Former Super Eagles Captain, Uche Okechukwu, speaks to Orient Sports SAB OSUJI, revealing in this no-holds-barred interview what stands the 1994 Super Eagles out. He also speaks on his hunting adventure, his 1994 AFCON and 1996 Olympic Games Soccer medals, his house and what his wife knows about his nickname ‘Gentle Giant’. Uche also speaks on Augustine Eguavoen’s new role as Technical Director of NFF amongst other salient issues. Enjoy excerpts…….
Orient Sports: You were a member of the Super Eagles that won the Africa Cup of Nations in 1994 in Tunisia. That was the first time Nigeria would lift the trophy on away soil. That team would later qualify and represent Africa for the first time in the FIFA World Cup finals in the United States of America, USA. That set of Eagles are today referred to as the ‘golden generation of Nigeria football’. What do you think that has changed, so much so that the Super Eagles would give up a 4-0 lead on home soil against Sierra Leone to draw 4-4 in a major tournament like the AFCON qualifier?
Uche Okechukwu: There is something people don’t seem to understand about that our Super Eagles of 1994. That team took years, say about five years for Westerhof to build that team. That team started off from 1989 during a WAFU Nations Cup in Bauchi. That same set of players were also at the 1990 Nations Cup in Algeria.
We were also at the 1992 Nations Cup in Senegal. Two years later, that was in 1994, we were equally together again at the Nations Cup in Tunisia before the World Cup in USA. Check it very well, from 1989 to 1994, how many years? Is it not five years? That’s continuity for you.
The players understand each other and know each other’s movement on the pitch, with or without the ball. And again, it appears all our people (administrators) know and care about is for us to qualify for the tournament. Once we qualify, nobody cares to ask about what happened at the tournament, what really went wrong with the team last year or at the last tournament.
I didn’t watch the Super Eagles game against Sierra Leone in Benin. But from reports we read; the team was four goals up before Sierra Leone came back to level up. It’s sad. At a point, you begin to manage a game. Yes, game management is important. Because, when you are like three or four goals up and your opponent gets one back, gets a second, then you find yourself under severe pressure. This is where game management comes in. I would have expected the game to end like in 4-2 or 4-3 but I think that’s now a lesson for us.
OS: During your days in the Super Eagles, Papendal, in the Netherlands, used to be Super Eagles training camp. Can you share some of your experiences during the period you were there?
UO: Oh yes, Papendal was a wonderful place, it has very fantastic facilities. I was there for at least three times or so. It was at Papendal that Westerhof made us understand how hard training could be. At 5.30am, you are out for jogging. You come back, take your bath and breakfast, then later you go out again for another round of training. When you return, your launch is ready after which you are out again for evening training before dinner. Sometimes, when you hear knock on your door, you pretend as if you didn’t. And the camp commandant would yell, ‘come out, I know you are already up’. It was tough, especially in the winter.
OS: You won the 1994 Nations Cup with the Super Eagles in Tunisia, am I right?
UO: Yes, you are right.
OS: And the 1996 Olympics soccer gold medal too…
OS: So where can one find those gold medals now?
UO: In my house of course. They are precious items. I kept them so that the kids would see them and understand what their father was able to do in the game.
OS: That’s very interesting. But is any of your kids involved in the game at the moment, you know it is said ‘like father, like son’.
UO: No, no, no. You know, in this part of the World, you don’t dictate for your kids. You allow them decide on what they want. Yours is to guide them.
OS: After the Nations Cup win, the players were supposed to be given a house each. Have you gotten yours?
UO: Yes, I’ve gotten mine.
OS: That’s interesting. Congrats but why others haven’t gotten theirs?
UO: You know, we were given the option to choose the location where we wanted the house, each of us. For me, I chose Abuja so I got mine. Those who haven’t gotten theirs are those who preferred theirs in other areas which has now been made difficult by one reason or the other.
OS: So, you are now an Abuja Landlord, or have you disposed of it?
UO: No, not at all. The house is still there in Abuja.
OS: You are fondly called ‘Gentle Giant’, how did that come about?
UO: Believe you me, I don’t know. But it’s people who watch me play say I’m a giant. I don’t know, but I know I’m gentle, that’s the much I know. Where or when it started, why it started or who started it, I don’t know, believe you me I don’t have a clue.
OS: So, tell us, how does your wife react when people keep calling you ‘gentle giant?
UO: I’m gentle, yes, I know I’m a quiet person, gentle, and she knows that, I believe. She knows me, right from when I was still playing football.
OS: Gentle Giant, can you tell us about your hunting expedition?
UO: My hunting adventure was something like a passion for me right from when I was still young. In Europe, I have my friends who are (medical) doctors, surgeons, club presidents and things like that. Anybody who knows me very well knows tha I don’t joke with it (hunting). It is something of fun that I’ve been doing right from my youth days.
OS: So what do you do when you kill an animal, I mean in terms of cooking it…….
UO: (Cuts in) No, its not even about the meat, its all about the adventure outside, it’s like a kind of spirt, you understand what I mean? In Europe its fun and anybody who knows me knows that I have a strong passion for hunting adventure.
OS: Your former colleague, Austin Eguavoen, has just been appointed as NFF Technical Director. What piece of advice do have for him so that he can succeed in that role?
UO: What advise can give to someone who has been a senior national team coach, club coach, national team captain, played football at the top level? Of course, he has the experience?For me, the best advice which I know that he knows already, is that he is a Nigerian. He knows how it works. He knows what they expect from him. He knows that people are crazy about football. He has been there before. This is not the first time.
He has been there before as a player, as a coach for U17 National Team, U20 National Team, U23 National Team, Super Eagles coach, captain of the senior national team. I’ve nothing else to tell him other than to wish him good luck. And I hope the people would support him, that’s it. The biggest weapon, or ingredient you can have experiences and he has it.
OS: Let me ask you this question. How did Uche Okechukwu’s football career start?
UO: That was way back in 1985 or ’86. I was an up field player, a striker with one of the many clubs here in Aba. During one of our training sessions, because our central defender had an issue, our coach asked if no one else could play in the center back position.
Without waiting for a response, he asked me to drop down to that role. I said no, that I’m a striker. He insisted and I obeyed. We had two weeks before the next game which was in Umuahia and we won. From that point, I remained in the centre back position.
OS: Can you remember the coach?
UO: Look at him sitting there (pointing to him). He’s coach Imoh. I. Imoh. He’s my ‘father’ as far as this game is concerned. I love him so much. I appreciate him.
OS: You are the founder and sponsor of Abia Greater Tomorrow Football Academy. What’s the level of success would you say you’ve achieved with academy in terms of players export to Europe?
UO: This is a new team. But it gives me joy, you need to see me whenever I come to watch their training sessions. I’m not the coach but I know what I went through coming up. Most of us, Ben Iroha, Philip Osondu, Chidi Nwanu know what went through when we were young playing football here in Aba.
We know the difficulties, the challenges. So what I’m trying to do is to give these young ones the opportunity, the platform, that sense of belonging. What I’m thinking is, about 30 or more of these youths, all of them cannot be successful in the game but you reduce the level of juvenile delinquency by keeping them engaged meaningfully.
Of course, we keep giving them strong advise on what we went through, telling them that they have a ‘gift’ (talent) which can change their lives if they work hard.
OS: Thank you ‘Gentle Giant’ for sharing some thoughts with Orient Sports. Wishing you success in your new endeavour and believe you still afford us such moment next time we ask.
UO: You are welcome.