Remembering The Golden Voice Of Nigerian Football, Ernest Okonkwo
By Iwedi Ojinmah 6 months ago
The story is only as good as the teller unless you have had the privilege of actually seeing it unfold yourself. Fact! We see this every day from News to Sports and this is why TV audiences dwarf that of Radio.
But it was not always so, especially in a newly independent Nigeria. Despite the fact that Television broadcasting started in October 1959, when the then-premier of Western Region, Chief Obafemi Awolowo established the Western Nigerian Television (WNTV), Africa’s first, in Ibadan, Radio and Newspapers still remained the choice of the people as not all could afford the new expensive Phillips and Grundig TV sets. But the writing was on the wall that it would soon eclipse everything else - and then came Biafra.
It arrested the hypnotic spell of TV especially east of the Niger, where the Nigerian Air Force had flattened every TV Tower from Port Harcourt to Enugu for obvious reasons and forced people back into their postponed love affairs with the Short and Long Wave Transistor Radio where Radio Nigeria, OYO, VOA, and the almighty BBC ruled supreme with each having their individual OAP’s or marquee shows.
One such a star was effervescent Ernest Okonkwo who with his uncanny gift of gab, single-handily held football fans captivated, be they from the sleepy smoke-filled hamlets of the deep interior or the big city regardless of location.
Life is what happens to you when you are making plans to do something else and this is exactly what happened to Okonkwo.
Motivated by the literary accomplishments of Achebe, Okigbo, Ike, Amadi, Momah, and Wiwa- just to name a few-at Government College Umuahia, Okonkwo started his amazing career in the Media by working at the fabled School Magazine “The Red Star” hoping to pen something famous one day. It was an amazing job as I can tell you first hand having worked there myself, and he evolved into a true wordsmith be it written or verbal. This is what Government College demanded and what Government College got.
From Lagos he would soon mesmerize us all not just with his uncanny verse, and refreshing wit, but with his mind-numbing ability to improvise and go off the cuff. Wake him up on a cold Harmattan morning at 2 AM or just as he steps out of the shower and stick a microphone is in his face and he was ready to spit knowledge. He was our Howard Cosell and we joyfully allowed him to lead us by the nose each weekend from Lagos to Cairo.
Okonkwo taught me personally. that in Football you don’t just have to just laugh or cry after 90 minutes, but that you can actually do both in 90 minutes and still come out maybe emotionally spent, but still feeling satisfied.
A young Okonkwo - long before Twitter this bird was already Tweeting big time.
No disrespect to the myriad of Priests in the late 70’s in Nigeria, but at that time Okonkwo was the most famous baptizer in the land. If he called you something it stuck and you were it end of the story. Unhappy with Okala being called Chairman, he re-baptised the giant as ‘Man Mountain’ and gave the moniker to Chukwu and the rest as we know is History.
Odegbami was Mathematical and Adokiye was the Chief Justice, both relative passé names based on their actual professions as Engineer and Lawyer. But it was in the other naming ceremonies that his wit and imagination shone through.
Aloysius Atuegbu was nicknamed ‘Blockbuster’. Then you had Mudashiru ‘Midfield Maestro’ Lawal, Uwem ‘Harmattan’ Ekarika, Sylvanus ‘Quicksilver ‘Okpala, Louis ‘Commander’ Igwilo, Idowu ‘Slow Poison’ Otubusin, Christian ‘Penalty Specialist’ Madu, and Emmanuel ‘The Man with Bullet Shot’ Osigwe
He was just as inventive with his colour commentary often reducing his co-anchor to be a sounding board and mere sidekick. If he had a Greatest Hits CD there would be more than one Volume and they would surely include gems like these below.
”Okey Isima, with a short pass to Sylvanus Okpala. They both play in Portugal. They can communicate in Igbo; they can communicate in English; they can communicate in Portuguese and they just communicated with the ball”.
“He beats Christian Chukwu; he beats Christian Madu; he beats Christian Nwokocha, he beats three Christians in a row. Who is this man? He must be a Muslim. Oh, it is Baba Otu Mohammed.”
“Etim Esin, he shilly-shallies, he dilly-dallies, he tries to beat one man but only succeeds in beating himself!”
Oh, noooo…it’s an own goal! Nigeria has scored Nigeriaaaaaa!!!
Referring to the most famous own Goal in Nigerian history by Odiye,
In the 1989 U-20 World Quarter-final match between the Soviet Union and Nigeria in Saudi Arabia dubbed the ‘Damaan Miracle’, ( clip below) Okonkwo was at his inimitable best.
Russia was leading 4-2, with fifteen minutes left to end the match. Undaunted and with sheer determination to at least reduce the embarrassing scoreline, the Flying Eagles equalised to make the final score 4-4. After extra time, with the scoreline still the same, then came the dreaded penalty shootout and the last spot-kick to decide the eventual winner to meet the USA in the semifinal was to be taken by Samuel Elijah. In a brief but succinct moment, Okonkwo gave a vivid illustration of the confrontation that took place in the Bible involving Prophet Elijah and the prophets of Baal. After his narration, Okonkwo then switched back to the action at hand and said
' …and now we have Elijah of Nigeria. Give us this day. The whole country is on your shoulders; you cannot afford to fail your country…And he moves, 1, 2, 3, 4 it’s a goooooooooooaaaaal!!!! This is a miracle. The God of soccer is a Nigerian!”
In his amazing 33 year career Okonkwo remained the best of the best and this is no disrespect to the likes of Ishola "Its a Goal" Folorunsho,Tolu Fatoyinbo, Dele Adetiba and Yinka Craig who all would make most of our current commentators look like clowns without red noses, it is easy to say that he was the Alpha wolf when it came to football commentating.
It is also safe to say the long before Twitter we in Nigeria we already blessed with a local bird that could Tweet unlike anything else. Sadly it is also safe to conclude that with the development in the delivery of video, the arrival of the Mp4 and the internet there will never be the true need for another Okonkwo and for that mere reason we may never see another Football Nightingale.
Rest in Peace Sir, we continue to stand on your shoulders and Up Umuahia