By Emeka Nwani
Former Nigeria defender Gbenga Okunowo has joined Nigeria Premier League side Sunshine Stars for the 2011-12 season and hopes to end his career there. The 32-year-old former Barcelona right-back started his career with the now defunct Exide of Ibadan before officials of Shooting Stars Sports Club saw him and promptly signed him on as a young talent in 1995.
As soon as he joined 3SC, he started attracting the attention of national team coaches. After representing Nigeria in the Under-20 World Youth Championship of 1999, he moved on to Spanish giants Barcelona as an 18-year-old where he competed for the starting position with Dutch player Michael Reiziger.
The Nigerian won 14 caps with the Spanish giants with eight starting roles. Okunowo could not hold down a starting shirt with the Catalan side because of a nagging injury and had to join lesser known club sides in Asia and Europe.
At one point, many people forgot about the player of such high promise. Just when it seemed that he was out of the limelight, Okunowo resurfaced back in his homeland and joined Sunshine Stars in the NPL.
In this interview with Goal.com, Okunowo reveals why he returned to Nigeria to end his career
Goal.com: Gbenga Okunowo, what a surprise seeing you in the colours of Sunshine Stars. Where have you been?
Okunowo: I have been everywhere trying to see if I could resuscitate my career. After I left Barcelona, a lot of people thought I had called it quits with the game. But I had to make less noise about the next club to join. So that was why nobody knew about my whereabouts, but I must confess that I really enjoyed myself. I was in Portugal, Ukraine, Spain, Greece and Maldives Island. It was a worthwhile experience for me in all the clubs.
Goal.com: Why did you decide not to allow anybody know where you went to after the Barcelona sojourn?
Okunowo: It is not as if I did not allow anybody to monitor my activities. The point remains that I was simply doing my thing and enjoying myself while playing football. I am sure a lot of people lost interest in me because I could not play regularly for Barcelona. But it did not remove the fact that I did well with other clubs in Ukraine, Portugal and Greece.
Goal.com: Did you derive satisfaction from playing for these clubs?
Okunowo: I would most certainly say yes. It was a different experience for me in all ramifications. The clubs presented their own opportunities and I used it very well. I am happy I did not fail to take the opportunity and satisfaction. Joy came for me when I played for these clubs.
Goal.com: Was the time ripe for you to come back to Nigeria to finish your career?
|GBENGA OKUNOWO'S CAREER AT A GLANCE
(on loan) Benfica
Stal Alchevsk (on loan)
VB Sports (Maldives)
Okunowo: Yes, the time is now because I have finished everything I set out to do abroad.
Goal.com: Why did you come back to the Nigeria Premier League?
Okunowo: I came back because after doing well abroad, I feel it is best for me to come back home to play and finally retire from the game. That is why I decided to join Sunshine Stars because I feel I can still contribute something to the Nigeria Premier League before I finally hang my boots. What is the use retiring abroad when I can come and do it here?
Goal.com: Do you think you still have the strength to cope with the fast pace of the game?
Okunowo: I still do. Football is the same everywhere and I have the experience to make sure that I do well with Sunshine Stars. I am going to surprise a lot of people who think I am old and cannot contribute my quota to make Sunshine Stars tick this season. People should come and watch me whether I will not be able to finish a game.
Goal.com: What do you think you can add to the NPL?
Okunowo: A lot. Players will look up to me for direction. They should be able to see that no matter the height they have attained in football, they can still do so much to raise the standard of the game in Nigeria. The fact that I am back to the league in Nigeria means the potentials are here if well harnessed. We should be able to develop our League and I want to call on other Nigerian players that are not finding it easy outside the shores of this country to come back home. The league here in Nigeria may not be what we want it to be, but we can all make it work.
Goal.com: Do you think Sunshine Stars will do well this season?
Okunowo: It is possible. I have looked at the calibre of players in the team and the motivation from the officials and concluded that Sunshine Stars is one of the teams to beat this season. We have all it takes to emerge Champions of the Premier League in Nigeria. That is our ambition and we are going to achieve it.