For many talented footballers, it's the lack of opportunities, the missing chance to impress that has kept them away from the biggest club football in the world. Football speaks a universal language after all. For the talented Ugandan striker, Emmanuel Okwi, the opportunities came and went, came back and went again and now miraculously, he's been presented with another.
Not many get that opportunities for professional football at the highest levels that Okwi got and missed. He now hopes and wants to use the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) tournament in Cameroon to reinvent his footballing career that by now could have taken him far and beyond the borders of Uganda and Africa given his undoubted footballing talent. In a recent interview with John Vianney Nsimbe, Okwi admits to making wrong personal career decisions and choices, but also says a lot that has been written and said about him is wrong.
Okwi was introduced as a second half substitute in the Uganda Cranes friendly match with the under-23 national team, the Kobs on Sunday November 11 at the StarTimes stadium in Lugogo. And fittingly so, he inspired The Cranes 2-0 win by scoring one and setting up Viane Ssekajugo for a last minute finish.
Okwi was however suspended for The Cranes’ 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) qualifier win against Cape Verde in Namboole last Saturday, after picking up a second yellow card away to Lesotho last month, when The Cranes won 2-0.
Okwi was easily the man-of-the match in the reverse fixture against Lesotho in Namboole, following his two goals in the 3-0 win. Okwi rued the circumstances that are kept him out of last weekend’s qualifier against Cape Verde.
With the Cranes registering a 1-0 win against Cape Verde and qualifying for the African Cup, Okwi hopes his hard work will finally pay off in Cameroon. Okwi said, “Last time round, during the 2017 qualifiers, I felt I had worked so hard in the qualifiers.” Okwi featured in three of the six games then, including being on the bench for the Comoros game in Namboole.
Yet, he was not even among the 40 players former Cranes coach Milutin Sredojevich aka Micho summoned. “Not to make the team, was painful,” Okwi said with sadness, as he bit his lower lip. The Simba SC forward in Tanzania admitted that as a footballer, the only fulfilment is in playing at the major tournaments.
Yet, even with that in mind, Okwi can only blame himself for not being in Gabon, as he watched the tournament on TV while his juniors like Mohammed Shaban and Yunus Sentamu enjoyed the luxury of VIP treatment given to national teams at the Afcon.
“The coach (Micho) gave me my chances, and I did not take them. In addition, I was not playing at my club (SonderjyskE Fodbold) in Denmark then, so, there was no way the coach was going to pick me. It was all my fault,” Okwi said.
While Okwi may be harbouring some regrets, there are a host of people he too has let down. People who believed in his great unfulfilled potential. Micho considered Okwi the next Samuel Eto’o. And on Micho’s recommendation, a move to join Kaizer Chiefs in South Africa had been lined up for Okwi in July 2012.
But apparently, Okwi made a no show there. More deals in Europe, like at Red Bull Salzburg fell through after a trial stint. Thereafter, Okwi joined Etoile du Sahel in Tunisia. And before long, he was back here, playing at Villa. It was in 2015, that he joined the Danish Top-flight league, yet in just one year, he was released.
In summary, Okwi’s story has been one of unfulfilled promise. However, Okwi said, “You cannot imagine how much I beat myself about all these unsuccessful opportunities to professional football, that I have wasted. Yet, therein also, are many untruths, that have been said about me.”
The Cranes forward said that to be compared to Eto’o is such a huge honour. But then he hastily added that Eto’o is a global icon, which he is not, although that was his dream too. Regarding the criticism of unfulfilled potential, Okwi said coming from a Ugandan background is an encumbrance to succeeding in professional football.
“When I went to Salzburg on Ibrahim Sekajja’s recommendation, the trials started well until I suffered from a bout of malaria. I could not get treatment there, even though I tried to push on until I realized I was deteriorating day by day. I had to return home,” Okwi said.
Before Okwi knew it, his place was taken up by Sadio Mane, who has come in leaps and bounds; he is now a star at Liverpool. But then Okwi had other chances in Tunisia and Denmark to make his mark. But they all went to waste.
The former Villa protege explained, “I got challenged fitting in there. Truthfully, the grooming of players here lacks so many things. That is why many of us struggle in professional football. When I got into professional football, I realized my talent was not enough to enable me succeed. In top professional teams, you are expected to be adaptable, and if you are not prepared for that, you fail.”
In Denmark, Okwi added, “I was told to play as a lone striker, waiting for crosses to head in, and also battling big centre-backs. That is something I struggled to do. That is my fault. I had to leave.”
Against that, Okwi urged the powers that run the game in the country, to look into the issues of player development, otherwise few Ugandan footballers will succeed in the professional ranks.
However, drawing back to Okwi’s reasons as to why things did not work out well in Denmark, there has been an everlasting debate about which position he is more comfortable playing in. But as usual, he went with political correctness, “Well, I honestly leave that to the coach.”
But once probed further, Okwi confessed, “Truthfully, I am more comfortable as a wing forward, than as a centre-forward. Against Lesotho, I played as a wing forward. And even at my club Simba in Tanzania, I play as an outside forward, which I enjoy, no doubt.”
Against Lesotho, Okwi brought his total tally in Cranes colours to 21 goals in 52 caps. Although his performances have been marked with inconsistency, Okwi’s goal return looks good, but that is until you realize that the devil is in the detail.
Of the goals Okwi has scored in the last ten years as a Cranes forward, only six have been scored in either World Cup or Afcon qualifiers.
“Of course as a senior player now, I realize I have more responsibility to score more regularly than I have done,” Okwi said.
Before Okwi scored the brace against Lesotho in October, his last goal had come against Egypt last August in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers. By then, his previous goal had been in June 2013 against Angola during the 2014 World Cup qualifiers in
Micho’s second competitive game as Cranes coach. Perhaps, it is on that background, that Okwi feels that this campaign is a point of reckoning, since it is the first time in his career, that he has scored two goals in a qualification campaign. It is as a personal mission to see Cranes at the 2019 Afcon in Cameroon.
Yet, beyond his personal volition to be the example like he was against Lesotho, Okwi feels that the team has gained fortitude from the 2017 Afcon experience. That is the reason they are unbeaten, and are yet to concede a goal in four games.
In a nutshell, Okwi hopes Cranes’ good run continues; and the ghosts that failed his bid to make it to Gabon two years ago, are exorcised against Cape Verde by securing that much needed one point that guarantees qualification.