Paul Okoku was a member of the Flying Eagles team that played at the maiden edition of the FIFA U-20 World Championship in Mexico in 1983.
His good play in the midfield earned him a place in the 1984 Africa Nations Cup, where the Green Eagles won the silver. In this interview, he reflects on his time in the national team, high and low points of his life and reveals some salient things about the current Eagles coach, Stephen Keshi,
What was the experience like during your playing days for the national team?
The experience was great. I did not experience any bad treatment from my teammates. I was given a warm reception by my older Eagles mates. I was not looked down upon because I played for the Flying Eagles. The senior players accepted us very well.
What about the coach? Who was your coach then?
We first had coach Gottlieb Göller from Germany and then at the Nations Cup, it was coach Festus Onigbinde and James Peters.
What was the experience like working with Onigbinde?
It was a fantastic relationship. He was more like a father-figure. He encouraged us. I can remember the game we went to play in Morocco, where the players from Flying Eagles defeated Morocco in their country and qualified for the Nations Cup. After the game, he hugged me and Yisa Sofoluwe and called us “my golden boys”.
What did you do to be successful after your time as a footballer? What stood you out?
I think I left the game very early because I felt my education was going to be key to my success in life. Even when I was playing for the national team, it was always at the back of my mind that I wanted to do something better than just playing football. Football is something that you do temporarily and face other things after. Footballers have a short life-span.
Or was it because during your time there was no big money in football?
Actually, there was money then . If you consider the inflation that is high and the cost of loving. I had enough money then,. The money from bonuses then was even enough for me to buy a brand new car but I just did not let that be a distraction on my goal of getting a good education. At that time, Stephen Keshi and I were like brothers. He knew my aspiration was to become something through education and I thank God for His faithfulness.
We grew up together We got along well, ,ate at each other’s houses. My friendship with Stephen Keshi did not start today. It started a long time ago.
When you were in the Eagles, did you have any clash with Keshi?
No, no, infarct, if anything, it was actually him who in Morocco in 1983, that would be in August, when we were practicing for a match against Morocco and a few of the players did not go with us, and Keshi approached Onegbinde in the middle of the practice and apparently, I did not know what they were discussing, but I thought it was me but just after their talk, Onegbinde moved me from the second team to the first team.
So Keshi had a hand in your breakthrough?
So is it fair to say that Keshi has always influenced coaches’ selection of players in Eagles?
I would not say that but say that he has leadership influence. So all these nonsense about him being the head of the mafia is absolve rubbish.
Was Keshi not the mafia leader?
No, not in my days. He was a respected leader.
When people say he was the head of the mafia, what is your response?
I will tell them that they don’t know him like I do. It is very wrong to say that Keshi was the head of the mafia. It is an unfair characterization of Keshi, it is wrong to label him that way.
So there was never a mafia in the Eagles?
There was none when I was playing.. Maybe after I left ,there was one but during my time, there was no mafia. We were like brothers during my time.
What was the highlight of your career?
Playing in all our away games, especially, in Morocco, where we were able to win. It was a great one, playing at that young age and representing your nation. The late Ernest Okunkwo came to me after that game and called me “the little giant”. I was in the midfield. Actually Muda Lawal had surrendered that position and gratefully I look it up. Even though he came back later, I cherished my time in that position..
Why was your career so short?
I left to pursue my education. I had a scholarship and I wasn’t going to leave it for anything else. I went to Alabana A/M University. The school gave me the scholarship based on academic and sports grounds. Mind you, I was the vice-captain of the Flying Eagles, who were the first to ever qualify for the Junior World Championship and at that time, the federal govt promised us academic scholarship but up till today, they have not given us a dime out of that scholarship.
My team was the first Flying Eagles set to qualify Nigeria for Mexico 1983 and I played in the competition. We got the scholarship but till today, they did not honour the scholarship.
When I came to Nigeria in 1986, to inquire into it, the late Patrick Olepomo told me there was no record of it. And then we have the Minister of Sports Buba Ahmed, who is still alive and the President at that time, Alhaji Shehu Shagari, who is still alive, and the federal government is yet to redeem their promise. Buba Ahme made the announcement on the order of Shagari. They asked us what we wanted and we told them that we wanted scholarships because most of us were students. Instead of asking for houses, we asked for scholarship but we are yet to get it.
Between an indigenous coach and a foreign coach, which is better?
Personally, to be honest with you, it will be very unfair to compare both. Look at Stephen Keshi, and considering that he did not go for the notable players, he went for the underdogs, players who nobody knew about and he was able to develop them into stardom. How many white coaches did that when they coached our national team?. Based on that, I would say local coaches.
I would say that I regret my mother’s death. But it happened that her death saved my own life because she died of colon cancer and I was told when I went to see my doctor three months after, that because of my family’s medical history, that I needed to simply do colonoscopy, which is a screening test for colon cancer and they found traces of it and they cleaned me out. My doctor told me that I must do the screening once every four years. And I thank God for it.
It is expensive but important to do it. I will encourage everybody to do it. That is the living killer in this world. If they see it at the early stage, they can clean you up. It has four stages and once it gets to the third stage, there is no cure. In-fact, this famous musician Teddy Pendergrass, was killed by colon cancer. That was what killed him. He had the surgery and never made it out. Nine months after the surgery, he died. So I am very grateful and thankful for that. My mum died at the age of 81 but thanks to her death, I was saved from dying.