FORMER international, Godwin Okpara, hit the limelight in 1989 when he played for the Golden Eaglets at the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Scotland, where soccer legend, Pele, rated him as one of the world-class players in the near future given his sublime skill. The Imo State-born defender, after playing for AGIP FC of Lagos and Obanta United began his foreign professional stint in Belgium in 1989 with K Beerschot VAC and later Eendracht Aalst FC, also of Belgium, Strasbourg and PSG, both of France and Standard Liege of Belgium which he played for till 2005 before his travails began. Alan Ball, as he is fondly called, by his admirers, featured at the France’ 98 World Cup, the 2000 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON), where the Super Eagles lost via penalties in the final to Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions and also at the Sydney 2000 Olympics. Okpara’s ordeal began in 2005 when his wife, Doyin (Linda) informed the police in France that he was having a secret love affair with their housemaid, Awawu (Tina), believed to be a minor. He was later arraigned and sentenced to 13 years imprisonment for raping the nanny. The sentence was later reduced to seven years after a successful appeal by his lawyer, while in June 2012, the fair-skinned Okpara was released from prison and repatriated. Doyin too had her own share of the broken relationship as she was sentenced to 15 years jail term after she was found guilty of brutality of the housemaid believed to be a minor when she was trafficked to France. At the end, the beneficiary of the Okpara saga was Awawu who was given everything she needed to settle down in France by the government as she got French citizenship, university scholarship, a standard job, home and a car. The four childfren of the Okparas– Stephanie, Sharon, Sean and Sidney–were taken to the Homes of the French government as Okpara’s house in Paris was confiscated and his bank account frozen. Okpara returned home empty-handed in 2012, so also his wife, Doyin last year as the French government took over the wellbeing of their children. Save for sheer providence, Okpara would have been history today as he contemplated suicide on a number of occasions during his incarceration, but declared the agony of leaving his children behind and the pain of being his own hangman saw him out of prison alive. The former Eagles defender in this interview with Tribunesport’s GANIYU SALMAN in Lagos, reveals that his life would have been ruined if not for the wisdom to invest at home heavily while playing abroad. Excerpts:
What did Pele’s prophecy mean to you at Scotland ’89 and who influenced your move to Belgium in the first instance?
Pele is a great man. He is an institution in football and for him to have made such heartwarming remarks about me, he must have seen something in me that I had the prospect to become a successful player. So, his comments inspired me a lot in my career. Losing to Saudi Arabia was painful, more so by penalties because it was a match we ought to have won and even the competition, but at the end of the day, we were consoled by the fact that we lost to the best team because they [Saudi Arabia] won the tournament. We were unlucky in that game. Luck was not on our side, that was just it.
I was spotted during the World Cup in Scotland and the move to Belgium was facilitated by my eventual manager, Evra, who also managed Victor Ikpeba then. There was a little bit of involvement of our coach, Sebastine Brodericks, he also sanctioned my move to Belgium. I got other offers but I was okay with the offer from Beerschot. Again, we had a number of Nigerian players doing well in Belgium then like the late Stephen Keshi and others and that also aided my decision to start my foreign career in Belgium.
What was your target before your premature retirement in 2007?
My target was to move to Qatar or Saudi Arabia in 2005 and retire there but unfortunately, it didn’t materialise. I was about to move in and finalise the deal in Qatar when the trials began.
How was your experience featuring at the France ’98 World Cup?
I came on as a substitute for Garba Lawal during the first game against Spain and I also played against Paraguay (substitute for Sunday Oliseh). Losing to Denmark came as a shock having defeated Spain that was rated above Nigeria. We were thinking of Brazil which should be our next opponents after Denmark, but we didn’t concentrate fully on the immediate opponents Denmark. It should have been one game at a time. The loss to Paraguay was due to our approach to the match because we had already qualified for the next round after two games. In all, playing in the senior World Cup remains a source of joy to me but I wish I had more playing minutes at France ’98. I was already above 23 years in 1995 and so, I didn’t expect any call up ahead of the Atlanta ’96 Olympics. Nigeria is blessed with so many good players and I wasn’t even playing for a big team [Eendracht Aalst FC] then.
Can you recall the final of the 2000 AFCON?
In fact, losing to Cameroon was more painful because we played right on our home soil. Everything was for us. Some things went wrong like we started the competition badly with a draw against Congo and later we picked up the pieces and won our remaining games against Morocco and Senegal and all the way to the final. Coming from two goals down against Cameroon unsettled us to a certain extent but losing via penalties at the end of the day, though painful, was a gallant one because when it comes to penalty shootout, it is anybody’s game. I only missed the first game in the competition.
What have you learned from your ordeal in France and what role did your former team, PSG play?
For me, I don’t like coming back into such past. It hurts me, so, I don’t like to recall the episode in France, especially my life in prison. when I am asked, I don’t always like to go back to how it happened. Yes, I am closer to God now than before the incident. Again, I always give glory to God who saw me through the trial. So many things happeneed to me while in prison. I lost one of my children, Sean, he died of cancer. My house in Paris was seized by the government and my bank account was frozen. I can’t even disclose the amount in that account. I just want to move on with my life. My manager too didn’t bother to associate with me, maybe because we had a misunderstanding at that time. Yes, my kinsmen showed some level of support, I was getting calls, letters from my colleagues but none of them showed up in court.
How have you been coping since your unscheduled return to Nigeria?
First, I felt happy that I regained freedom, it was around May/June in 2012. I was not allowed to take any of my belongings. It was straight to the airport. By the grace of God, I have been coping with life. Everyday, I give glory to God who saw me through the ordeal in France and I also thank God that I have investment at home which I live on after coming back home empty-handed. My house was confiscated in France and it was based on the pronouncement by the judge. I am still working with my lawyers to get it back but I know it will take time. I don’t know anything about Awawu, life goes on.
While in prison, you obtained diplomas in French and in sports management, how do you want to make these certificates add values to your life?
I am not using the certificates. I am not 100 per cent into football but I have resolved to help budding talents to realise their dreams of playing professional football. So, we have a soccer academy known as the Unity Football Academy here in Lagos and we want to use it as a platform to help kids become resourceful footballers in the near future. Segun Fetuga and I are involved in the project and some ex-fooballers too are willing to be part of it. Some of our products (at Unity Academy) are already playing for Bridge FC. We have coaches who train these kids on the rudiments of the game.
What about your houses in Lagos?
I was able to build houses in Okota as well as Ikeja while playing abroad and that investment has really helped me a lot. When one is growing, one must grow in every aspect of life. When I started my career in Belgium, I was not even thinking of home for any investment until I realised that it was a necessity and that anything could happen. Later, I began to invest in Nigeria and that singular decision has bailed me out of poverty today. I thank God that I have something to fall back on. My advice to anybody living abroad is that one must always invest 80 per cent of one’s earnings in one’s country. Had it been I had invested everyting I had in Europe, what would have happened today?
What is the fate of your wife?
She [Doyin] was released last year, she is back home too. Yes, she called me after she was released and we both shared the joyful moments. I was happy about it, especially for our children.
How are your other children doing in France?
Stephanie, Sharon and Sidney are doing well in France being taken care of by the government after I lost Sean in 2012. The youngest, Sidney, is in the PSG Soccer Academy. I hear from him virtually everyday and also from his seniors.
Will you encourage Sidney to play for Nigeria?
Well, it depends on him. Sidney is a midfielder. I can’t decide for him, he is a big boy now. He is free to choose any country to play for between France and Nigeria. Maybe his coach is telling him to play for France since he is based there, I wouldn’t know but as far I am concerned, if he asks me, I will simply tell him to play for Nigeria.
Are you ready to forgive your wife and can you recall some of your happiest moments with her as a couple?
Who am I not to forgive? I have forgiven her and everybody involved in the whole saga. I forgave her a long time ago. Life goes on and as I said, my lawyers are working to recover my house in Paris and get my bank account restored.
Is there any pressure from your children to reconcile with their mother?
Stephanie has been calling me on this issue, her younger ones too have been calling me to reconcile with their mum. God has been so wonderful, I was favoured by God because He gave me the talent to play football. I didn’t learn football in any school, it was just natural. If not for football, I wouldn’t know what I would have become today. I might be a graduate and I might not be. When I was a teenager, I was a bus conductor and raised money to support myself. In fact, God transformed my life through football.
Can you recall your journey to the football world?
I had my primary education at Bariga and for my secondary education, I attended CMS Grammar School, Bariga too. I was in Form Three when, because of football, I moved to Ijebu Ode where I continued at Luba Comprehensive High School and from there, I joined Obanta United in 1985. I had earlier played for AGIP FC of Lagos in 1982 as a secondary school student before moving to Obanta United. AGIP was in the national league too then and we usually played our home games here at Eagle Club. I had the opportunity of playing for YSFON team at Dallas Cup in Sweden in 1986. I passed through grass-roots football before I made the 1989 Golden Eaglets squad.
What is your assessment of the current Super Eagles?
We have to work more on the fitness of our players but I am confident that Nigeria will qualify for the 2018 World Cup. We have a new coach [Gernot Rohr] and he is still building a team. He needs time to know more about the strength and ability of every player. One thing is that, whenever Nigeria are in the tough group, we always come out tops and when we are in a weak group, we always find it difficult to qualify. I believe Algeria or Cameroon won’t stop us from going to the World Cup. Who would ever believe that we could beat Zambia in their backyard? That is Nigeria for you. One other thing I have noticed is that the commitment of our players has changed, it has increased tremendously. The zeal of every player to play for Nigeria is now high which is a plus for our football.