Okala recalls ‘rivalry’ with Black Stars, tips Eagles for victory
For years, goalkeeper Emmanuel Okala provided cover for the then Green Eagles to cage the Black Stars of Ghana.
One of such encounters was at Lagos ‘73 All Africa Games, when Okala’s magical hands helped Nigeria to beat a ‘stubborn’ Black Stars of Ghana 4-2 in Group A before going on to secure a 2-2 draw with the Desert Warriors of Algeria.
Then, the Eagles with soccer legends such as Tony Igwe, Morton Owolo, Victor Oduah, Haruna Ilerika, Yakubu Mabo, Sunny Oyarekhua and Josiah Dombraye were the toast of many African football lovers.
“That was one encounter I won’t forget in my life,” Okala recalled yesterday in a chat with The Guardian. “As usual, the National Stadium in Lagos was filled to capacity and the expectations of Nigerians were very high. The Black Stars were equally loaded with top stars, but in the end, we won.”
Okala and ‘the gang’ went on to ‘destroy’ the dreaded Pharaohs of Egypt 4-2 in the semifinal, before silencing the Silly National of Guinea to grab the gold in the final.
Okala, who was fondly called Babuje, was undoubtedly the most famous sports figure on the African continent then with his imposing six feet five inches frame. His fearsome disposition between the goal posts, and his completely harmless and humane person outside it were revered.
Apart from being one of the heroes of the gold-medal winning team in 1973, Okala was a member of the winning squad of the 1980 African Cup of Nations, and a member of the 1977 Africa Cup-Winners’ Cup Rangers International FC team.
Okala remains, to date, the first and only goalkeeper in the history of African football to be crowned Africa’s Player of the Year by the African Sports Journalists Union, ASJU, in 1975.
According to him, the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup play-off against the Black Stars of Ghana on March 25 in Cape Coast would bring back those old memories of past encounters between Nigeria and Ghana.
“To be sincere, the Super Eagles I watched during the last AFCON tournament in Cameroun should be able to beat Ghana home and away,” Okala said. “I am not trying to underrate the strength of Ghana in football, but the old rivalry should favour Nigeria now. Our boys showed that determination in Cameroun that the Eagles have what it takes to pick the World Cup ticket. All we need do now is to believe in coach Augustine Eguavoen and the team. I am supporting them in whatever capacity I can offer,” Okala stated.