It’s more than 21 years since former Super Eagles winger, John Chukwudi Utaka received his first invitation to the Nigeria national team; 13 years since his move from Rennes to Portsmouth and 9 years returning to France with Montpellier winning the title in an astonishing fashion, but Utaka still remembers those days and years like it was yesterday.
Utaka in an interview with Mmenyene Akpan on Comfort 95.1fm, the winger said he was invited to the national team in 1999 by the 1996 Olympic winning coach, Bonfrere Jo but did not make an appearance for the Eagles until 2002 when he was recalled to the team by Coach Festus Onigbinde.
“I had my first invitation to the national team in 1999 by Bonfrere Jo, when Nigeria played against Liberia in Port Harcourt, it was also Yobo’s first game and he played against a legendary figure like George Weah, although I did not play in the game,” Utaka explained.
The Enugu born winger never thought he will play for Nigeria, to even dream of playing in a World. But it came to reality when coach Onigbinde invited him to join the national team in 2002 and subsequently found himself in the squad that traveled to Korea/Japan.
“I never believed I will be at the World Cup, representing my country,” Utaka explained. “You know millions of people are watching. There could no gift better than that, for me it was something I would never forget, playing for Nigeria at the world cup, it was crazy.”
The squad that could not get past the group stage at the tournament had players Utaka said he grew up watching.
“It was a huge experience for me because I had to play alongside most of the players I grew up watching. Players like Kanu Nwankwo, Jay Jay Okocha, Ike Shorumu, Celestine Babayaro, Julius Aghahowa and the rest of the stars.”
In the 2004 African Cup of Nations in Tunisia at the quarter finals, Nigeria faced the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon, prior to that match, the Super Eagles had lost three consecutive finals to Cameroon which sparked talks of a jinx by some. Utaka started in that game.
Despite the Super Eagles dominating the opening first 45 minutes of the game, Cameroon did what they have always done against their neighbours. Samuel Eto’o was set through with a perfect ball by Geremi and the striker struck home with his left foot in the 42nd minutes.
But captain Jay-Jay Okocha equalized on the stroke of halftime with a free-kick that rose over the wall before curling into the far corner. The goal sparked life into the Super Eagles and they took control.
But Utaka said he will never forget that goal which Nwankwo Kanu’s disguised through-ball found the pacey winger in acres of space and he scored with a firm shot.
“It will forever remain in my memory, we were one goal down before Jay Jay equalized with a free-kick, then I get the through ball from Papilo (Kanu), I knew at the moment it was over because there was no way Song will get to me, I was very far away from him. That is something I will never forget.”
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Nigeria lost in the semifinal of that tournament to host nation Tunisia but went on to win bronze. Utaka said he would have loved to win the nations cup but cherish the bronze like a gold medal.
“I would have loved to win the nations cup, we came very close twice where we lost against Tunisia the host country in the semifinal and the second one against Ivory Coast in Egypt still in the semifinal. It is football and you can’t win everything, but the most important thing is for me to be on that podium, it is something I will beat my chest and say at least I’ve got a medal for the country, it could be gold, silver or bronze, but for me, it serves as a gold medal.”
The former Enugu Rangers man played 49 times for Nigeria and scored 6 goals.
On winning the English FA Cup in 2008 with Portsmouth and helping small club Montpellier to an unexpected Ligue 1 title in the 2011/2012 season, Utaka said he cherished both moments.
“I cherish both because it was in two different countries,” he disclosed. “In England, that is where the great players pass through and playing in front of the 80,000 capacity stadium in Wembley is something magical, so I will say that I will ever be grateful and also playing alongside Papilo who scored in the final, it was like the kind of Nigerian connection and I am grateful.”
“In Montpellier, I scored both goals that won the title because PSG had already won their game, if we drew, we would have lost the trophy. It was a collective effort; it wasn’t about me because we worked hard the whole season and then knew that PSG had a little bit of an edge, we worked hard and got the victory at the end.”
After that glorious triumph with Montpellier, he joined Sivasspor in Turkey before moving back to Egypt with Ismaily, then Nogoom El Mostakbal and Aswan before dropping down to CS Sedan in 2017/2018 season in the lower division in France.
Since then he has been without a club but says he cannot retire from football, a game he has been playing since the age of 6. John Utaka also said he turned down a move to Mexico because it was too far.
“No! There is no retirement from football, although I am not actively playing, there is no retirement for me. I still train two hours daily to keep fit. I have been playing football since I was six years old; it has become part of me. But for the moment, I am not with any club; I was in Egypt two years ago, returned to France and joined CS Sedan and that was my last club. I had an offer from Mexico, but it was too far for me, I’ve been travelling for 16 years so I decided to remain in France.”
The 38-year old also spoke about what he is doing now that he is no longer with any club, setting up an academy and helping to bring young players from Nigeria to give them an opportunity to join a professional team.
“Even if I am not playing, I’ve got other activities going on. For example, my academy, trying to pick some boys in Nigeria to bring them to Europe for them to try their luck. I have 30 boys in my academy, they’ve played Montpellier, Dijon, and Nimes.
“What we do is to pick boys all over the country (Nigeria), put them in a camp and try to select the best to train. There are competitions here in France which they will play with good teams, if they are lucky, some of the clubs will pick them. It’s all about giving them opportunities.
“For the foundation, last year we went to Bulgaria and play in a 5-aside tournament which was like a world cup with different countries participating and my players won. They were happy to travel and play competitions against Cameroon, Egypt, Morocco, and others. It was fun for the boys, it was all about giving them exposure to play football.”
On Coaching, the former Nigeria international said it is a possibility he will go into coaching while saying it will be his joy to one day coach the Super Eagles.
“It is a possibility. If I am given the chance I would love to be a coach. After this coronavirus pandemic, I will settle down and go for my coaching courses and pick the batch.
On his former teammate Joseph Yobo being appointed assistant coach of the Super Eagles, Utaka said he is seeking for opportunities like that of his compatriot.
“Of course, it is the kind of opportunity you need to get started. There is nothing more appealing than being a coach of your country, I am happy for him (Yobo) that he got the opportunity. Yobo was a great player and captain, so giving him that opportunity will help the nation.
“If I had that chance I will be glad, playing for your country is the highest honour, whenever I wear the shirt and the national anthem played, even if you are not playing, you will have goosebumps. It is everybody footballers dream, if the opportunity comes to be the national team coach, then why not?”