Nigeria's Greatest Goalkeepers Part 3: Emmanuel Okala The Iroko In Between The Goalposts
Today we are revisiting the great topic as to who Nigeria's greatest goalkeeper has been. While we have agreed that it is impossible to say because we don't have the ability to compare them side by side under the same conditions we have at least tried to narrow them down to a handful of the best of the best.
In our Part III of the series, we have picked the gargantuan Emmanuel Okala.
Okala was born on May the 17th 1951 in Onitsha and even as a little boy towered above his peers in school. He initially never wanted to be in goal but to play up front and score goals like every other boy but was put in-between the sticks by his PE master where he blossomed and became a force de jure both on the state level and eventually nationally as well.
Many people don't know that in Nigeria there were actually once three Red Devil teams. The first was the initial national team, the second was the regional powerhouse from Port Harcourt but there was also the Red Devils team in Onitsha.
It was with them that Okala would hone his skills from 1966 to 1970. This was of course during the civil war so many people outside the region didn't know or hear of him as football had been relegated to the back seat because people were focusing on staying alive.
After the war, things changed when Okala moved to the famous Enugu Rangers in 1971 where he would etch his name in Nigerian football history. For the next nine years, he would remain a dominant force in the goal and help lead them to a slew national and international triumphs solidifying himself as one of our best Number 1's ever.
In 1973 he was in goal for Nigeria and won All African games gold medal (below) and seven years later he was still in goal when Nigeria won its first Afcon.
He was a no-nonsense giant who stood 1.98m barefoot and commanded the 18 as it was his father's sitting room. Opposing players dreaded facing him especially during corner kicks where he made no qualms introducing them to his elbow as he soared above them. While he was never dirty and hardly carded he was just as physical as the German Toni Schumacher whose fearless style of play was legendary - just ask Battiston about their 1982 collision and he would be able to expatiate more. This was how Okala played because fear was his younger brother whom he controlled.
Okala was famous for first of all dressing in all black and wearing tiny shorts before starting to wear tracksuit trousers and his bright yellow top. He was also the first to wear gloves which dangled from the front of his bottoms. But he was most famous for his moustache and sideburns which were carved out so perfectly and sharply that when the Harmattan wind blew through them you could hear it whistle. He was imposing as Blackula himself and many women swooned over him
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Despite his national accomplishment to most of us Igbo, his magnum opus was in 1977 when his Rangers team took Nigeria and Africa by the scruff of the neck and manhandled it in the 1977 African Cup Winners' Cup
But it wasn't easy.
In the quarterfinals, they were held to a goalless draw at home by the defensively-minded ASF Police of Dakar. In the rematch in Dakar Rangers twenty minutes into the second half, took the lead, silencing the Senegalese stadium, and won the game 2–1. Okala's heroics that day was one for the books and it so infuriated the Senegalese fans that they came looking for him afterwards claiming he had used black magic in his gloves. While they could not find him, they ended up beating other players as well as stabbing three. Things got so bad that the Nigerian Airforce had to send out a special jet to bring the team back before the situation got worse.
Then there came the greatest Nigerian club game ever when the Rangers met their dreaded and just as good rivals the IICC Shooting Stare of Ibadan in the semi-final. The two teams not only supplied 90% of the then Green Eagles they knew each other so well that after 180 minutes they had failed to score one goal. It now came down to PK's and again Okala was larger than life by blocking one attempt, while the Shooting Stars ballooned a second propelling the Rangers to a 4-2 victory and on to the finals in which they bombed Canon Yaoundé 5-2 to win the cup.
Frenemies: Ojebode (IICC) Chukwu ( Rangers) Odegbami (IICC) Okala (Rangers)
Finally, there was his just as delicious performance in the semi-final of the 1975 African Cup of Champions Club against Ghazl El-Mahalla Sporting Club where Enugu had overturned a blistering defeat in Egypt in the semifinal to qualify for the final. In the game in Egypt, Okala had been allegedly slipped a draught in his tea, something he had a fondness for. It temporarily blinded him and gave him double vision throughout the game and yet he played on. This would prove to be crucial because despite letting in 3 goals as opposed to 1 the Flying Antelopes scored it could have been much worse had he folded.
In Enugu as Ernest Okonkwo, the greatest football commentator ever would say, "Mahalla saw Wahala" with Okala refusing to be beaten and the Antelopes banging in three unreplied goals and ousting the Egyptians and qualifying to face their repeated nemesis Hafia of Guniea. Many of us forget that it was because of these antics as well as his position in the Players Union that Okala was called Chairman long before Christain Chukwu inherited his now-famous moniker.
In any case, Okala was named Footballer of the year in 1978 and remains one of the most iconic players to ever dress for a Nigerian club as well as the national team and that you can take to the bank. He was a true Iroko between the Goalposts and the shadow he cast will never be forgotten but always fondly remembered.