The stage was the Ahmadu Bello Stadium, Kaduna on a sunny and peppy Saturday afternoon of June 13, 2015 when Nigeria’s Super Eagles began their 2017 AFCON qualification campaign against Chad.
It was a much changed Nigerian side filled with youthfulness and players earmarked for the future. A certain Odion Ighalo came off the bench in that game to devastating effect while a youngster, Gabriel Okechukwu – 19 at that time – was named among the substitutes.
Not only was Okechukwu registered as an academy player, he was also assigned the Number 10 jersey, famously worn by the magisterial Jay-Jay Okocha and up to that time, the enigmatic John Mikel Obi.
Okechukwu did not get to taste action on that day but that singular ‘audacity’ (as the top hierarchy of Nigeria’s Football Federation called it) by the late Stephen Keshi served as the perfect springboard for the NFF who had been looking for every possibility to disengage with Keshi.
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That decision by Keshi started a series of events including query and a possible breach of contract by nursing interest in another (Coted’voire) job. These culminated in Keshi’s dismissal the following month and the player who was with an Abuja academy at that time Water FC made for all sort of banters across social media.
Fast forward two and half years later, Okechukwu had been toted to Ukraine for an unsuccessful stint but promptly returned home to join high-flying Nigeria Professional Football League side Akwa United midway through the 2017 season.
It turned a smart decision as the 6ft 7′ striker earned a recall to the national team, albeit the home based Super Eagles and then won Nigeria’s cup competition with Akwa United, scoring the decisive penalty in their shootout victory over Niger Tornadoes in Lagos.
He was part of the home based Super Eagles side which lost in the final of the WAFU Cup to Ghana in September but kept his place for January’s African Nations Championships despite not doing anything out of the ordinary in Ghana or in months after.
Okechukwu sat out Nigeria’s first two games in Morocco and had to wait until the third game against Equatorial Guinea was safely won before he was handed his competition debut. He barely touched the ball in his six-minute cameo but not to worry, his day of reckoning was beckoning.
That day came in Nigeria’s next game – a quarter final game in Tangier – against Angola. The Eagles missed a number of scoring opportunities and were heading out of the competition when an injury to wonderkid Sunday Faleye prompted Salisu Yusuf to call on Okechukwu with about thirty minutes left to play.
He made his presence felt in the attack and although he missed a glorious chance to pull Nigeria level on 77 minutes, his strike partner Anthony Okpotu redeemed himself with a late equaliser, sending the game to extra-time.
Cometh the hour, Cometh the Man! After a goalless first half of extra time where both teams looked jaded and seemingly settling for shootouts, Okechukwu took his destiny in his own hand. Picking up a loose ball after Dayo Ojo’s free kick appeal was waved away, he decisioned one, two, Angolan defenders before shooting from the edge of the penalty box.
The luck that has trailed Okechukwu all his career also followed the ball as it took a deflection off Angolan defender Wilson and beyond his goalkeeper Landu Mavanga.
Typically, the Nigerian social media sphere at that point had been filled with hues, blames, swear words and sometimes curses towards the players and the technical crew. Many, even after the win have questioned the tactical nous of the coaches and an exit at that point will most definitely mean a significant low in the coaching profile of Salisu Yusuf.
However, Okechukwu’s goal made the difference. It brought joy, not only to millions of Nigerians back home but to Nigerian journalists who froze away in the cold of Tangier watching these boys (including yours sincerely).
His namesake Okechukwu Keshi was the last and only Nigerian coach to get this far in the competition but was dismissed starting from the decision to name him in his Match Day squad in mid-2015.
Keshi is no more, but Gabriel Okechukwu has returned the favour by saving the job and perhaps life of another national team coach, Salisu Yusuf.
Cover image credit: NG Super Eagles Twitter