By Emeka Obasi
LAGOS, NIGERIA -Stephen Keshi became close to Paul Okoku at St. Paul’s Primary School, Ebute Metta, Lagos and their friendship lasted until death took the African legend away. That bond also witnessed some embarrassing moments.
As kids, they were unable to afford bicycles which some of their mates enjoyed. The inability to own Chopper or Hercules, meant the friends had to rent from sources outside their neighbourhood. The terms and condition of that deal were clearly spelt out .
The lenders were so strict that defaulters were penalised beyond measure since there were no regulatory agencies to strike a balance. Keshi and Okoku went through some of the tough measures and could do nothing about their plight.
” Somewhat, you brought back those indelible memories when Keshi and I rented bicycles on timers because we couldn’t afford one. We would pay double if we were late in returning the bikes and if we didn’t pay, were stripped down of our clothes, ” Okoku told me after going through my piece, ‘Welcome to Bicycle Republic.’
I had written about the horror which the removal of subsidy on petroleum products would visit on citizens, with the recommendation that bicycles were surely coming back as means of movement like during the colonial period.
” Emeka, you should be commended for your research based article from a bird’s eye view account as it reminds me that we once had those moments when bicycles were important means of transportation,” he said.
The two friends had eyes on St. Finbarr’s College, Lagos and ended up playing soccer for the school. ” The late Keshi and I were friends from primary school at St. Paul’s during our preteen age, way before attending St. Finbarr’s. As a fact, we used to attend St. Finbarr’s Senior Lit. parties from primary school, together.”
After secondary school, the duo continued with soccer and played for Flying Eagles before upgrading to the Green Eagles. Keshi captained the Eagles to African Nations Cup glory in 1994 and won the trophy as a coach in 2013. He debuted at the World Cup in 1994.
Okoku won the Gothia Cup in 1981, playing for the Youth Sports Federation of Nigeria (YSFON) and the Dallas Cup in the United States. He was part of the First Flying Eagles team to win the Tessema Cup in 1983 and a member of the team to the FIFA Under 20 Championships, Mexico 1983.
The two friends bagged African Nations Cup silver at Cote d’Ivoire, 1984. Keshi was team captain and from there they pursued different goals. Keshi chose football beginning from Stella Abidjan before moving to Belgium. Okoku preferred education and travelled to America for higher studies.
Okoku has been in the United States for almost four decades but his eyes are still at home. Keshi ended his soccer career in America, re-uniting with with his childhood friend. They initiated programmes to give back to their old Lagos primary school.
When I reminded him of the Ramat Cup that Enugu hosted in 1980, he remembered his first red card and some of the players that took part in the tournament. Enugu Black Rocks defeated Okoku’s Bolaji Oni Babes in the grande finale. Sparks of Ilorin went home with bronze.
” Oh, what a great memory. I remember Gafar Ijaya. He was so good from the outside right position that we actually made several attempts to have him with us at National Bank, Lagos,” Okoku added. Ijaya, played for Sparks, left soccer and today he is a professor of Economics at the University of Ilorin.
Okoku’s boyhood team was Enugu Rangers. “As a ball – boy, I remember John Azinge walked from the underground tunnel of the National Stadium, Lagos into the field in crutches during one of their international games after the 1975 auto accident.
” I thought he was going to fully recover from the injury, resume and claim his left full back position. Sadly, it never happened. I was a die hard Rangers supporter as a kid. John Uwanaka would have cemented his role as the number one goalkeeper but for the man – mountain in Okala.”
When Kenneth Abana lost his famous right leg to amputation, Okoku wanted help for the scorer of Rangers’ first local and international goals. He said, ” a clarion call necessitates keeping Abana healthy and alive. I was just thinking of his younger brother who played for the Nigeria Army team in the 1970s, as well.”
When I asked after Chibuzor Ehilegbu, the reply was snappy. ” Chibuzor relates with me and most of the Flying Eagles 1983 set. He just prefers to remain private, and I respect that. As the Vice captain of the team, I was able to locate 90 percent of the 1983 set and we stay in constant touch”.
Another former Eagles and Rangers star who shies away from publicity is Ignatius Ilechukwu. Like Ehilegbu, the strong left half back resides in the United States. ” It’s been long since I heard of IG,” Okoku disclosed.
Soccer flows in the blood of the Okokus. His elder brother, Godwin, played for St. Peter’s College, Abeokuta. That school produced Victor Oduah and George Hassan Osaile. Younger brother, Friday, captained St. Finbarr’s College, Akoka.