[Note: In this twentieth year of Samuel Okwaraji’s demise (1989), first full year of Austin “Jay-Jay” Okocha’s retirement from professional soccer (2008), and eighteenth year of Nwankwo “Papillo” Kanu’s career (1991-), this essay pays tribute to the reign of Nigeria’s finest and most popular soccer legends. It evaluates their careers, compares their contributions to the development of Nigerian football, and marks their place in the national history of the game. It makes the case that as professionals they are rare and as citizens they are widely beloved patriots who always heeded to the call-to-service of their country. As humanists, their global acclaim and recognitions made them humble and their enormous influences and riches made them generous. Okwaraji, Okocha, and Kanu are by all accounts the foremost celebrity athletes in the history of Nigerian sports.]
I saw “Chairman” Christian Chukwu, “Mathematical” Segun Odegbami, Emmanuel Okala, and Samuel Okwaraji play soccer on television. I consider the four men among the first legends of Nigerian football. Okala was, to me, the greatest Nigerian goalkeeper of all time. There was none bigger – or taller – either before or after him. One of the two most horrifying sights that I have ever seen on live television was watching as Okwaraji collapsed in midfield never to regain consciousness during the 1989 World Cup qualifier in Lagos between Nigeria and Angola. (The other was seeing the second hijacked plane fly into the second of the New York Twin Towers on September 11, 2001.)
It is, however, the dimension of roundedness that is often ignored in the discourse of Nigerian art generally, from football to literature. Okwaraji's most significant contribution to the art of football is that he pointed the way to the future of Nigerian soccer: internationalism, high education, big business, and most of all sensationalist fanfare. No Nigerian footballer celebrated the player's hair before Okwaraji introduced braids into the soccer pitch. No Nigerian player was considered fully Nigerian and at the same time international before him. The Fashanu brothers Justinius and John were always British throughout their active playing days. Nigerian football was never mentioned in the same breath as academic scholarship before Okwaraji, and no notable Nigerian footballer has ever matched his academic accomplishment as a doctoral student (in law). Okwaraji was the first home-grown player to open Nigerians' eyes to the money that flowed in the sea of international football. Millions mourned his untimely passing and many of his relations and acquaintances bewailed the loss of his patronage.
What Christopher Okigbo and Wole Soyinka did for Nigerian literature, Okwaraji did for its football by introducing the dimension of enigma. Everyone mined Okwaraji’s three-dimensional narrative. Those who knew little about his story easily made it up. As the critic Ben Obumselu said of Okigbo, both those who knew him and those who didn't padded his narrative with untruths that were not necessarily lies. The mythmakers genuinely believed the truism of their stories, which was founded on the purity of unparalleled admiration for their subject. In the enchanting beauty and brevity of their art, Okigbo and Okwaraji were the most beloved and most tragic of all Nigerian artists. At Okwaraji’s sudden and sensational transcendence speculations, citing family sources, mounted that he was – like Okigbo – indeed an ogbanje, one of those shooting stars of the misty firmament who uncomfortably bestride the realms of men and gods.
Our narrative so far includes two grievous omissions: Nwankwo Christian Nwosu Kanu and Augustine Azuka Okocha! “Papillo” or “The King,” as Kanu is fondly called began his football career in the placid city of Owerri, southeastern Nigeria, as a gangly “Jay-Jay.” An American kid at a Bronx neighborhood playground once said on the ESPN Television that the difference between “MJ” (Michael Jordan) and all the other “great” American basketball stars before and after him was that everyone talked about “His Airness,” but no one would imitate him. If a basketball player tries to dangle or hang out his tongue like a famished dog in a game, he is so roundly jeered that he would run to a corner with his tail between his hind legs. Like Jordan, the “Greatest” boxer ever Mohammed Ali and the “King” of pop music Michael Jackson (an earlier “MJ,” 1958-2009) are beyond imitation.
In Nigerian soccer only one person has ever imitated “Jay-Jay” Okocha with equal accolade and near equal success: Kanu. No other two Nigerian players have had a greater friendship, professional collaboration, or respect for each other than Okocha and Kanu. No two Nigerian players have won more local and international laurels than the two. No two Nigerian players have won more championships together as members of Nigerian national teams than the two. No two Nigerian players have played in bigger international teams in more countries than the two. No two Nigerian players are more recognized on the international football stage than the two. No two Nigerian players have experienced greater longevity in global football than the two. No two Nigerian players have altogether signed more international team money than the two.
No other Nigerian player has won more international championships and rings than Okocha, but Kanu whom one source describes as “the most highly-decorated African footballer” in history. The great Pele had actually picked Okocha as Africa’s greatest football promise before Nigeria’s Gold Medal triumph at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. In 2004 he was listed on Pele’s “FIFA 100” as one of the greatest living players. Prime measurements of an artist's genius include his or her influence and reverence. No Nigerian footballer has had more generational influence on the game than Okocha, and no other Nigerian player almost equals Okocha’s reverence on the global stage as Kanu. Not even a near-tragic heart condition (requiring intervention at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation here in Ohio) could stop Kanu, who like the greatest maestros of the most popular sport on earth turned his sorrow into glory by establishing Africa’s foremost Kanu Heart Foundation philanthropy in service of the continent’s children.
Looking back at their mind-boggling careers, one could only surmise that what Kanu owes to Okocha is what both Okocha and Kanu owe to Okwaraji. Okwaraji was born on May 19, 1964, exactly forty-five years ago. More significantly, the month of Okwaraji’s death (August 12, 1989) was also the month of the birth of both Okocha (August 14, 1973) and Kanu (August 1, 1976). Like Okwaraji, Kanu suffered from an enlarged heart; but the organic ailment that occasioned the tragic bent of Okwaraji’s unprecedented career also channeled the deus ex machina that weaned Kanu’s illustrious longevity. Okocha and Kanu adopted Okwaraji’s scientific mastery of the game in raising Nigerian football beyond the brute force and flat passivity of the unkempt grass and rough patch in which it languished before their time.
A big heart is a weak heart, a doting and passionate spirit which is the wellspring of the charity and generosity that overdetermined the social intercourse between Okwaraji, Okocha, Kanu, and millions of their worldwide fan club. Okocha’s big heart is manifest in the glowing halo of his archetypal playfulness and personal brand “stepovers,” midfield dances and tricks, and the permanent smiles, laughters, and hulas which erupt and run through the cacophony of his adoring spectators. Now in retirement Okocha devotes himself still to the pleasure of both old and young in championing the higher enjoyment and superior advancement of the game in Nigeria through more accessible media exposition, clinics, and institutions. No other Nigerian player, not even the ego-shyster Etim Esin, ever commanded the elegance, aura, class, and power that Okwaraji, Okocha, and Kanu brought to bear on and off the field of football.
Okwaraji is, like Okigbo, an old star that departs and makes way for the new. It is hardly the case that two stars persist in any one generation of a country as we find in the football careers of Okocha and Kanu, except as is signified in the writerly legends of Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka. They are like the prophetic twins of an old tradition, created of the same chi and begotten of different mothers. As we learn from New Testament scriptures, the foremost of cosmic stars foretell the birth of a legend. So it is with the three musketeers of Nigeria’s greatest sport of soccer: Okwaraji, Okocha, and Kanu.