Nigeria has produced great goalkeepers within the period football enjoyed impressive popularity in the country. That was from the time the sport provided among others, a platform for the galvanization and resourceful utilization of raw energy inbuilt in youths who just survived a thirty month civil war. Few months ago, the country’s national team was at the 2014 world cup in Brazil. One of the team’s outstanding players was the number one goalkeeper, Vincent Enyeama.
His contributions was glaring that many argued he kept the Super Eagles in the competition till it was eliminated at the round of 16. Journalists who covered the world fiesta said Enyeama was blamed by the coach Stephen Keshi for the loss to Argentina in one of the group matches. Majority of football watchers who followed that game insist that the coach’s judgment is as harsh as it is unfair.
The list of great goalkeepers Nigeria has produced will include, Alloy Agu, two time world cup goalie, Peter Rufai, Ike Shorunmu and the rest. But the greatest of them all but less mentioned is the tallest goalkeeper to have ever come out of Nigeria, Emmanuel Okala.
The six feet plus goal tender was born on May 17, 1951 in Onitsha in present day Anambra state. Though he seems to have been forgotten and hardly referred to, those who are old enough to have followed the years that could be regarded as the golden era of Nigeria’s home league, will not forget the towering figure of the man whose presence intimidate all strikers standing between the posts.
His journey as a goalkeeper began “by chance”. In an interview he granted some year’s back Emma Okala said it began in 1963 when he was 12-years-old. He was then at Holy Cross High School, Umuawulu, Awka and a winger in the school’s football team .
According to Okala.”I was brought into the first eleven to play at the outside left position. I had the height to cope with the other boys who were older and in the upper classes. At some point during a crucial game, our games master, Mr. C .N. Ukpaka, wanted to change our goalkeeper who, in his judgement was not pulling his weight. I volunteered to play in his position. It was a good chance to use the height advantage which I had over the forward players. From that day the games master said I was the school’s goalkeeper. It remained so until I left school in 1966.”
Okala moved through some other smaller clubs that were springing up after the war until he was drafted into the Eastern Spartans that transformed into the Rangers International where he blossomed as the best goalkeeper in Nigeria and unarguably one of the best on the continent. African Sports Journalists Union in 1979 announced him as the Africa best footballer for the year 1978. Some historians have not been fair to this man who also won the first African Nations Cup in 1980 for Nigeria by denying him the honour of being the first Nigerian to win the revered award.
Till date, Emmanuel Okala is the only goalkeeper to win the Africa Best Footballer of the Year.