HEROES OF THE GAME

HEROES OF THE GAME: Bright ’10-10′ Omokaro

 

BRIGHT OMOKARO, better known as 10-10, was a striker’s nightmare in his day. Tough as nail, he took no prisoners as soon as he stepped on the pitch and, together with Sunday Eboigbe, he put the fear of God in any overly ambitious striker who harboured any plans of passing through his left-full back position…

 

In the 84th minute of the semi-final game between Nigeria and Algeria at the 1988 African Cup of Nations in Morocco on March 23 inside the Stade Moulay Abdellah in Rabat , Nigeria’s Ademola Adeshina was sent off by the Senegalese referee to leave the Eagles with 10 men against a rampaging Algerian team which had smelt blood and was going for the kill.

On the sidelines, the Nigerian coach Manfred Hoener called one of his players and told him: “Look, we are 10 men now but I know you’re a hard player so you know what to do to help your team.”

Play resumed and, within minutes the Algerian team was decimated when one of its brightest players was stretchered off after being viciously kicked by the Nigerian player who’d carried out his coach’s instruction to the letter. That player was Bright Omokaro.

Because the Algerians had exhausted their maximum three substitutes, they were forced to play with 10 men – just like their Nigerian counterparts. Thus was born the legend of 10-10.

 

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Omokaro (standing 2nd right) on duty with the Super Eagles in a World Cup Qualifier in 1989

Born Bright Edobor Omokaro in the Akpakpava area of Benin City, present day Edo State of Nigeria in 1961, the youngster started his footballing career at the Salvation Army Primary School where he was a star pupil before moving on to New Era College for his Secondary education.

At Salvation Army, he got an invitation to join the then Bendel State team which was preparing for the National Sports Festival in Lagos. Aged 12, he was a member of the team that beat all comers to win the gold medal at the festival. This success led to his admission to New Era College, a pioneer school for gifted pupils who show an aptitude for sports and learning.

The Sports Festival win, apart from earning him a place in the newly-established New Era College also earned him a reprieve from his parents who preferred that he faced his academics rather than football. On his victorious return from Lagos, his parents gave their approval for him to continue playing football.

New Era College opened up a new vista for the young Omokaro as he, alongside other equally talented youngsters such as future international player Humphrey Edobor, led the school to many a famous victory in statewide competitions and his fame quickly spread like wildfire. Simply put, he became a household name in school boy competitions of that period.

Expectedly, the hawks were not long in gathering. A certain Mr Osifo who was the games master at Edo College enticed Omokaro and other equally talented players from several secondary institutions to his school to form a super squad that would be the envy of all.

In particular, Osifo had his sights set on the international schools football competition in Spain which Christ the King College (CKC) Onitsha had won in 1977 and wanted to present a squad capable of equaling the feat of the Onitsha-based boys.

Edo College duly qualified for the competition the following year in Spain but, unlike CKC before them, they couldn’t win the trophy. They placed a disappointing fifth, not because they were not good enough for the title but, according to Omokaro, deft manipulation by the organisers schemed the Nigerian boys out. It was possible, he rationalized, that the organisers did not want another Nigerian victory so soon after CKC’s win the year before.

 

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Omokaro (1st left) with former Abiola Babes players Clement Temile (m) and Raymond King at the annual June 12 exhibition game in memory of the late MKO

 
Back in Nigeria, Omokaro joined hometown club Insurance of Benin and a flurry of brilliant performances earned him an invitation to the first-ever Flying Eagles team that was assembled to play the qualifying series for the 1979 World Youth Championship. His teammates in the team included Henry Nwosu, Humphrey Edobor, and Franklin Howard among others.

Ultimately, the team failed to make it to Japan ’79 but Omokaro and a couple of his teammates had done enough to merit call-ups to the senior national team, the Green Eagles, which was preparing to host the African Cup of Nations on home soil in 1980.

The array of established internationals in the Green Eagles at the time meant very experienced stalwarts such as Christian Chukwu, David Adiele, Okey Isima, Tunde Bamidele and Kadiri Ikhana got the nod ahead of rookies like Omokaro in the final squad which went on to win the AFCON for the first time in Nigeria’s history.

By 1982, Omokaro sought fresh challenges and moved to cross-town rival club New Nigerian Bank FC of Benin where he, alongside a generation of young players from his Flying Eagles days helped to put the club on international pedestal by winning the West African Football Union (WAFU) Cup back to back in 1983 and ’84 before winning the national league in 1985.

It was at NNB that Omokaro became a fully established international. With Sunday Eboigbe, he formed a two-man terror squad for club and country which terrorized opposing strikers across the length and breadth of Africa. They built up such a fearsome reputation that the fear of Omokaro/Eboigbe was the beginning of survival for any discerning striker.

He enjoyed a trophy-laden spell at NNB, the most productive in the club’s history, as the Benin side became one of the country’s best clubsides while upstaging traditional power-houses like Rangers, IICC and Insurance among others.

What made NNB such a force to be reckoned with, you ask?

He explains: “Firstly, NNB was fun because most of the players were friends who had played together at one time or the other in their career. We also had lots of gifted players coming from all over to sign. I joined NNB from Insurance, Keshi and Nwosu joined from ACB of Lagos and so on. Henry Nwosu, Keshi and the rest were my teammates in the Flying Eagles so it was like a reunion for us. The club was well-run and the players were taken care of so we had no choice but to give our best. The team spirit and commitment was awesome and it reflected in the results we got on the pitch.”

Omokaro played over 40 games for Nigeria but his most memorable will be at the AFCON in Morocco in 1988 when the Super Eagles played Algeria at the semi-final stage. Abderrazak Belgherbi’s own-goal had given Nigeria a first-half lead and the Eagles seemed to be coasting home to victory until the 84th minute when Senegalese referee Sene Badara sent off Ademola Adeshina and the Algerians capitalized on their numerical advantage to equalize two minutes later.

 

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On national team duty with Charles Okonkwo

 

They also threatened to score as they launched waves after waves of attack so the Eagles coach, Manfred Hoener called Omokaro to the sidelines and asked him to use his hardman tactics to help the team. The direct outcome was that Algeria were also reduced to ten players when their player was hacked down and taken away on a stretcher. He couldn’t be replaced because his team had made the mandatory three changes so the game became ‘balanced’ at 10 men apiece.

The game ended 1-1 and Nigeria went on to win a nerve-wracking penalty shoot-out 9-8 but the game was to become world famous for Omokaro’s tackle which, in today’s game, would be deemed malicious and actionable.

“I escaped a booking in that game but I agree if it had happened today it could have earned my a long suspension or, possibly, a life-time ban from football. Rules are different today and even if you escaped the referee on the pitch, you will still be punished on video evidence,” Omokaro explained the career-defining moment in Morocco 29 years ago.

I get curious and asked if he would give the same instruction he got from his manager to his own player today in order to win a game.

“No, no, no. I told you times have changed and so have the rules. I always want to win but I won’t give that kind of instructions. There are other technical instructions on man-marking which could render the opposition players ineffective rather than kick them out of the game. No, I won’t do that,” he said firmly.

Back from Morocco, the nickname stuck particularly after then president Ibrahim Babangida also called him 10-10 at a state reception in the team’s honour, today, 17 years after retiring from the game, many still remember him by the sobriquet rather than his real name.

“When we returned to the country during the state honorary dinner at Dodan Barracks, the president then, General Ibrahim Babangida asked me: ‘Bright, how did you make 10-10?’ That was how the name stuck and I’m thankful for the opportunity to serve Nigeria in that capacity. I’m not sure any other occupation could have brought such fame. People still call me 10-10 even today wherever I go.”

A born champion, Omokaro teamed up with 3SC of Ibadan in time to be part of the team that won the first-ever CAF Cup in 1993. He also won a league and Cup double in 1995 before going all the way to the finals of the Champions Cup with the team before losing in the finals to Zamalek of Egypt in 1996.

At the end of that season, he called time on his illustrious career after making a huge mark on the left-full back position for club and country for close to two decades.

 

 

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