Home / Sports / I’ve been suffering since my house was destroyed by fire – Gbenga Okunowo

I’ve been suffering since my house was destroyed by fire – Gbenga Okunowo

Gbenga Okunowo

After playing professional football in Europe for 11 years, Gbenga Okunowo felt the time was right for him to retire from the sport.

Although his move to Polish first division outfit Odra Wodzislaw  fell through, the versatile player was desirous of  playing for  two more years before hanging up his boots. After suffering a similar fate in Norway, Okunowo  returned to Nigeria to join Premier League club Sunshine Stars in 2012.

However, the unexpected happened – a fire believed to have started from a nearby Power Holding Company of Nigeria office burned his Ibadan home on July 22,2012.

Okunowo watched helplessly as his belongings – including his passport, European residence papers, medals, photographs and trophies – went up in flames.

The incident gained widespread media attention and sympathy.  Neighbours, friends and well-wishers came to his aid. The Oyo State Government   also supported him when  the  fire incident occurred. Okunowo has since sued PHCN demanding compensation.

“I’m really going through hard times,” the 35-year-old told our correspondent on the telephone during the week.

“I can’t travel out of the country now because I lost my travel documents. I rely on friends and family members to cater for my family. I’m living in two of the rooms that were not affected by the fire with my family.

“I can’t still believe that all I laboured for 15 years could be burned in minutes.

“There’s no way I can get back my medals and my  pictures with presidents and other  personalities.

“It’s sad that the country is not concerned about what I’m going through.

“I have represented  the country at the Under-17 (1997 Meridian Cup), Under-20 (Nigeria ’99 FIFA Under-20 World Cup), Under-23 (2000 Sydney Olympic  Games) and the senior (Ghana-Nigeria 2000 Africa Cup of Nations) levels.

“I’m surprised that the Nigeria Football Federation only  expressed its sympathy without assisting me.

“Nigeria lacks respect for ex-internationals and others who have laboured for the country.

“If what happened to me had happened to, for instance, Xavi or Casillas (Nigeria ’99 Under-20 World Cup winners), the Spanish Football Federation will do something fast.

“Probably  what many Nigerians want to hear is that Okunowo is begging on the streets after playing for Barcelona.

“That is why  Nigerians  playing abroad don’t want to return home to play in the domestic league.

“But  Egypt, Morocco and South Africa stars in Europe  return to their  countries to play for  two or three seasons before calling it quits with the game.

“They do so because they are respected. It’s a different story here (in Nigeria) because nobody, including the NFF, cares whether you have represented the country or not.”

Okunowo, who says he is back in training in his bid to regain fitness, has set sights on returning to Europe for  professional football.

“I want to return to the field to make some money to take care of my family and to replace  some of the things  I lost in the fire,” the 2000 Africa Cup of Nations silver medallist said.

“I want to play for two more years before retiring from the game. I’m not too old at 35 to play big-time football because I take good  care of myself.

“It depends on the way you live your life. If a player lives a good life, he can play for a long time.

“I’m determined to return to the field and I’m working hard towards it because I have a family to take care of.

“I don’t know when the court thing will end and I don’t want to continue to rely on people for help.”

Okunowo made national headlines when at 18 he made his Barcelona debut against Real Mallorca in Spanish La Liga.

Dutchman Louis Van Gaal signed Okunowo for the European  giants  in 1998 after  he impressed in his trials at the club.

Barcelona scouts discovered Okunowo when he represented Nigeria  at the 1997 Meridian Cup in Portugal. The Golden Eaglets won the Under-17 tournament after beating Portugal in the final.

“Barcelona invited me for a trial after the tournament,” he said.

“After undergoing a week trial at the club, I was invited for the second time for another one week trial.

“But after training with the team for four days, I was given a contract by the club.

“It was when I joined the club that Xavi introduced himself to me – that he was in the Spanish team that lost 3-2  against Nigeria in the Meridian Cup.”

Okunowo repaid Van Gaal’s faith in him by turning in  performances that guaranteed him  a few  starting roles in La Liga and playing against  the likes of Bayern Munich and Manchester United in the UEFA Champions League.

The former Shooting Stars player found playing time difficult after he returned from Nigeria where he captained the Flying Eagles during the Nigeria ’99 Under-20 World Cup. Nigeria were sent packing from the  quarter-final of the championship after their 3-1 defeat by Mali in Enugu on April 18, 1999.

Van Gaal preferred  compatriot Michael Reizeger in the right-back. When Okunowo  couldn’t bench the Holland international he was shipped out on a season-long  loan to Portuguese giants  Benfica.

“Barcelona wanted me to gain experience, hence they sent me to Benfica,” he said.

“It’s not true that I was sent on loan because of  Reizeger. I agreed to the loan deal because I wanted to play regularly to develop myself.

“I have no regrets leaving for Portugal because I was playing regularly at Benfica. Moreover, Benfica are also a big club.

“My regret is that injury denied me a chance to make my name at Barcelona. I would have been a Barca legend today.”

Dutchman Bonfrere Jo named   Okunowo  in his 22-man squad for  the 2000 Africa Cup of Nations following his    impressive form for Benfica.  The Super Eagles lost 4-3  to their bitter rivals Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions on penalties in the final at the National Stadium, Lagos, on February 13, 2000.

He was a regular face in the team until he  was surprisingly missing from  the bench in the final.

Bonfrere named Okunowo for the Sydney Olympic Games nine months later and the player showed his class, despite Nigeria’s quarter-final exit from the competition.

Okunowo was recalled by Barcelona from Benfica after Nigeria crashed out  of Sydney 2000 after losing 4-1 to Chile.

But unfortunately, the player suffered a knee injury  and underwent surgery. He was out of football for one and a half years.

He said, “It’s painful. I was ready to fight for a regular first-team role when  the club recalled me from loan at Benfica.

“I was determined and in great shape during the pre-season before I started feeling pain in my kneel.

“When you are out for six months in Europe, it’s difficult to win back your place in the team.”

The defender   also could not find space in the Barcelona lineup after recovering  from injury and  was consequently loaned to  Badajoz in  the Spanish  second division.

He moved to Greek outfit  Ionikos  after his contract ended at Barcelona  in 2001. Okunowo  did not only  miss out on a  place in the  Mali 2002 Africa Cup of Nations  where the Eagles won bronze, he  also was not  named in the 2002 Korea/Japan World Cup squad.

Okunowo moved to Romanian side  Dinamo Bucharest on a free transfer in 2003 but  after playing two matches for the Red dogs, he  cancelled his contract and joined  Albania club  Tirana.

Okunowo spent a season (2005-2006) at Ukrainian club   Metalurh Donetsk, a season-long loan at Ukrainian side  Stal Alchevsk  before joining Maldivian football VB Sports  in 2009. He was at small English club Waltham Forest before returning to Nigeria to put pen to paper for Sunshine Stars.

Okunowo is not happy with the quality of players being produced by the country and blamed football authorities for the development.

He said, “Our greatest problem is that we change players and coaches constantly. In Spain, players are moved gradually from one stage to another.

“We are not consistent in Nigeria. When a team loses, the players and coaches are sacked. It is not so in Europe.

“You don’t bring in many players into a team. This is what  (Nigeria coach) Stephen Keshi is trying to do.

“Unfortunately, many people are criticising him for not inviting certain players. We only need one or two players to join the team that won the Africa Cup of Nations last year.

“Xavi  represented Spain in the Under-17 , Under-20 and Under-23 before playing in the senior team.

“In Europe, coaches  stay long in  the age-grade teams to develop players,  but in Nigeria we have new coaches for every tournament.

“Again, there’s much pressure on coaches to win a match or a competition. This affected  us in 1999 (Under-20 World Cup).

“We came under pressure from the NFF and fans to win the tournament. But unfortunately, many of the players could not cope with the  pressure  on the team and made mistakes on the pitch.

“We were also under pressure to win the 2000 Africa Cup of Nations. But there were many experienced players in the team and we were able to reach the final.

“It  would have been a different story if it was the Golden Eaglets or the Flying Eagles.”

Okunowo insists the Eagles cannot win the summer’s World Cup in Brazil, saying the team  will only make an impact.

“We are not ready to win the World Cup because we have not planned for it,” he said.

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