Unlike most kids of his generation denied access to football, Gbenga Okunowo enjoyed the support of his parents. He is one of few Nigerians who have played for one of the power houses of European football, when FC Barcelona signed him in 1997. He tells Kunle Adewale how a nagging knee injury stopped him from achieving his dream of becoming a Camp Nou legend
Gbenga Okunowo started playing football as early as his nursery school days, during inter class meetings, but little did he know that it would serve as a means of livelihood. After his primary education, Okunowo went to African Grammar School, Apata, Ibadan, Oyo State, he continued to play football.
Unlike most parents of his generation that would scold their wards for going out to play football, Okunowo’s parents did not discourage him from taken to his first love.
“Thumbs up for my parents; they did not come into my way anytime I went out to play football. Even my mom that does not know anything about football gave me all the encouragement,” he recalled.
After his secondary school, Okunowo joined Liberty Boys Club, later moved to Exide Sparkers and it was there he was spotted by coaches of the national U-17 team just before the World Youth Championship in Ecuador in 1995.
After an above average performance in Ecuador where Nigeria could only manage a quarter final place, his performance caught the eye of Shooting Stars Sports Club, and he played for the Oluyole Warriors. He was later invited to the Nigeria U-20 team and then the U-23 team to the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. He also played for the Super Eagles on a few occasions.
“In 1997, I was part of the team that represented the country in the Meridian Cup in Portugal and it was from there the scouts of Barcelona Football Club spotted me. They invited me for a week trial after the tournament after which I was invited for another round of one week trial, and after four days of training with the team, I was given a contract by the club and signed to their youth team. After then, Xavi Hernandez introduced himself to me as being a member of the Spanish team that lost to Nigeria in the Meridian Cup”, he said.
After just one season (1997-98 season), Loius van Gaal, who was then the coach of Barcelona saw the potential in Okunowo and drafted him to the senior team.
Recalling life at the Nou Camp, Okunowo said, “Barcelona is a team that loves to give youth a chance to play and I happened to play under a very great coach (Van Gaal), who encourage me a lot and shaped my game tremendously.”
One game Okunowo would not forget in a hurry was the group stage match of the 1998/99 UEFA Champions League match against Manchester United where he was given the responsibility of marking the duo of the Red Devils strikers-Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole.
“Due to the numbers of injury to a number of our defenders at that period, I was drafted to the back. As a professional and playing for a big team like Barcelona, one must be ready to play in any wing. There was a lot of pressure on me in that game and considering that Yorke and Cole were the two best strikers at that time, made me so uncomfortable but I still gave my best and it was a relief we did not lose the game,” he recalled.
Okunowo also takes pride in having the privilege of playing alongside such great players like former World Footballer of the Year, Rivaldo. “I developed good relationship with all my colleagues during my time at Nou Camp and I still keep in touch with a number of them. Rivaldo and I still talk on telephone and when we happen to see, which is very rare, we still relish the good days in Spain,” he said.
After returning from the 1999 U-20 Championship hosted by Nigeria, Okunowo could no longer pin down a regular shirt as Van Gaal preferred his countryman, Michael Reizeger to him. He was soon sent on loan to Portuguese powerhouse, Benfica.
“Barcelona wanted me to gain experience and that was why they sent me to Benfica. It was not true that I was sent on loan because of Reizeger. In fact I was the one that agreed to the loan deal because I wanted to play regularly to develop myself.
“I never regretted leaving for Portugal because I was playing regularly there and moreover, Benfica is also a big club. However, the injury denied me a chance to make my name at Barcelona; but for the injury, I would have been one of the club’s legend today,” he said.
Van Gaal recalled Okunowo from Benfica after he represented Nigeria at Sydney 2000, but unfortunately he suffered a knee injury and underwent surgery.
“It was a very sad moment in my life as I was ready to fight for a regular first-team role when the club recalled me from loan at Benfica. I was determined and in great shape during the pre-season before I started feeling pain on my knees,” he said.
After recovering from the injury, he was loaned to Badajoz in the Spanish second division, he later moved to Greek outfit Ionikos after his contract ended at Barcelona in 2001.
Okunowo moved to Romanian side, Dinamo Bucharest on a free transfer in 2003. But after playing two matches for the Red dogs, he cancelled his contract and joined Albania club, Tirana. Okunowo spent a season at Ukrainian club, Metalurh Donetsk and a season-long loan at Ukrainian side, Stal Alchevsk before joining Maldivian football VB Sports in 2009. He was also at Waltham Forest before returning to Nigeria to play for Sunshine Stars of Akure.
Despite playing for a top team like Barcelona, one would have thought Okunowo would have a firm grip of the Super Eagles shirt, but not so as he only managed to play for the senior national team few times. He however blamed it on an injury.
“Actually, with my status then, I was supposed to play more for the national team but for the injury I picked after the Nigeria/Ghana 2000 Africa Cup of Nations. I had to go for surgery which put me out of football for almost a year and half because I did not want to force it. Had it been I forced it, I would not be able to walk now. So, after being out of football for a year and half, it was difficult making a comeback to top flight game. And who remembers you again after that long a time out of football,” he wondered.
Asked whether the Nigeria Football Association, NFA, (as the federation was called then), supported him, Okunowo said: “Nigeria doesn’t support you when you are injured; it is only when you are playing that the federation is aware of your existence. When you get injured, you only pray that God should send a helper to you because the federation will never be there for you. My case was not the first and it would not be the last. But the leopard would never change its skin. Nigeria will always remain Nigeria”.
Okunowo now works as a scout and supplies football clubs with players. “I helped a lot of Nigerian clubs with players and also served as advisers to some of these clubs. Like Ikorodu United, I supplied them with players when team was facing difficulties but it was too late to salvage the situation. I just hope they would be able to keep these players next season,” he said.
He cited corruption, lack of sponsors and non-payment of salaries as some of the factors hindering the development of the Nigerian League.
“The League lack sponsors, salaries are not paid and there is too much corruption in the country. In our days, without a solid contract, a footballer does not travel abroad. But now, with just $500, a player is ready to travel out of Nigeria to play,” he noted.
The father of three takes pride that all his children (a female and two boys) took to football. The female, who is the first child, plays for Colchester United, the second plays for Colchester City while his last born plays in Ipswich FC. But Okunowo hopes they would move to Barcelona when they are grown up.