Patience is a virtue that Orji Okwonkwo can certainly call upon. Before Nigeria’s crucial semi-final showdown against Mexico, the No20 had played just 25 minutes in the tournament, coming off the bench in stoppage time in the Golden Eaglets’ opener before two 12-minute cameos against Australia and Brazil in games whose decisive moments had already passed.
“I’m not the coach,” Okwonkwo said. “[Emmanuel Amuneke] knows what is best for the team. That’s why he put me on the bench. But he chose to put me on the pitch from the start against Mexico and that was an honour and a privilege.”
It was no wonder the rangy forward was happy and grinning from ear-to-ear for most of his exclusive chat with FIFA.com, recalling his crucial wonder goal against the Mexicans which put his side ahead after El Tri had taken the lead early on.
“It’s my best ever,” he said. “I’ve not even scored one like that in training.”
Okwonkwo’s performance, that he had waited so patiently for, showcased his supreme talents. Good with the ball at his feet and finding space in between the Mexican midfield and defence, his remarkable finish added gloss to an all-action performance in which he constantly troubled the Central American side’s defence. With Mali awaiting the holders in the final, does he think he’s done enough to start?
“Of course!” He smiled. “But it is the coach’s decision. When I wasn’t playing then it was his decision, it was right I wasn’t playing. I think I have done enough to start in the final though.”
It’s important for African football. It’s so amazing because it’s only happened once before.
That all-African final will be only the second in the tournament’s history, after Nigeria saw off Ghana in the 1993 finale. Okwonkwo knows the gravity of the occasion.
“It’s important for African football,” Okwonkwo said. “It’s so amazing because it’s only happened once before.”
The tall forward admits facing an African side in the final will no doubt be special for those back home, but his voice is tinged with sadness as he speaks of family and friends. The forward lost his father last year and dedicated his golazo to his mother for her support.
“I’m short of words,” he said when asked about his family. “I know all of them will have watched the semi-final and will watch the final. It is important for them and, of course, for me personally.”
Return to Vina
His family’s eyes, and those of the world, will turn to Vina Del Mar on Sunday. Having played 24 of his 25 pre semi-final minutes in the tournament at the Estadio Sausalito, Okwonkwo has fond memories of the stadium, venue for the Chile 2015 finale on Sunday.
“Vina Del Mar is a good place,” Okwonkwo recalled with a trademark smile. “The fans all support us and I look forward to seeing the supporters again. Chilean fans are so supportive. I have really enjoyed playing in this country.”
Okwonkwo will be hoping coach Amuneke decides that time will be on the forward’s side in Vina. After minutes being in short supply for the forward so far, who knows what he could do with another 90?