is really wrong with the team?
The problem is, nobody returned to ask questions after a few good results about what had happened in the past. When your team fails to get the needed result, you ask questions and try to sort the problem, but here we don’t ask questions and that has been the problem. A lot of people seem to forget that our team that they are using as a yardstick today, the 1994 team, started in 1989. We played together as a team at the 1989 ECOWAS Game in Bauchi, the next competition was AFCON 1990 in Algeria. The same team went to Senegal in 1992 before the 1994 tournament that we won. The same team also qualified for the World Cup in 1994 and the bulk of that team went to the Olympics in 1996. Look at how many years, but we were not changing line up every match day. For a new player to break into that team, you would have done something extra-ordinary as an individual. People said Clemens Westerhof was building, he wasn’t building, it was a continuous process and that was why we were getting results.
What do you think should be the way out?
Recently I was talking with one of my colleagues, I said in the past we use to have school sports, school matches, the Enyimba Stadium, Aba was always packed to capacity. We used to have state league, where is it now? We had First Division, Aba State league, Second Division, Aba State League, YSFON. In the past, players from the state leagues were the ones that will qualify to play for Enyimba, which was called Falcons at the time. The states leagues plays against each other, when I was here, we were zoned to Kano and we qualified from there. I met Coach Imama Amapakabo through state league. I was playing for Falcons, he was playing for Ambassadors, that was 85/86. When you see games now you will know we are not really playing football again. No state league, how do you get your players? Now Enyimba have to go from one club to another to buy players, same with other clubs, so we continue to recycle same set of players. If you came to Aba, you will be amazed how many youth clubs were in the town, but you can’t see them now because there is no longer school sports, state league or the YSFON. The point is, we need to start building our own players, clubs need to do that in Nigeria. Look at clubs like Real Madrid, Barcelona, Arsenal and the likes, they have youth teams, and by the time any of them breaks into the main team, it is very easy for them to excel because they already know their pattern.
What have you done with your AFCON and Olympic Games gold medals?
They are there at home, it’s memory because after everything has faded, you can look back at the medals and say this was the result of my heroics at the championships. It is good for the upcoming generations to know that we made the country proud.
So whenever you show your kids, how do they react to it?
That’s what will make them understand what I did for myself and my country. Some of them were not born when we played at that competition, even those born then don’t have the memory of the games and the ones coming don’t even know at all. So telling them it will be like magic, but when you show them the medals, it’s like pictures, keeping memories alive.
You were supposed to get a house for winning the AFCON 1994, what happened to it?
Some of us got ours; I got mine in Abuja and it is still there at the moment.
Some of you got theirs, what happened to others?
The problem is we were given the chance to choose where each of us wanted the house, assuming it was same location, I am sure we won’t be having any problem about it. While some of us chose Abuja, some wanted theirs from their states, some in different locations have got theirs but some states are having isues which has caused the delay.
How did it all start for you as a footballer?
Officially I will say I was discovered by my coach, Imo Imo. Actually I started as a striker, I was just playing football for the fun of it, there was a game then, I was not registered with Coach Imo’s team, I just came, he saw my height and was like, one of their defenders is having issues, that I should fill in the gap, I told him I am a striker, that I cannot play in the defence, but he said I should just try, that the game is still two weeks away and that I should just try. That was how it all started. I played the game with the team, we won and since then I didn’t go back to being a striker. That was in 1985 or 86.
Is any of your kids into football?
No, we normally let them do what they want to do, its their decision. In my days, I didn’t know I will become a professional footballer, like I said, I was playing it for fun then, it was my brother that was encouraging me, saying I could do it. I was in school at that time, but see where football has taken me now.
Can you share your experience at Papendal with us?
It was like our home where we trained and went to before any competition. They had very good facilities and I met a lot of people there because the place is very big. We were there more than twice, before the 1990 African Cup of Nations. Apart from Nigeria, other clubs made use of the place too. It was the first place where we really understood how hard training could be. Anytime we went to camp, the first two weeks, by 6am we had to go jogging, and then have our breakfast then 9’o clock training, we relax then have our lunch, 4pm again training, go for dinner and by 8pm, we go to the gym to wrap up the day. We do that for the first two weeks after which we bring it down to three, jogging, training in the morning and afternoon and we continue to reduce it slowly. But those first two weeks, by the time someone knocked at your door in the morning around 5.30am, you will not want to answer, you won’t want to answer and they will be like, you don’t want to come out, you are awake, so we didn’t have a choice, the most difficult period was during the winter, however we didn’t have a choice, we must come out. It was a good experience for us. Before then nothing like that type of trying, we just come, train together and play. That was the first time we went with Westerhof and understood what football was really all about.
Are you saying such training should be the yardstick for all our coaches?
Not at all, different people with their way of doing things. You have to look at the coach and caliber of players at his disposal before taking such decision. Some coaches will feel there is no need for such rigorous training and they will still get the job done.
In the past players were like demigod, could you share your experience while in active football?
Yea I have so much experience, like going to the market, seeing people trying to relate with you, pay for you. The point is we usually have fans all over the place, sometimes you don’t have know that you are that popular. At a point you have to accept it and take it as part of your life. Imagine you don’t want to talk about football but these people knowing you with football will just bring that topic up and you don’t have any option, At times you will need to be diplomatic about it so as not to hurt the feelings of such fans.
Do you have any embarrassing moment with fans?
Not at all. If you understand their passion especially people who have been seeing you on television and then have the opportunity of seeing you live, then you will appreciate their passion. You wont see that as disturbance but as the fans expressing their love for you. It’s an individual thing, while some people see it as disturbance, I don’t look at it that way. Some players don’t want people to know they are the one, so like I said, different stroke…
Christian Obodo was abducted sometime ago and that will be the second time, how have you been coping in Aba, and do you fear you might experience that?
I grew up in this city and I always tell people this is where I was born, I won’t say I know all the streets, but most of them. If you were born in this town and you play street football in this place, almost everyone will know you because we play against other streets. I even did my primary and secondary school in Aba, and all the time while I lived in Europe and also played for the Super Eagles there is no time I will stay without coming to this town, so if I’m not here I feel like am missing so much whenever am in Nigeria I always make sure I spend some time here. If I am coming to Nigeria for one week, I must spend like three days in Aba, I never felt like I stay away from the place anytime, it’s always part of me. At times I will go to places that people don’t expect you to go, so I am part of the community.
Tell us about your hunting adventure
My hunting adventure is something I had passion for right from when I was young. It’s even better here in Nigeria, it is worst in Europe as I do it regularly. Over there I have my friends, doctors, surgeon, club president, they all have passion for it. All the people who know me back at home will tell you about my passion for hunting. I don’t joke with it; it’s something I love doing all the time.
How does it feel when you kill an animal and you get home to prepare it?
Its not about eating the meat or preparing it, i’ts about the adventure, the environment, its like another sport for me.
Recently Austin Eguavoen, who happen to be your colleague in the national team was appointed the Technical Director of the NFF, what is your advice to him?
Well he has the experience after playing the game at the highest level and also as a coach himself. I want him to remember that he is a Nigerian and should know how it works in this part of the world, so he should give it his best shot. I hope the people who appointed him will support him because the biggest thing he can have is experience and he has that already. I know what is expected of him, he knows the love our people have for football and they always want the best from their team everytime. I wish him all the best in that job and hopefully he can make his experience count on our football and not just the Super Eagles alone.
How did you come about the name Gentle Giant?
If you ask me I don’t even know but all I know is it came from people who watched me play. The person who decided to give the name, I don’t know. People say I am a giant and very gentle, which is the truth, but where it all started, I don’t have a clue.
How does your wife see you when they call you the name; are you really gentle at home?
Well I am gentle by nature and for a long time she knows me personally as a gentle person.
What future do you see for this your team, Abia Greater Tomorrow?
It gives me joy and passion when I come to watch them in training, the coach is someone I love so much, the key thing for me is taking those boys off the street. We want to give them the opportunity and sense of belonging because all of them are looking for somewhere to go. In our days, we didn’t have this type of support, because our parents then wanted us to go to school. What we try to do is to encourage them to play football while they still pursue their studies. When I look at some of them I’m wondering where would they have been if they were not training three times a week everyday. Sometimes it helps their life because the only talent they have is to play football, maybe they come from very poor families but this might change it for them, so we try to give them the opportunity because all of them cannot be successful but the ones who are looking for the opportunity we try to give it to them and explain to them that they have a gift which can change their life, that is why we choose young boys and in turn they feel like a family. We also try to keep them busy in order to feel like they belong here; also we plan to have a camp for them where they will stay together as a team in order to minimize their unnecessary movement because it is very important.