FULL NAME: Augustine Okocha
DATE OF BIRTH: August 14,1973
START OF FOOTBALL CAREER: 1989
CLUBSIDES PLAYED FOR: CCB, Enugu and Rangers International (Nigeria); Borussia Neukirchen and Eintracht Frankfurt (Germany); Fenerbahce (Turkey); Paris Saint Germain (France); Bolton Wanderers (England); Qatar SC (Qatar); Hull City (England).
HONOURS WON: Turkish League Title (1);
OTHER MEMORABLE EVENTS: Winning the soccer gold at Atlanta ‘96 Olympic Games.
START OF NATIONAL TEAM CAREER: 1993
OPPONENT (EVENT): Cote d’Ivoire (World Cup qualifier in Abidjan).
RESULT: Cote d’Ivoire 2, Nigeria 1
NATIONAL TEAM HONOURS: ANC Gold in Tunisia 1994, Afro-Asian Cup 1995; Olympics Gold Atlanta 1996, ANC silver Ghana/Nigeria 2000; ANC bronze Mali 2002, Tunisia 2004 and Egypt 2006.
I DID not take part in the qualifiers for the 2004 Cup of Nations in Tunisia but everyone expected us to qualify from our group which also consisted of Malawi and Angola. The Malawians weren’t a problem and we beat them at home (4-1), having also beaten them (1-0) away. But Angola almost prevented us from going to Tunisia in the very last match decided in Benin City. After we drew the first leg 0-0 in Luanda, the second leg saw the Angolans lead us 2-0 in Benin before we rallied back and pulled a 2-2 draw that was enough to secure our passage to Tunisia.
PREPARATION AND SQUAD SELECTION
We camped in Faro, Portugal for over a month in order to acclimatize to the anticipated cold weather in Tunisia and I remember that it was also the same place we had camped during our preparations for Tunisia ‘94.
Tunisia ‘94 was my first Africa Cup of Nations finals and winning the cup remains one of the high points of my football career. Coming back to the same place that played a significant role in our 1994 success was always going to evoke nostalgic feelings and I actually felt we could win in Tunisia again despite the relatively young team that we had.
Our team was quite young and largely inexperienced unlike the 1994 team where Sunday Oliseh, Emmanuel Amunike and I were just about the only young players around. In 2004, a few of us including Nwankwo Kanu, Julius Aghahowa, Garba Lawal, Celestine Babayaro and yours truly were taking part in our third Nations Cup while some like Joseph Yobo, Ifeanyi Udeze, Isaac Okoronkwo, Victor Agali and Yakubu Aiyegbeni were making their second appearances. But most of the others, including key players like Vincent Enyeama, John Utaka and Osaze Odemwingie were making their debut.
So not many people felt we were good enough to win the cup, but I had strong faith in our team.
If camping in Faro was memorable for me, returning to Tunisia after a decade was equally nostalgic. The only difference this time around was that we weren’t based in Tunis. That was where we stayed all through in 1994 but this time around we were based in Monastir which was a smaller but very beautiful city.
We felt at home nevertheless and everyone looked forward to a great tournament especially on the backdrop of our outings in 2000 and 2002 which saw us get close to winning the cup on both occasions. And with Morocco, South Africa and Benin in our group, we were all confident of qualifying for the quarter-finals.
However, we received a major shock from the Moroccans in our very first match. They beat us 1-0 and it turned out to be our poorest performance in Tunisia. What was even more disappointing was the fact that they outplayed us for most of the game and, in all fairness, we deserved to lose because our attitude was not right at all. We all felt bad and a few hot words were exchanged in the dressing room and later at the hotel. Coach Christian Chukwu and members of the Nigeria Football Association (NFA) were absolutely displeased with the performance and I guess that was why they went to the extreme when they decided to mete out punishments to three of our team-mates – Victor Agali, Celestine Babayaro and Yakubu Aiyegbeni for breaking camp rules. They were sent home!
I was bitterly disappointed at the manner NFA handled the case because I felt strongly that the three players should have been dealt with in a different way rather than sending them home. As the captain, I led a delegation of players to go and plead that the punishment should be commuted to something less severe like a fine but the officials insisted on sending the three players back to their clubsides. I believe we later suffered for it because the squad strength was reduced from 22 to 19 players.
However, we had a job to do in Tunisia so we temporarily put all our problems aside for our next game against South Africa. It was a must-win encounter for us and anything less would have spelt doom for our cup aspirations.
Luckily, we got off to a good start. Less than five minutes into the game, Joseph Yobo put us ahead for what turned out to be the only goal of the first half. In the second half, the South Africans became more adventurous as they sought for an equaliser and left gaps in their defence. And in one of our incursions into their area, one of their defenders (Aaron Mokoena) surprisingly tripped himself and handled the ball in their penalty area.
I wasn’t just the team captain but I was also our number one penalty kick taker, so it was my responsibility to take the spot kick. I scored to give us a 2-0 lead but little did I know about the significance of that kick until very much after the match when I learnt it was the 1000th goal to be scored at the Africa Cup of Nations.
We eventually beat South Africa 4-0 after Osaze Odemwingie grabbed two additional goals for us. The winning margin could have been much wider but we lost several other scoring chances. The scoreline restored some measure of our depleted confidence as we knew we only had to beat Benin Republic to make it to the last eight.
And that was exactly what we did against the Beninoise. We beat them 2-1 with goals by Lawal and Utaka, who I recall had missed some of those numerous chances against the South Africans. Utaka was one of our best players at the tournament and it was nice to see him get on the scoresheet as it helped to boost his confidence especially with the added responsibility on his shoulder following the departure of Agali and Yakubu. We qualified for the quarter-finals and we had to meet our perennial rivals, Cameroun who had won the last two editions of the tournament. The last time we met them was at the 2000 Nations Cup final in Lagos. Incidentally, I scored one of the best goals in my career in that match to tie the score at 2-2 after we had gone 2-0 down, but we still lost the match on penalty kicks. This time (2004), I was determined not to finish on the losing side and Kanu was feeling the same way, too.
We practically infected the other players with our anger and by the time we entered the pitch against Cameroun, everybody was so determined. Unfortunately, they scored first against the run of play but we didn’t let that demoralise us. Towards the end of the first half, we got a free kick on the edge of their 18-yard box and I simply curved the ball in for our equaliser. Their goalkeeper couldn’t move. I was so happy with that goal.
In the second half, Utaka scored our winning goal after receiving a great pass from Kanu. There was so much joy and celebration in our camp by the Nigerian supporters that night, such that you would think we had already won the cup. But we (the players) knew there was still work to be done and we started focusing on the semi-final against Tunisia.
By this time, our confidence was sky-high and we were all so sure of victory. On matchday, the stadium was a sea of red and white with over 60,000 Tunisian spectators in attendance. It was a very noisy atmosphere and it drowned out the familiar tunes of our supporters club.
However, we silenced the home crowd midway into the second half when I scored from the penalty spot. A Tunisian defender (Karim Hagui) brought down Kanu and the referee awarded a penalty which I converted only for the referee to order for a retake.
I was very relaxed and at the same time very glad that the referee ordered a replay because I was disappointed that the Tunisian keeper (Ali Boumnijel) went the right way at first, though he missed the ball. So I was delighted that I had another chance to put him in his right place. I even told my team-mates, who were jostling for space with the Tunisians outside the penalty box in anticipation of a rebound, to relax because there wouldn’t be any rebound. I was brimming with confidence and it gave me a thrill when I sent the keeper the wrong way on the second attempt.
However, the Tunisians went on to equalise through a dubious penalty and eventually beat us in the ensuing penalty shoot-out. That loss meant we had to beat Mali once again to claim the bronze medal like we did two years earlier.
Again I scored from a freekick for my fourth goal of the tournament, before Osaze made it 2-0 with his third goal of the competition. Mali pulled one back to make the scoreline more respectable.
My four goals eventually proved enough to make me the top scorer of the 2004 Nations Cup. I was also named the Best Player of the tournament but nothing would have delighted me more than winning the trophy itself. It’s sad we didn’t win but I was proud of our achievement especially as it was done with a squad of 19 players, including three goalkeepers.
On the whole, I think Nigerians were happy with our performance, especially as we defeated Cameroun in the quarterfinal. I remember receiving phone calls from people back home informing me about how Nigerians celebrated that victory.
Overall, Tunisia 2004 was as memorable as Tunisia ‘94, maybe even more memorable because it turned out to be a great success for me as an individual. I enjoyed every moment of it and I value the bronze medal I won as much as the gold from the 1994 finals.
RELATED STORIES: Nigeria’s AFCON Stories Episode 14 – MALI 2002
GOALKEEPERS: Vincent Enyeama (Enyimba), Greg Etafia (Moroka Swallows, South Africa), Austin Ejide (Etoile du Sahel, Tunisia).
DEFENDERS: Joseph Enakharhire (Standard Liege, Belgium), George Abbey (Macclesfield Town, England), Joseph Yobo (Everton, England), Isaac Okoronkwo (Wolves, England), Ifeanyi Udeze (PAOK Salonica, Greece), Romanus Orjinta (Enyimba), Celestine Babayaro (Chelsea, England).
MIDFIELDERS: Austin Okocha (Bolton Wanderers, England), Ikpe Ekong (Sheyeng Gerdi, China), Seyi Olofinjana (Brann, Norway), Garba Lawal (Unattached), Nwankwo Kanu (Arsenal, England).
FORWARDS: John Utaka (RC Lens, France), Julius Aghahowa (Shakhtar Donetsk, Ukraine), Yakubu Aiyegbeni (Portsmouth, England), Victor Agali (Schalke 04, Germany), Pius Ikedia (RBC Roosendaal, Holland), Ifeanyi Ekwueme (Wisla Plock, Poland), Osaze Odemwingie (La Louvierre, Belgium).
COACH: Christian Chukwu, MON
ASSISTANT COACHES: Augustine Eguavoen, Amusa Adisa.