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Pele’s boy, Okpara reminisces career success, setbacks

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Godwin Okpara was once rated among the world’s most promising young stars. The former Super Eagles central defender was so good as a youth player that the great Brazilian star, Pele, predicted that he would one day rank among the greatest stars ever to grace the modern game. He was that good.

Okpara was one of the stars of the 1989 FIFA U-17 World Cup held in Scotland, where, as a central defender, his talents manifested, such that the whole world took notice. His performance made Pele to predict that the Nigerian lad would one day become a reference point for quality central defenders.

Shortly after the U-17 World Cup, Okpara moved top Belgium, where he played for Beerschoot, Eendracht Aalst. At Eendracht Aalst, he won the Belgian Ebony Shoe.

From Belgium, he joined RC Strasbourg of France and later played for Paris Saint Germain.

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As an international, Okpara played for the Super Eagles at the France 1998 World Cup, 2000 Africa Cup of Nations and the 2000 Summer Olympics.

Although he had a successful career, Okpara also faced some challenges, with his imprisonment in August 2007 for torture and rape leaving him with a big dent.

However, despite the setback, Okpara is satisfied that he has actually fulfilled Pele’s prediction.

Speaking on a live radio programme during the week, Okpara said the Ebony award he got, as the best African player in the Belgian league was one of the best things that happened in his career, adding that it was a rare achievement by a defender.

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“For me, I did all I could throughout my playing career in Belgium and France. First, I won the Ebony Award as Africa’s best player in the Belgian league.

“I left Belgium to Ligue 1 in France with Strasburg, where I spent nine seasons. In one of my games against Inter Milan, where I did well, if I were originally from Brazil, big clubs like Real Madrid; Juventus etc would have come for me. But none came for me because I wasn’t a Brazilian.

“What other performance will one put up again where I marked out Ronaldo de Lima? In that game, Ronaldo confessed to me that he had never had such a match like that before in his life. We exchanged jerseys and he congratulated me. He told me to keep it up. This happened because I was always hungry for success each time I played against a big team,” he said.

Looking at the current state of Nigerian football, especially the quality of players in the Super Eagles, Okpara, who, currently, scouts for young talents for European clubs, said Coach Gernot Rohr has taken the right path for the team.

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“We can see how the transfer of our players is going now with players like Victor Osimhen moving to Napoli and Wilfred Ndidi in Leicester. I think Coach Gernot Rohr is doing well; that is why we need him. As a coach, the longer you stay with a team, the better you understand the players and I think this is what we need.

“We can see now the understanding between the team and the coach. The team is now well blended with the kind of players that we have now,” he said.

Okpara, who is eager to contribute his quota to the continuous development of Nigerian football, acknowledged the fact that the country has a lot of untapped talents scattered across the nation. “We are scouting for talented young stars that we can groom to be the future Kanu Nwankwo and Austin J.J. Okocha of Nigerian football. I too want to give back to the society what society has given to me,” he stated.

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