Thirty two years ago, Sam Okpodu produced a stellar performance for Bendel Insurance against Stationery Stores of Lagos in the Challenge Cup believed to have attracted the most crowd in the history of the competition.
But he told KUNLE ADEWALE the most riveting moment for him was getting his first call up to the national team
The years have by no means dulled his spritely edge even though he is not as athletic as he once was. “I tried to take care of myself as best as possible. I watch the type of food I eat and I shy away from some vices like taking to drugs and alcohol,” Okpodu said.
Okpodu started playing football at a tender age at the Roman Catholic Mission Primary School in Warri, Delta State, though against his father’s wish. His father would rather his son concentrate on his education rather than taking to sports. “So many young kids in this country and indeed across the world always want to play football and I also wanted to be part of it.
That was how I came into playing football against my father’s wish. Actually, growing up I was more of a sprinter and I was doing the 100 metres and the 4×400 metres relay for my school until the school’s games master introduced me to football. That was how I fell in love with football,” he recalled.
“It was a challenge because my dad never wanted me to have anything to do with football; he just wanted me to concentrate on my studies. Those days education was very paramount to every parents and most of them never believed in their wards taking to sports. But I felt I needed to play the game and it was a big battle between me and my dad. Somehow, I was able to wriggle out of it and it was not until I got to the university that I started realising the importance of education and also appreciating my dad’s position then.
That is why I will always emphasise the importance of education even for those taking to sports. It was while I was in secondary school that I got invited to join the Nigerian Ports Authority FC through Paul Obire, who was actually the coach that nurtured me. From then I joined McDermott FC of Warri and we went on to play in the final of Bendel State FA Cup against Bendel Insurance in 1978, which eventually led to my joining the Bendel Insurance,” the Newberry College men’s soccer manager said.
On how he was able to cope with the older players in the Bendel Insurance team, most of whom were his role model given that he was just a secondary school student, he said: “What I did was to respect them and in return they respected me. I watched most of them play while I was a kid, the likes of Felix Agbonifo, George Omokaro, Agbo Nnaji and Kadiri Ikhana. And when the opportunity presented itself for me to play with them in the same team it was like an icing on the cake even though I was so afraid to play with them. But because of the respect I gave to them they accommodated me,” Okpodu recalled.
Asking the North Carolina State University graduate about his most memorable game while playing in Nigeria was asking for what seems obvious. “It was obviously the game between Bendel Insurance and Stationery Stores in the 1980 Challenge Cup final at the main bowl of the National Stadium, Lagos. It was memorable for many reasons. It was the most attended in terms of spectatorship in the history of the competition. I was told about one hundred and twenty thousand people were at the stadium, both on the inside and outside the stadium.
The stadium authority had to shut the gates of the stadium to stop the crowd that were trooping into the stadium and the fans inside the stadium had to remain standing for most of the game’s duration. It was one of the most incredible Challenge Cup final and I will never forget that moment in a hurry. The match was so explosive but at the point Stores fans thought the game was going their way I created a penalty after waltzing my way through Stores’ defence and was brought down and Henry Ogboe converted the spot kick, which turned out to be the winning goal. Though I was very young in age I was big in the heart of Bendel Insurance,” he said.
Recounting his stint with the national team before travelling abroad to further his studies Okpodu recounted thus: “I was first invited to the Flying Eagles alongside the likes of Sylvanus Okpala, Okey Isima and Stephen Keshi in 1978, in preparation for the African qualifiers ahead of the 1979 edition of FIFA U-20 World Cup in Tokyo, Japan. After the first day’s training the coach said ‘you don’t belong here, your skill level is above this team’ and I was immediately drafted into the Super Eagles despite being just a Form Four secondary school boy. I remember the late Aloysius Atuegbu coming to my room with a ball and saying I should join the rest of the team in training under the coach, Father Tico.
That day remains the most frightening moment of my life. Coming from the junior team to the senior team just like that was scary. But Atuegbu and the rest of the team told me not to worry and gave me so much confidence that everything was going to be alright. But because I wanted to finish my secondary education I had to leave the Eagles camp and returned to school to complete my secondary education.
However, the following year was the 1979 National Sports Festival, Oluyole ‘79, where I starred for Bendel State in the football event. I worked hard to develop my game, though we lost in the final but coaches that came to monitor players hailed my performance. From the festival I was drafted back to the national team for a second stint,” said the Sapele Technical College graduate.
Given Okpodu’s impressive rise in football, it’s a surprise he didn’t consider playing in England with a more advanced club football than the United States where he opted to ply his trade. But Okpodu had his eyes on university education rather than professional football. “Leyton Orient football club of England really wanted me to play for them but there was the opportunity to go to school in the United States.
I was therefore stuck between playing professional football where I was not sure of my future and going to school and getting a degree and securing my future. I was actually at Leyton Orient for a week and I left because I felt the most important thing for me at that time was to get my education after which I can come back to football. That was how I left for the United States because I had a scholarship to study at the North Carolina State University,” he said.
“But unfortunately, in Nigeria the moment you go to America people don’t want to have anything with you as far as football is concerned. So when I returned from the United States I met with Christian Chukwu and Clemence Westerhof because I wanted a return to the national team, but they were dillydallying. Having gone to school I could not take any of their attitude so I returned to America where I was involved in coaching youth teams with the belief that from there I could work my way to the top. From then I recorded a lot of successes: from a youth coach, to a college coach, to a regional coach and later an administrator,” the New Era Secondary School in Benin City graduate said.
Recalling his days as Falcons coach, Okpodu said it was unfortunate that the team could not progress beyond the group stages in spite of the high spirit in camp and the vast knowledge he had already acquired. “The system of play and the spirit in camp was very high, you can actually see it in them when they play and I was ready to take them to the top. But to achieve the most success with the very best coach without the necessary structure in place is very difficult. Nevertheless, I was definitely ready to take the girls to the very pinnacle of the game.”
In 2002, Okpodu was named head coach of the Super Falcons and he led the team to win the African Women Championship (AWC) title in Warri before leading Nigeria to the 2003 edition of the FIFA Women World Cup in the United States where the team failed to advance from the group stages.
Asked how he felt after not being able to achieve much with the Falcons, the former Bendel Insurance attacker said he felt
disappointed at the end of the day but never regretted taking the job. “I was very disappointed because we needed a lot ofcollaboration to achieve our objectives but they were lacking and it’s a pity that we are still witnessing such in our sport today.
However, I never regretted because I looked at it as an opportunity and a moment in life to serve my country. You do what you do and move on; that is life. There was no regret at all. Disappointment should never be seen as a regret because it was just one chapter out of my life,” Okpodu said philosophically.
For the executive director at South Carolina Youth Soccer Association, he has since reequipped himself and eager to see the country’s football advance. “We need to definitely have a solid structure in place and a base in building the senior national team programmes.
Our grassroots development programme need to be solid and it was one of the things I had hoped to share at the just concluded Soccerex. But, unfortunately, I was not one of the speakers. I have a blue print to share with them on how Nigeria could actually get its sporting programmes sustained. We need to sustain our programmes. We shouldn’t think that is the way to do it just because we recorded few successes in our sports without any sound structure on ground. There should always be an ongoing programme supported from the bottom to the top,” he said.
The president/CEO at S&S Sports Management is still in Nigeria doing some consultations with regard to how his expertise can be utilised.
Okpodu serves as a national instructor, teaching coaches modern technique around the world. He is also the chairman of NSCAA-Black Soccer Coach Committee and also a member of the NSCAA board, which is the largest coaching association in the world.