t was with great shock, that I learnt of the death of Okechukwu Isima, in the media, as I was about to go to sleep. My then sleepy eyes became alert, on hearing this very, very sad news. How could this have happened I wonderd, and I am still wondering? I read an interview of his, about two months ago, in which he talked about his life since leaving football. He taliked about his family, and how his children were prospering in their various educational fields of study; about his lovely wife and about his business interests. He talked about how he went back to school after football to brush- up his academic standards. Most importantly, he talked about the problems with our football, and how he was ready to contribute his own quota towards bringing about the desired positive changes needed to make us great again in football.
As I went to bed, after hearing the sad news, I started reminiscing on this great ex-Nigerian footballer and his career. I then decided that it would be befitting to write a tribute to this great son of Nigeria, based on how I remember and appreciate his chequered football career.
Okey Isima, started his football career, as a student, at Abbott boys high school, Ihiala, in Anambra state .He played for the school's football side in the secondary school's competition, in the then East-Central state. He later transferred to Holy Ghost college Owerri, and also played soccer there .He however, made his big break through in soccer, when he played for Rangers International football of Enugu. This facillitated his being noticed by the national team selectors. He was called up for the Eagles, in 1979, during preparations for the 1980 Afcon competition, hosted by Nigeria. The invited players were screened in 3 phases. The first phase was in Lagos, the second phase was in Brazil, during a playing / training tour and the last phase was in Lagos, after the team returned to Lagos, from Brazil. During this phase, the Eagles played a number of friendly matches, against some club sides from Brazil, and Germany; and also against the national teams of Liberia and Cameroun. Yours sincerely, as a youngman watched some of these matches, together with my friend and soccer mentor JAOCHINS ARONU. Okey Isima, not only survived the 3 phases of screening, but shone so brilliantly in the friendly matches that Nigerians had started banking on him, as a potential live-wire of the defence, during the Afcon competition proper. He didn't disappoint them!
Durinng the Afcon competition, he did brilliantly well, so much so that he scored the only goal of the match, in our last group's game against Egypt, in which we needed victory, not only to qualify, but also to head the group and stay in Lagos, for our semi-final game against the Moroccans. He did well in the semi-final and final matches; in the finals, he marked-out Rabah Madger of Algeria, one of the best wingers then in Africa. This helped the Eagles keep the nul at the back and went on to win the finals 3-0, and thus the Nation's cup for the first time!
Okey Isima represented Nigeria with the Eagles at the football event of the Olympic games in Moscow in 1980. Nigeria was called-up, as African champions, to replace Ghana, that withdrew for political reasons. He played one game, before injury forced him to the bench, and to be replaced by John Orlando, at left full back. He formed together with Sylvanus Okpalla at right -full back, a solid full-back tandem in Nigeria's back four, in the world cup qualifying series, for the 1982 world cup in Spain. In our first match against power house ,Tunisia, in Tunis, the Eagles, played badly and lost 2-0, to the Tunisians. In the return leg in Lagos two weeks later, Isima was charged with the onerous task of marking -out Temine of Tunisia, who incidentally was their captain and one of the best right wingers on the African continent at that time.
Having gotten the better of Isima, in the first leg, Isima, knew he had a lot of catching -up to do in the return leg; and this he did, by marking- out Temine, in the return leg, and so helped Nigeria win the resulting penalty shoot-out 4-3, after both sides tied 2-2 on goals aggregate after the two legged confrontation. He also played for Nigeria, in the other matches : against Tanzania, in which we drew 1-1, in Lagos, but won 2-0, in Arusha, Tanzania in the return leg; against Guinea, in which we played 1-1, In Conakry, and won 1-0, in Lagos, courtesy of a Henry Nwosu, last minute pile -driver; and against Algeria, in which, we lost at home 2-0, and lost again 2-1, in Annaba, Algeria, in the second leg.
Before the Annaba game, a popular parapsychologist, Dr. Okunzua, had predicted that Nigeria could turn the table against Algeria, at home, if Okey Isima, was made captain; this was due to what he called the 'extraordinary forces,' linked to Isima's personality, which would swing the tide in our favour .Okey Isima, was not made captain, on match day, but the erstwhile Brazillian tactician - Prof. Otto Gloria - made a tactical switch, by moving, Isima, forward, as an attacking mid-fielder, a consequence of his polyvalence as a footballer.That move was partially successfull - by resulting in a goal scored by Okey Isima, off a header, as a result of a Sylvanus Okpalla free-kick from mid-way, down the right flank - but was not enough to see us through, as the Algerians won that encounter 2-1, and 4-1, on aggregate.
He represented Nigeria, at the Afcon competition, in Libya, in 1982. After which he put a temporary 'moratorium,' to international football, to concetrate on club football. Apart from Rangers, he also played for Standard football club of Jos, in Plateau state. He later on moved to Portugal, in furtherance of his career ,this time as a professional footballer. He was however called back by his country, to help qualify Nigeria for the 1986 world cup; in the game against Tunisia. He answered his nation's call together with other foreign - based professionals like : John Chiedozie, Tunji Banjo, Sylvanus Okpalla, Emeka Nwajiobi. In the first leg match in Lagos, Okey Isima, came off the bench, in the second half, as a striker - another evidence of his polyvalency - to score the only goal of the match. The Eagles were later on eliminated, when they lost 2-0, In Tunis, in the return leg. Isima, later on rounded-up a successful football career in Portugal and relocated together with his wife and children to the United sates of America .
As we prepare to say good-bye to this illustrious son of Nigeria, we should continue to console ourselves with the knowledge of what he did for Nigeria, more especially on the field of play, in football and also wish more especially his family God's guidance at this difficult time and always. Nigeria ,will never forget Okechukwu Isima, ADIEU!