Fondly called the ‘Gentle Giant’ in his active days with the Super Eagles, Uche Okechukwu is a name that continues to ring a bell in the Nigeria football circles and beyond.
Widely seen as one of the best defenders that has ever donned the green and white jersey of Nigeria, Okechukwu speaks with PREMIUM TIMES on how the Super Eagles can go far at the fast approaching Russia 2018 World Cup.
Okechukwu also delves a bit into his private life; opening on his life after football.
PT: Nigeria is set for the sixth appearance at the FIFA World Cup, how do see the chances of Nigeria at the Russia 2018 World Cup?
Okechukwu: Honestly, I have not had the opportunity to watch this team closely enough to be assertive on what they can do. I only watched one of the qualifiers and it was not for the 90 minutes, but for a team to qualify for the World Cup, it means they are good.
What determines the situation next now is which group we are and how prepared we are. I hope they are prepared, I don’t know them first hand. Looking at that one 90 minutes game cannot give the insight to evaluate them.
Apart from their 90 minutes on the pitch, a lot of things help determine a team’s performance. They need to be strong as friends, as a family both inside and outside of the pitch.
PT: If you are to predict, which five teams are your likely choice to win the 2018 World Cup?
Okechukwu: Typically, one would always pick teams like Brazil, Germany, Spain, Italy (did not qualify), even when they are not performing well, they usually grind out results.
Argentina, they are not stable for now, France, I don’t know how strong their team is these days. These countries usually go far in the World Cup consistently. I think they are usually more prepared than the others.
PT: How do you think the African countries going to the World Cup will fare?
Okechukwu: Like I said earlier, it all depends on their groups. Any team in the same group as Brazil, Germany and Spain, they are as good as gone. There’s no magic to help that, except you are better than those teams.
PT: You played at two World Cup editions, 1994 and 1998. Tell us a bit about your experience at the World Cup.
Okechukwu: That team, we were lucky that we had been together, we played other competitions before we filed out for the World Cup.
Before we went to the World Cup, we had enough confidence among ourselves that we were a very good team.
So it got to that level, the level of confidence that was good that we knew we were ready for the competition.
It was a bit different because we had been together, and we knew the quality that we had. It was good because for me, as a player, it is the best way to go into a competition, especially one that was the highest in our game.
We were excited, we knew we had the quality, what was required was that everyone gave their all in the position they played and we knew if we do that, the results will come and it happened in that first World Cup.
PT: Your best memories of the World Cup
Okechukwu: There are so many. You know it was our first World Cup, winning the game, qualifying for the next round, there are so many good memories from that outing, you know, it is countless for me. 1998 was different but 1994 was filled with good memories for me.
PT: You once played your club football in Turkey, what is your take on the influx of Nigerian players there now?
Okechukwu: I am very happy. Before it could be just five foreigners per club and it was only in the first division. Now it’s open and you can be in the first or second division. It is good because it gives an opportunity to a lot of players. It also helps youths who are coming up so I am very happy that they did that.
PT: What has the Gentle Giant been up to after football?
Okechukwu: I have been living my life quietly. You know, I do manage players, I live in Turkey, I come to Nigeria too. So I try to do necessary things, now I am trying to set up an Academy in Aba with some former Super Eagles players like Emeka Ifejiaka. So I am just a normal regular person, trying to live normal.
PT: Did you see a report recently that you have become a hunter?
Okechukwu: I have seen it but there are somethings you don’t even comment. Maybe, they saw it for the first time and it became news for them. But for me, it is a hobby that I have enjoyed from when I was little; whenever I am free I do it, even in Europe. So when I saw it, I was just laughing because there was nothing to say about it.
PT: Thank you for speaking with us.
Okechukwu: The pleasure was mine… thank you very much.