This Day (Lagos)

Nigeria: Okoku Backs Super Eagles Against Iran

Photo: James Agori/ThisDay
Iranian defender, Reza, left, attempts to stop Ogenyi Onazi last night in Curitiba.

Ahead of Nigeria's kick off of the World Cup against Iran, former Nigerian international, Paul Okuku is optimistic the coach Stephen Keshi led team will dismiss the confrontation of the Iranians and go on to do well in the tournament. He however warned that the Super Eagles should not underrate Iran.

In a telephone chat with THISDAY from his base in the United States, Okoku said: "The Eagles have raised the bar as far as African football is concerned, but the team should however, not underrate Iran because any team that underrates another will be doing so at its own peril. I have no doubt in my mind that the Eagles will rise to the occasion in their first game against Iran". He however charged the team to ensure they convert every opportunity that comes their way and should not be lackadaisical. "They should play Iran like they will play against any power house in world football," he warned.

While a lot of Nigerians back home have started having their reservations on the chances of the Super Eagles doing well in Brazil after their 2-1 loss to the United States in the teams last friendly game before jetting out to Brazil, Okoku, who watched the game live from the VIP box, courtesy of the Nigeria Football Federation President, Alhaji Aminu Maigari's invitation, think otherwise. "It will be wrong for anyone to use the United States game as yard stick to measure the team. The game was a wake-up call to the players. They will reflect on the match and learn a good lesson from it. They have learnt the need to up their game and now realise they've not arrived yet. The US loss was a victory in defeat because their performance at the World Cup will blow people's mind," the former defunct National Bank player assured.

Asked about the mood of the players after the defeat to the US, he responded, "I am not sure what the players were thinking after the game when I saw them. However, as a former player, I will be disappointed at myself, not at the coach or my teammates, and as mad as heck, not because we lost but the fact that we played below expectation and then use it as a motivation to perform my best at the next game. On the final 23-man list of Keshi, the St. Finbarrs College graduate reacted thus, "I am satisfied given the players available as at the time that he and his coaching staff made the selection. This wasn't a rolled dice selection in my opinion, but rather, a thoughtful and thorough process. The players who were dropped should not bury their heads in the sand; instead they should be proud that they were among the 30-man list, and it's about being proud and fulfilled. There are many more future national assignments for them, and they will always be a part of the team's success story, so keep your heads up. I am proud of those guys."

He said Keshi and his coaching staff have integrity and want to win, "hence these players that were selected have always risen to the occasion when the stake is high; peaking at the right time and the World Cup would be a testimonial of their trademark for achieving the desired result. We just need to believe in their ability and support them to the end, win or lose. When he won the AFCON, there were people who simply said it was absolute luck. Nevertheless, every team in that tournament had equal opportunity to create their own luck. Keshi and the players created their own luck through preparation and hard work," he noted. During Super Eagles friendly game against Scotland, second choice goalkeeper Austin Ejide was a big flop and fans have been pessimistic about his ability in the event of an injury to first choice goalkeeper, Vincent Enyeama, but Okuku has refused to join the bandwagon. "I will not be quick to join the bandwagon to write off Austin Ejide on that observation. I would like to judge him by his past records and as recently as his efficiency against Mexico, in March of this year, in Atlanta. He is a professional, and professionals don't duel on their mistakes, they see it as an opportunity to shift from self-doubt and that is what big time goalkeepers do and he happens to be a big time goalkeeper, he said.

Okoku does not really consider the fact that most Nigerian players will be playing in the World Cup for the first time as a big disadvantage to the team, saying: "We all know that this much talked about experience does not happen in a vacuum, one has to be given a chance, at the very least, to accumulate experience. This is a good sign that we as a nation are improving in the discovery of football talent, because we are not going back to breathe life into the retired players with experience to come out and represent us. Well, again, I would like to think that these players will understand the enormous task ahead and the chance of a life time that may never come their way again. They need to seize the opportunity of the moment and turn it to their advantage personally and professionally."

Asked how far he hopes Nigeria can go in the World Cup, he said,"I am an optimist and so would dare to say that they will equal or exceed African's World Cup best record. People have written and continue to write that Argentina has the blue print to beat Nigeria. Nonetheless, this is a different World Cup, in a different country, in a different time. Recently, I watched the Bosnians defeat Mexico, and they gave me a scare to think of another team other than Argentina. Notwithstanding, I have confidence in our players' ability to triumph over them." Okoku however said he was not really in a position to advice Keshi. "Advice for Keshi? You've got to be kidding me. "Keshi's approach is consistent with G.K. Chesterton's philosophy- 'I owe my success to having listened respectfully to the very best advice, and then going away and doing the exact opposite.' With this in mind, it is safe to say that this is a trade Keshi knows better than I do and consequently excels at it.

"Remember when most revered personalities down to the modest of Nigerians insinuated that he will not achieve anything good before and during the 2013 AFCON, with the home-based players. He took the advice and went and did the exact opposite. In all of it, he was not disturbed but kept his optimism as a teacher, keeps rising above expectations beyond imagination. Accordingly, he keeps his composure and so deeply tolerant and disciplined enough to achieve his attainable goal others thought was impossible for him. Okoku concluded with the words of Mike Zimmerman, "If successful people have one common trait, it's an utter lack of cynicism. The world owes them nothing. They go out and find what they need without asking for permission; they're driven, talented, and work through negatives by focusing on the positives."

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