Home-based Super Eagles striker Anthony Okpotu scored two goals at the 2018 African Nations Championship in Morocco, where Nigeria finished second. The Lobi Stars striker talks about the final match against Morocco and more in this interview with ‘Tana Aiyejina
What would you say went wrong on the final day of the 2018 African Nations Championship?
I believe that we played well in the final but we were just not as lucky as the Moroccans. They made use of the chances that came their way and with that, they defeated us.
I don’t agree with this because the coach knows the best formation to play for each match. People who have been criticising me that I failed to score in the previous matches are now the ones saying I should have started the final. Why are they bothered about that? Paying attention to what people say is not what we needed at that point because they were not the ones to make the decision about who should start or not – that decision belongs to the coach. It doesn’t matter whether I started the game or not, the outcome of the game cannot be changed now.
It was a cold night on the final day of the competition – which is the opposite of what the players are used to in Nigeria. Would you say that affected your performance?
There are three things you cannot do anything about as a player when it comes to a football match – the weather, the pitch and the officiating. The weather was not something we could control and truly it affected us negatively because most of us are not used to that kind of cold weather. Almost all of us are used to the hot weather that we have in Nigeria and it was very cold in Morocco – like three of four degrees and it came with rain too. Apart from the weather, I can say we lost to a better side.
You have played in North Africa before in Libya. In the semi-final, there were three teams from North Africa – Libya, Sudan and Morocco. Nigeria were the only team from the other part of Africa. Also, Nigeria played against three North African countries in the competition. Is this a pointer that the North African leagues are high above the leagues of countries from other parts of Africa?
All the national teams from the North African part of the continent are basically built from their leagues and it is obvious that the North Africans clubs are doing well in continental club competitions – better than the clubs from the eastern, western and southern part of the continent. It means that their leagues are better and stronger at this point in time than the leagues of other parts of Africa. They have been able to establish that and that has shown in the various competitions they take part in – national and continental.
You were at the WAFU tournament last year – that gave you another international experience. Comparing WAFU and the CHAN, what do you think is the difference between them?
The two tournaments give players international exposure. They are both good. But the CHAN is bigger and more recognised than the WAFU. The CHAN is the second biggest tournament in Africa after the African Cup of Nations. The quality of opposition in both is almost the same but because the WAFU is a regional tournament, it is lesser than the CHAN. In all, the experience at both tournaments can never be bought.
I don’t think the boots were the problem in that final. I would rather say that the pitch was the problem. The boots we wore were the ones we used for the previous matches. We are used to synthetic pitches in Nigeria before that tournament – almost all the pitches in Nigeria are synthetic. When we got there and we played on natural grass, we struggled a bit at the start but we got used to it and we did well in subsequent matches. It was only in the final that we struggled and I think that had to do with the rain on the pitch and it became slippery – so it affected the way we played. If they say the boots affected us, I think it is not totally correct because those same boots were used in the matches we played before the final.
You got the equaliser in the quarterfinal win over Angola in the last minute of the regulation time. How did you feel on that day?
It was a good feeling getting the equaliser in that game because if I had the opportunity, I would have settled the game before then but then it didn’t go that way. I was very happy we got to the semi-final and from there to the final.
Before you got that equalising goal Nigeria were a goal down and it was as if the game was over. What was going through your minds at that point?
For the other players, I don’t know what was going through their mind but I believed that I would score in that game. I was calm and composed and I was determined to get a goal before the time ran out.
With your experience in Morocco, what areas of our league should be developed to enable us to compete well against other countries in Africa?
I believe that the people managing the league watched the tournament and our games there as well. I believe that they would have noted the areas where we need to work on to make our league more competitive in Africa. But I have learnt a lot of lessons that would help me to develop my game and help me to become a better player than I already am.
Which would you say was your toughest game at the tournament?
All the games we played were tough because all the opponents came with their different tactics but I will say the final against Morocco was the toughest of the competition.
Which would you say was your best game at the tournament?
I will say that all the games were enjoyable but I think my best games were against Equatorial Guinea and Sudan. I make sure I enjoyed my games but that final against Morocco was not enjoyable at all because we all had to work extra-hard and at the end, it counted for nothing. That loss was very painful.
What is your message to Nigerians?
I will like to appreciate the fans who believed in us and supported us all the way to the final of the CHAN in Morocco. I will also like to thank those who constructively criticised us during the competition but for those who destructively criticised us, I will say that their actions also helped motivated us. I will implore Nigerians to always support all the national teams constructively whenever the teams go out for competitions.
Do you think some Nigerians unjustly criticised and put the team under pressure?
Left for the players, we would have listened to them and put ourselves under pressure, but the coaches tell us otherwise. If the team is positively criticised, it is telling us that we can do better and pointing out the areas we can improve upon. But for those who just criticise to destroy, it brings down the morale of the player and at times it makes us to want to prove them wrong. As an individual, I have had my share of negative criticisms. Whatever their challenges are, the team or the players are not the cause, so Nigerians should rather criticise a player or team constructively rather than destructively.
Although the tournament may not have been as good as you wanted it to be, you helped the team to the final of the competition. What is the way forward for you?
I always believe that one bad tournament doesn’t define who a player is and one good tournament can define who a player is. I believe that there is always something to learn from each match I play and also in every competition I attend. I am going to work on the lapses I have observed and the ones pointed out to me to ensure that I become a better player than I was before the tournament.
One or two of your teammates got deals in Europe at the tournament. Being one of the team’s highest goal scorers at the competition, will you remain in the Nigeria Premier League for some time more or you will leave at the end of the season?
Right now, I am a Lobi Stars player. I want to rest a little and join the club in the league. After that, anything that comes will be appreciated.
The team that went to Morocco have been called different names – such as CHAN Eagles and Super Eagles team B. What do you think is the difference between your Eagles team and the ones going to the Russia 2018 World Cup?
There are a lot of differences between the two teams. First they are senior to us and have achieved more than we have – the team has been in existence before our team was created. Also, most of the players in the team are based in Europe while we are based at home. They are also more popular than we are. Those are some of the differences between the two teams.
Do you think any player in the team can make the World Cup team?
Every player in the team gave a good account of themselves and I believe that we all can add value to the World Cup team if we are called upon. But whoever the coach finds worthy among us will do well at the tournament.
What are the best and worst moments of your career?
The best moments of my career have always been when I score goals. I can hardly say this is the worst moment so far.
Before and after a game, what do you do?
I pray before and after every game I play.
Who is Anthony Okpotu?
Anthony is that young man from the streets, who God has helped a lot.
How was life growing up?
I grew up in Makurdi and life was not easy at all. I believe that it took the grace of God for me to achieve what I have achieved today.