It was not a problem at all to fish out Nigeria's foremost and famous goalkeeper from a crowd of players and coaches which gathered in the early hours of the day for their routine training at the Nnamdi Azikiwe Stadium. His height gave him away and his slightly bony and ebony face is yet to lose its features but for a pair of heavily rimmed glasses in place.
Welcome to the world of Emmanuel Okala, former Rangers International and Green Eagles' goalkeeper. He is currently a goalkeeper trainer to the Enugu-based premier club side.
At 69, Okala is slightly bent, complementing his imposing six-feet plus height. It is to his credit that Rangers have continued to churn out good goalkeepers in the local league, many of them quickly moving out to other clubs, home and abroad.
Unknown to many of his ardent followers, Okala started out in his career as a striker and it was only providence that transformed him to the number one spot.
Hear him: “I started playing football from primary school but it was in secondary school that my career blossomed. I used to play as a striker from the wind. Because I was taller than most kids my age, it was easy for me to manipulate the ball because of my long legs. I attended Holy Cross High School, Awka, Anambra State.
“At some point during a crucial game, our games master, Mr. C.N. Ukpaka, just looked at me and said because of my height I should be able to stay in between the poles. He removed our goalkeeper who, in his judgement, was not doing well and gave me the goalkeeper's shirt to play in his position. I must have done brilliantly, because, from that day, the games master said I was the school's goalkeeper. It remained so until I left school in 1966.”
After secondary school education, Okala went back to Onitsha, his hometown, and joined the Onitsha Red Devils; a club that was later renamed 'Ikpeazu Redoubtables'. In 1970, he travelled to Enugu with the team to play against the 'Enugu Black Rocks' in a state soccer duel.
It was there that the late Dan Anyiam spotted his talents as a goalkeeper and quickly selected him for the then East Central State soccer squad called 'The Spartans'.
In 1971, however, Okala was in the Enugu Rangers contingent that came to Lagos for the Amachree Cup competition. Later, he took over from the regular Rangers goalie, Cyril Okosieme, who was no longer in the good books of Coach Anyiam.
“Coach Anyiam watched me play for the Red Devils and after one of our games, he called me and said he would like me to play for his team, which at that time was the best thing to happen to any up and coming player. That was how I come to Rangers and everything that I have achieved as a player was from here.”
He notes that his height was a very big advantage for him because it is a gift from God. “My height is a big advantage and that is why many scouts abroad don't come here for goalkeepers. They believe that a goalkeeper must have a certain height to stand between the posts. In my days, many would ask me how a tall man like me could bend down to pick ground balls. It is part of the training. The advantage you have with your height is that you are able to reach farther than a shorter person in goal.”
Okala hit the top of African football when he won the Footballer of the Year award in 1978 and two years later won the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) with the Green Eagles in 1980.
However, the road to the top, Okala says, was not without thorns. “I had challenges when I was playing in the secondary school and for my first club, Red Devils, which could have stopped me from advancing in this chosen career. “However, the challenges only made me stronger to prove my doubters wrong. “When I was in my first year in St. Patrick's Secondary School and was the goalkeeper for my school, my school defeated St. Paul's High School, which happened to be my late elder brother's school and he was not happy that I was partly responsible for that defeat. It pained him so much that when we returned home on holiday, he told my father that I was not concentrating on my studies and that all I was doing was to play football.
“Also, at Rangers, one of my uncles came to our house and told my father that he must stop me from playing football. He said it was best for my father to send me to the university, as those who play football are ne'er-do-well. I pretended I didn't hear what he said and it was at that point that I made up my mind to prove them wrong. These episodes shaped my desire to become a reference point in goalkeeping in and beyond Nigeria.”
However, Okala remembers his time with the national team with fondness, though a dark spot in his glistering national career made him to retire unceremoniously. “Contrary to what many think, I do not have any problem with the late Best Ogedengbe, who was my close friend that time. That I did not feature in the 1980 Nations Cup was because some people in the then Nigeria Football Association (NFA) manipulated things. Coach Tiko wanted to field me in the final, even if it was for 10 minutes, as a sign of respect for me, but some people in the FA didn't just want me. That is why l called it quit immediately after the tournament. Sunday Dankaro, when he took over as NFA Chairman, begged me to come out of retirement but I had made up my mind. I don't regret anything. So they made it up as if there was a problem between me and Ogedengbe, but it is not true, we were great together.”
Okala also denies insinuation about his health challenges: “I don't have any health challenge. I am fine. That is not for me. The truth is, most of my mates who served this nation are in terrible conditions, and that might be the reason most of our players today tread with caution. Football has kept me going and I have no regrets. If I have the opportunity to come back, I want to be a goalkeeper for Nigeria again.
Married with four children, he says his children have chosen different paths in life. “There is none of my children keen on playing the game to the highest level. They have other things they are doing and I wish them well,” he rounds off.