The former international was only a teenager when Nigeria lifted her first-ever continental trophy on home soil and was overwhelmed by the enormity of gifts received for that feat
Sylvanus Okpala has revealed that the Nigeria government, individuals and corporate bodies dashed out more gifts in cash and kind than any member of the 1980 African Cup of Nations squad ever dreamed of.
16-year-old Henry Nwosu and 18-year-old Okpala were the two youngest players of the Green Eagles team that hosted the rest of African forty years ago.
Then-Enugu Rangers midfielder Okpala had only just left secondary school when he made that squad.
But the home side had enough quality to romp to her first-ever honours as exemplified by the tournament’s best goalkeeper, Best Ogedengbe, tournament’s Most Valuable Player, Christian Chukwu, and joint-top scorer Segun Odegbami.
The then-Federal Government led by Alhaji Shehu Shagari rewarded that unprecedented feat with gifts of cash, cars, houses, and national award, so much that it overwhelmed a young Okpala.
“It was quite amazing for a secondary school leaver to own a Peugeot 504 car, a house and a national honour, MON, plus other gifts from individuals and corporate bodies,” Okpala told the Vanguard.
“The sky was our limit then. We worked so hard to win the tournament. All that was on our minds was how to win the trophy, nothing less. Thankfully, we eventually won.
“I wouldn’t say they didn’t do enough if you checked how many people were driving 504 GR with air-conditioning as at that time. How many people in Nigeria had national honours and how many people owned houses?
“I think they appreciated what we achieved. No one can say it was not good enough. But I think as Oliver Twist, human beings will always ask for more.
“We made history, and nothing can be termed as too much for us.
“I was not expecting anything near what we eventually got. Maybe I was expecting something like N500 each. I did not think of a car.
“If you ask me, no group of those who have been playing and winning laurels for Nigeria, before and after us have been so lucky to get what we were given by the Alhaji Shehu Shagari and Dr Alex Ekweme administration.
“That was the highest gift that has ever been given to footballers.”
Nigeria has gone on to win two more AFCON titles since her first win in 1980.