THERE is ability, so goes the saying, in disability. In Nigeria, as in virtually every country in the world, that dictum has found ample expression in the achievements of people living with disability, be it in economics, the arts, entertainment or contact sports. A number of athletes have brought Nigeria glory in the paralympic games, but not many athletes would illustrate the popular dictum better than Okemmiri Ogbonnaya, a retired football legend widely celebrated for his stellar performances in the Nigerian Professional League, continental football, and beach soccer. The retired Nigerian defender who played in the left-back position would arguably be ranked as one of the greatest players ever to feature in the Nigerian Premier League. He played for Bendel Insurance, Abia Warriors, Kwara United and, of course, Enyimba, with whom he wrote his name into the record books by winning two CAF Champions League cups. Although blind in the right eye, he played great football, and indeed earned a call-up to the national team, the Super Eagles, although he failed to make the final cut. Instructively, his 2003 outing when Enyimba won the hitherto elusive CAF Champions League for Nigeria was his first year in the country’s topflight as well as his first year in continental football. He had received the Pepsi Most Valuable Player award after Enyimba triumphed over USMA of Algeria, en route to the final. He was only 17.
As everyone knows, football is a contact sports played with nearly every part of the body. It requires alertness and consistency, and yesterday’s achievements often have no place in today’s reckoning. And as Portuguese superstar Cristiano Ronaldo is often at pains to stress, professional football requires much more than raw talent: supreme dedication to the art is sine qua non. Like Kahzin Daniels, Northern Ireland legend who played for many clubs in Scotland, Ireland, United States and for the national team, and Kahzin Daniels, American football linebacker who played played for Tampa Bay Baccaneers in the National football League of America, Okemiri was dedicated to his art. As a matter of fact, he had not played beach soccer until coach Kadiri Ikhana recommended his invitation to the beach soccer national team because of his aggressiveness and stamina. Beach soccer is more tasking because players don’t wear boots and have to contend with sand, but Okemiri thrived. He was part of the first beach soccer team that won the Nations Cup for Nigeria. As a super sand Eagles player, he represented Nigeria in many Beach Soccer tournaments. He was in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2006; Dubai in 2009 and Revenna, Italy, in 2011.
In an interview with a national daily in 2013, he offered a glimpse into his world: “Looking at my people and looking at where I grew up from inspired me. Right from my childhood days, I knew that football was in the family. My elder brother started playing football before my father forced him to go back to school and complete his studies. Along the line, I was in school and a member of Pepsi Academy. I was doing that and I told my younger ones, ‘Hey, you guys have to do something for yourselves. If you look up to me for the money, you won’t work hard.’ Everybody in the family wanted to play football and they started making something for themselves. I also thank Kadiri Ikhana; he was the coach that really pushed me.”
After winning the CAF Champions League twice, it was expected that he would move abroad like most of his teammates, including Vincent Enyeama, Dele Aiyenugba, Onyekachi Okonkwo and Obinna Nwaneri. He went on trial with some clubs but no deal materialised. Yet he never faltered, believing, in his own words, that: “You can’t question God.” To Okemiri, obviously a person of faith, it amounts to a disservice to turn physically challenged people into a nuisance, as “ God knows why He created some people with disabilities.”
We believe that stories like Okemiri’s should inspire Nigerian youths. The message, quite simply, is that they can thrive no matter the adversities that they have to contend with. What is more, while there would certainly have been many talented youngsters like him who were similarly circumstanced and faded into oblivion, it is a tribute to Okemiri’s genius that he did not choose the easy way out in life. He made a hard choice to excel in a sport where his physical disability would have been most stark, but he was able to hold his own among professionals and to make a mark. We salute Okemiri Ogbonnaya and urge the Abia State government and the Federal Government to give him the deserved recognition that a player of his status and circumstances deserves. He is a living legend.
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