Like a bolt from the blues, Anthony Okpotu dropped on Nigerian football last season literally out of nowhere.
The lad has been around for three, four years but the 2016/2017 season was the defining period in his fledgling career.
The Lobi Stars striker has always been a good footballer. His games masters in secondary school always knew that Okpotu, who can play either as a winger or an outright striker, has the quality only seen in naturally talented sportsmen. But what they didn’t know was that he would so soon be the name on the lips of every Nigerian Professional Football League’s (NPFL) pundit.
Even when Lobi Stars were not doing well in the just concluded season, the club’s supporters were persuaded to continue supporting the Makurdi side because they knew that whatever happened, Okpotu would score. And at the end of the term, he joined the biggest stars of the Nigerian game by becoming the highest goal scorer of the season with 19 goals. To prove that his league goal-scoring feat was no fluke, he has taken his boots to Ghana, where he opened Nigeria’s account in the 2-0 defeat of the hosts, Black Stars in a very important encounter. Okpotu also made Rabiu Ali’s goal that gave Nigeria victory over Benin Republic in the semifinal of the competition.
His performance in the 16-nation WAFU Cup has brought so much attention to the 23-year-old star, but he says he is not fazed by such accolades. Rather, he is determined to work harder to achieve his dream of being among the biggest stars ever to come out of Nigeria.
Okpotu knows the road would be rough, but his motivation comes from the achievements of some of his retired compatriots, who overcame daunting obstacles to rise to the summit of the game. He is determined to find space among the stars.
Speaking from the Super Eagles’ camp in Cape Coast, Ghana, the former Al-Ittihad of Libya star describes his participation in the WAFU Cup as part of the learning process in his battle for success in his career.
He says, “This is the beginning of my goal scoring in the competition… I will work hard to ensure I score more goals any time I am giving the opportunity to make Nigeria excel in the competition. My prayer also is that Nigeria returns home with the trophy.”
Okpotu is expected to be in the starting line up when Nigeria meets Ghana in the final of the competition tomorrow, but things would have been different if not for fate.
When Okpotu left his first love, Lobi Stars for a stint in the Libyan league with Al-Ittihad, he thought it was the first step towards a professional career in any of the big leagues in Europe. But the lad, who started playing football at the Lower Benue Staff Nursery and Primary School Makurdi, had to retrace his steps to Lobi Stars when Libya became unsafe for him.
“I had a brief stint at Al Ittihad of Libya, but within that short period, I learnt a lot that comes with football, not necessarily on the pitch but mainly outside the pitch.
“I am sure the life experience there prepared me for whatever football was going to throw at me.”
Still savouring his highest goal scorers award, Okpotu says “my greatest achievement lies on how much I have developed myself over the years. Coming to terms with trophies or awards, the main feat for me is the golden boot award.
“This is an individual award, which I still want to reiterate is an award for my team mates and I. The other feats are finishing third on the league table and twice as FA Cup runner up.”
He believes that he can break the jinx by retaining the award next season if he remained in the Nigerian league. This is what no other striker has been able to achieve since Ahmed Musa won the diadem while playing for Kano Pillars.
“It is possible. I am convinced I can do it. I will now reinforce the idea of winning it anytime I am on the pitch. I have scored a lot of goals and helped my team wherever we have played football.
“This time, I know that expectations are higher and I am challenging myself to do better than I have done now. I will want to work so hard to help my team to win and where possible showcase myself as a talent. All of these take a lot of hard work, discipline and commitment, which I am willing to put in,” he enthused.
Okpotu describes playing for the national team as every footballer’s dream, adding, “It becomes a time of pride and responsibility to be called upon by your country to represent them. At that point, you want to contribute to the success of the national team. Truth is you cannot give what you do not have. Today, I am very sure I have the quality to wear the national team jersey and represent the nation, part of which I am doing at the WAFU Cup.”
“I am not nervous about this, especially as I know that a lot of things in a football career comes with hard work, quality, belief and time. What I need now is time and I am sure in no distant time I will utilise every opportunity given to me to continue flying the country’s flag higher.”
Okpotu has followed the careers of many sportsmen, but he picks Samuel Eto’o as his role model. “Someone who I can easily identify as a role model is Samuel Eto’o. He is someone I watched play football. I still watch his past games and I learn a lot from him.
“When Eto’o was playing, I did not have the guts to stress how much I want to be a footballer at home, especially as my dad wanted me to be an engineer. But now, I dream of being like him. I hope things will work as planned so I will be able to play in a bigger league. That has been every players dream to excel in bigger stages. Right now, I am really focused and determined to take my career to an extraordinary level where I could be able to break into the world of football, creating so many impact.”
Okpotu attributes the little success he has achieved so far to the support he gets from his family, especially his mother, who he describes as his prayer warrior. “My mother has been supporting me right from when I started playing grassroots football and the only way I can pay her back is to be successful in the game. I have always prayed to God to keep her alive and strong to see me attaining the highest level in my career,” he said.
Okpotu wants to play at the World Cup, but he knows it would be a daunting task being in the squad to next year’s edition of the competition in Russia. However, he believes with hard work and a little bit of luck he will make it to Russia. But first, Nigeria has to beat Zambia to the ticket.
“Nigeria will definitely beat Zambia. We have all the resources on ground to qualify right now, including the advantage of playing in front of our home fans. I am sure whoever that will be called up will certainly know what is at stake and put in his best qualities to make Nigerians proud. I am not underrating the qualities in the Zambian team.”