Christian Nwokocha: Nigeria’s player of many firsts

By Richard Johnson

kayode OGUNDARE @kaybaba99

 

Christian Nwokocha was a trail-blazer, a pioneer who carried the touch to lit the path of a generation of Nigerian players into the world of professional football or, more appropriately in his own case, soccer.
But for an accident of fate, he would have been the first Nigerian, nay African, to don the colours of Spanish giants Real Madrid. A ghastly accident put paid to that dream but failed to detract from the very many firsts in the cap of this illustrious son of Nigeria.
He was the first Nigerian player to sign a professional contract with a big European clubside and also among the first wave of Nigerian sportsmen who went to the United States in the early 1970’s on Athletic scholarships and helped to develop American soccer through inter-collegiate competitions.
Other players of that era included the late Emmanuel Egede, Muyiwa Oshodi, Tunji Balogun, Dominic Ezeani, late Nnamdi Nwokocha, Ben Poopola, Andre Atuegbu, Damian Ogunsuyi, Kenneth Ilodigwe, Godwin Ogbueze and Obed Ariri.

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These players, and others, were the early pioneers were the fore-runners taken to American universities by visionary coaches like Lincoln Philips of Howard University, Dr. Coach I.M Ibrahim of Clemson University and the coach of University of San Francisco who took risks in previously unchartered waters to bring these players to the United States.
Born on Christmas Eve 1956 in the Eastern Nigerian city of Onitsha, Nwokocha’s earliest recollection of romance with a football was in elementary school at the Central School Onitsha which he attended with his two younger siblings Sony and Nnamdi who also became accomplished Nigerian internationals in their own rights.

The Nwokocha boys became well-known in Onitsha for their footballing skills at Central and when he transferred to St. John’s Out Obosi Elementary where he was teammates with future fellow Nigerian Green Eagles players Okey Isima and Sylvanus Okpala as well as ex-Rangers International of Enugu star Charles Adimorah

He left St John’s for secondary school but, like all kids of that period, the outbreak of the Nigerian Civil War not only disrupted his education, it also affected his budding football career and family life.

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He began playing for the Onitsha youth club under the leadership of Obi Okoye, former Nigerian international, on the fringes of the civil war and by the end of the three-year hostilities, he became what was regarded as a ‘mercenary’, playing for the Nigerian Army division based in Awka as well as the Ministry of Works team.

After the war, he signed up for Iron Founders in the state league and used the proceeds of his efforts with these teams to finance his education in the early 70’s. His teammates at Iron Founders included Kenneth Ilodigwe and Samuel Onyeka, ex-Rangers greats.

He was with Iron Founders from 1970 to ’73 when he teamed up with the newly-formed P&T (Vasco Dagama) with schoolboy internationals popularly called the Academicals like Patrick Ekeji, Obed Ariri, James Udemba and Adiele in Enugu.

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He was soon to be upgraded to the senior national team, the Green Eagles under Father Tiko as well as coaches Carl O’dwyer and Dan Anyiam after playing in the annual Nigeria/Ghana Academicals fixture and, as fate would have it, his debut match for the Eagles was against Ghana’s Black Stars. Nwokocha scored the only goal of the match off an assist by the late Haruna Ilerika to announce his arrival on the big stage in style.

He was living the life of a superstar yet Nwokocha hankered after something deeper. He craved higher education in order to become a more rounded person and looked for a means to combine schooling with the demands of international football.

He finally got the breakthrough he desired but it came from totally unexpected quarters. Hear him in his own words:

“I’d just returned from a tour of Congo, Senegal, Liberia and Sierra Leone with the Green Eagles and we were preparing for the Challenge cup regional finals between Rangers and Vasco when a Coach saw me in practice and approached me with the possibility of a scholarship to an American university if I had the pre-requisite qualifications. I had already taken the SAT without even knowing that such an opportunity will come.”

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A shocked nation woke up to realize that Nwokocha was willing to give up a national team career for the chance to go to school but he did it and South Carolina’s Clemson University was the destination and Administrative Management was his course of study

He was on full scholarship and thoroughly justified that he became a legend in the school and helped to pave the way for other Nigerian players to beat their path into the American collegiate system, including his brother Nnamdi who also went on to achieve legendary status at Clemson.

Nwokocha represented Clemson with pride together with other Nigerian great players in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) where he became All-ACC, All-South and All-American selected from the Clemson class of’78.

Upon graduation from Clemson, he was also among other Nigerians like Andy Atuegbu, Ben Popoola and Damian Ogunsuyi among others that were initially drafted into American professional soccer rankings.

He was a No. 1 pick of Memphis Rouge professional team in 1978 draft to join North American Soccer League where he was priviledged to share the same pitch with the great Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, Gerd Muller, Jonh Cruff, Neeskens and other football legends who went to play in America in the late 70s.

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It was at Memphis Rouge that Nwokocha really came into his own, becoming one of the club’s most reliable players. Unsurprisingly, he became sought after and was soon on his way to join Penn Stoners where he played for two years and was once again, a key figure for the Stoners.

Fittingly it was at Memphis Rouge that he got his major breakthrough when European giants Sporting Lisbon of Portugal snapped him up to become the first Nigerian player to play for a major European team.

Nwokocha recalls how the Sporting deal came through seemingly out of the blues when he least expected to move so soon after moving to the Stoners.

He said: “Sporting Lisbon were on a playing tour of the USA and Stoners engaged them in New Jersey. After the game, their Coach Menendez ran to me to request for my agent’s number. I gave him my attorney’s number and didn’t think much of it until I was asked to come and sign the contract papers.

That was it. It went through very swiftly and I was amazed. When I asked why they’d shown so much interest in me, I was told that the officials were impressed with the manner I was penetrating their defence. I knew this was as a result of my previous experience with the Eagles before coming to Clemson and I said a quick prayer for my coaches back then in the national team, particularly for Dan Anyiam who supported my move to the USA when others were trying to stop me from going.”

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So he moved to Portugal but still retained his team in the Super Eagles with Sporting officials making available flight tickets for him to come and play for Nigeria inalmost all of the World Cup qualifying games for the 1982 World Cup. His last international game was the final qualifying against Algeria in which the Green Eagles were knocked out of the race to Spain ’82. The highlight of his national team career was the beauty of a goal he scored against the seemingly unbeatable Tanzania’s Pondamali during the preliminary world cup elimination series in 1981.

Back at Sporting, he continued to do well and it was generally assumed that he was going to sign another extension to his initial contract but a dispute arose when he was on the verge of moving to Real Madrid in Spain.

With contract negotiations stalled, Nwokocha flew out to the United States but, unfortunately, disaster struck. He was involved in a serious accident which meant a premature end to his playing career, just at the cusp of higher glory in the game.

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Without the security of a pay-packet from football, Nwokocha fell back on his college degrees to secure a good job and, even though he was no longer in the glare of spotlights as a soccerstar, he nonetheless had his future secured with the benefit of a good education.

Using himself as an example, this man of many parts toured schools to leacture kids about the importance of having a good education without which his own life would have been one tortuous hell.

Now, few months short of his 60th birthday, Nwokocha lives in the United States of America, a respected voice in his community and an influential figure in its politics.

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