My prison ordeal in France, by Super Eagles ex-player, Okpara

Super Eagles former defender, Godwin Okpara, who was imprisoned in France on charges of ‘negligence’ in 2007 spoke to Telegraph about his life in prison and his ex-wife, Linda Okpara, who was also accused of torture and jailed 15 years.

Excerpt:

How did you come into football?

It is the love I have for the sport. I love football, I grew up with football, and all my life is all about football. It has been part of me even from school.

What was your parents’ disposition to your choice of playing football?

It is true that parents want their children to go to school. We don’t have same opportunity as the kids of nowadays, our parents continued to stop us but we kept finding our ways to go out and play football because it was what we love to do and also very good at. Football to some of us is natural, not something that we learnt somewhere. Some people learn football while some don’t. It is a gift from God for me and I will continue to thank Him.

So, how did you later convince them to allow you play football?

It was when I signed for a team in Nigeria, Agip Football Club, and I received my first salary, I needed to bring the money home. They were surprised and asked me where I got the money from. I told them it was from the football they asked me not to play and that was my salary; they didn’t believe that you can get paid playing football. They decided to follow me down to my club because they didn’t believe me, until they got there and were told that it was actually my salary and from then, they began to see future in football for me.

Could you compare football in your time and now especially in terms of youth football and grassroots development?

It is totally different. Then we didn’t have so many academies like we do now; we only have YSFON and maybe Pepsi and the Academicals competition. Also in schools, we had the Principals’ Cup that we played every year and I was picked right from my secondary school. My first trip outside the country was with YSFON when we went to Denmark and Norway and we won that tournament. Most of our players at that time moved from YSFON to the U-17. That was how it was then.

What is your take on transiting players from the U-17 to U-20, U-23 and the senior national team?

We still need to go back to that school sports, nothing like Principals Cup again apart from few states. Maybe the government should help us in this regard, no facilities and fields in schools again. Imagine players playing on Astroturf which is not good for them, it’s just like playing on a concrete turf, that’s why we are not getting the required players to fill the space in the nation. When you look at other countries like Ghana, South Africa, Kenya, they all have natural grass pitch. As a player, when you are playing on the Astroturf, it is just like playing on a concrete floor, the way the ball moves on the Astroturf is not the same way it does on the natural grass, so these are the problems we are having, the question is, can’t we maintain grass field in Nigeria? Is it too expensive for us as a country? Most of the stadia in Nigeria are Astroturf which is not supposed to be and we have to urgently work on that as a country.

What do you think we need to do to make the domestic league stronger?

We really have to work on our league, it is too low in standard and that’s why we have been having problems with our national teams. Imagine a club in Spain, Athletico Madrid, coming here to beat our national U-23 team in Nigeria, it’s just like taking one team from our league to beat countries like Spain, England and the likes; it will never happen. So we need to work on our league. First, we need to upgrade our facilities; the players must start playing on good pitches. We only have one surviving team playing on the continent despite starting with four clubs, they are not doing well. They were all almost beaten at the same time simply because the pitch we are using here and those they will meet outside were far different. We need to change our facilities and also get good players. Another problem is when coaches or administrators start naming some players as not theirs despite their performance on the field of play. You begin to hear something like this one is my player, that one is not my player. We have to give all the good players equal opportunities.

Do you think we still have good coaches that can develop these talents that we have in the country like it used to be during your days?

We have the coaches that can do the work. Look at Emmanuel Amunike, he has been doing well as a coach, the late Stephen Keshi qualified the little Togo for their first-ever World Cup, won Nigeria a AFCON trophy before later taking the Super Eagles to the World Cup where we got to the second round. We have them in Nigeria but we are not giving them the opportunity to shine. We don’t believe in them, rather we want to go for the foreign coaches which is not supposed to be. Look at Senegal, they went to Russia with their former captain, Aliou Cisse, who we played together at PSG in France. We need to encourage our local coaches.

There used to be an aura of fear around the Super Eagles in the past, but we have lost that, are you worried?

I am worried because we don’t have people like those of us that played in those days. When any country wants to play Nigeria, the names of the players they are going to face alone will scare them. The clubs they are playing with, but we don’t have that again. Who is now playing in a big team apart from Victor Moses and Alex Iwobi that are playing for Chelsea and Arsenal in English Premier League? Before we had a lot of them, we had players playing for Ajax when the club was at the top in Europe, players in Inter Milan, PSG, Barcelona, AC Milan and the rest. But nothing like that again at the moment.

In your time, you play in the country until you get the right club, but now the players are so eager to leave, what can you ascribe this to?

The problem is we are not promoting the league back at home the way it was during our days. It is all about English league now and other European football. We are not helping ourselves, we really need to bring out our league and let people hear about it. When people like us were playing, all what we used to hear on the radio, read in the newspapers or watch on television were about clubs in the country. Rangers, Shooting Stars, Insurance, Ranchers Bees and so on, but nothing like that again. It’s really killing our league and our football as a whole.

You are part of the team that brought the first global glory to Nigeria, playing at the first U-17 FIFA World Cup in 1985, could you capture it for us?

That was the first U-17 World Cup, the very first and we won it. We were unsung players but we went and conquered the world. Most of the players that won that tournament were all from YSFON team. It was a great thing winning such competition.

Few players made it from the U-17 to other grades of the national team, what could be the problem?

When some people get the opportunity of playing for the national team, they will think they have arrived and start misbehaving. The truth is as a footballer, you continue to learn until you hang your boots and come to a conclusion that you are not playing again. Even at that, you will still have to continue learning, maybe as a coach or as an administrator. However, some players when they got picked up, they believe they are there already and stop working hard to maintain their position. That’s why you see some players playing well at a moment and later fizzle out. There must be continuity in football and it must be a continuous progress.

How do talents and passion translate to output for a footballer?

It is very important to add passion to your talents. It’s just like when you are not willing to do something, even if you have the talents, your lack of passion will stop you from making headways. Such talents will be a waste and you need to have someone to encourage you. We have a lot of people out there with their talents wasting away because they don’t have the passion.

An aspect of your career is interesting to Nigerians. About 22 players on the field of play and as a defender, it was you that was selected for praise by the legend, Pele. How did you feel at that moment?

It was a privilege to meet that kind of person and for him to say that kind of words and that really made me to work hard. It was a great boost to my career, I kept his words with me and it really helped my career. When you have a great person like that coming to you, then you must listen. At all levels of football, Argentina has been a difficult opponent for us as a country, so playing them and for a defender like me to be picked as the best player on the day, it shows I played very well. It is rare to see a defender emerging as Man-of-the-Match but I did that day. It was a big surprise for me when he gave me the award and said I should keep working hard, that I will make it in life. I held on to those words till now.

How do you advice youths generally putting into consideration your experience as a player and an individual?

The most important thing is to try and know the kind of person they will move with. They should also pray for the right person that they will spend their life with. The person that will be with them during thick and thin because there are lots of fake people in this world and are just there to destroy things. I have to thank God for everything because everything works for a purpose. I have to take everything as a learning process. I learnt a lot with what happened to me and I am still learning.

How does it feel when your freedom and was behind bars after attaining stardom in your career?

It was the darkest moment of my life. Nobody will feel good and when you know that what you are accused of, you didn’t do it. There are so many people that will find themselves in that situation and will not be found guilty, they won’t be punished at all but whatever happens, it was for a reason and I have to take it that way. Maybe if I was outside, who knows what would have happened to me?

Do you think you were found guilty because you are a black man?

Definitely, if I happened to be a white man, maybe just a fine and I will be free, but I have taken it the way it happened. That was why I said when you are going out with somebody that you think you want to live your life with, it is very good you pray seriously not to fall into a wrong hand. There are so many things that happened that I was not even privy to before the case came up.

Could you share some of the dark moments during your incarceration with our readers and your fans?

I couldn’t believe what was happening to me at that time, it was like am I here for real? There were so many thoughts coming to me at that moment. In fact, thinking about ending everything because I look at it that life was not worth living again. I considered ending it all. But when I remember my kids, what will happen to them if I died, I decided to persevere and be strong for them. I just feel I need to be there for them, if not, life at that time was not worth living.

You mentioned a case currently ongoing in court, what are the issues again?

The fact is she (ex-wife) is trying to send me back to jail again in my country. She has been giving me a lot of problems since we returned. During the case over there in France, I lost my first son, so for her coming back here and trying to put me into another problem, that’s what I don’t understand. Normally, I was not supposed to allow her join me in my house but because I decided to forgive and let her be on her own especially because she had kids for me and I don’t want people to come and say I threw her away after what she went through. So I allowed her to join me here in Lagos. But she kept on bothering my life. I had so many cuts on my body due to what she put me through even after we returned. What she didn’t know was that whenever she starts her problem, I have people around me that will be recording because I want to have concrete evidence, there are so many of these videos on youtube. People can google my name and find out the kind of person that she was. She started telling people that I have been beating her when it was she who has been attacking me without any provocation; I am not such a person that beats women.

Do you have any of your kids trying to play football?

I used to have two boys and two girls, but my first son had died, however, the second one is into football at the moment. He is 16 and based abroad. He is an attacker. Personally, I started as an attacker too and I was later converted to a defender. During our AFCON in 2000, I played so many roles, the wing back, central defence and also the defensive midfield. I am actually more comfortable playing from the middle.

Can you compare European football with our league back at home?

They are not comparable at all. There are no bases for that especially in the area of facilities, planning and so on. In Europe, they have two seasons, winter and summer, when there is winter and the field is frozen, they always put heater under the pitch, they are well-organised and we cannot compare ourselves with them, they are more advanced. However, we can get there, if we are talking about money, we have it and I don’t think they are richer than us, but we are not doing the right thing unlike them.

How do you relax?

When I was active, I use to have play station, so whenever I am free, I play games, but after my retirement, I spend most of my free time at home with my family. I also have my club, the All Stars Club, where I try to relax with friends and also make new friends.

How are you thinking of giving back to the society?

I am doing that now. I have some boys who I am trying to help. Some of them are in Russia at the moment because without football where would I have been? I am thanking God for giving me that gift and I have to give back to the young ones as a way of appreciating God.

What can you say was your best and worst moment as a footballer?

My best moment was in Strasbourg when we won the Coupe de la Ligue, and my worst moment was when we lost the 2000 AFCON final against Cameroon in Lagos. It was bad losing in front of your fans on home soil. It was very painful.

Do you have any regret ever?

No regret at all. I have to thank God for everything He has done for me.

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