Richard Owubokiri is one of the most iconic names in Nigerian football. ‘Ricky’ began his professional football career at Sharks FC but not before doing extraordinary things at the football team of the famed Okrika Grammar School in Rivers State.
He played on five continents, earning his stripes at the very highest level of the professional game especially in Portugal where he earned a reputation as one of the most feared marksmen on the continent in the colours of Boavista.
Despite being prolific in front of goal, Owobokiri was not selected for the 1994 World Cup. He tells his story in this chat with SPNAfrica’s Sammy Wejinya
Who discovered you as a footballer?
Former Super Eagles coach, Monday Sinclair saw me playing for my secondary school football team, Okrika Grammar School (OGS), and invited me to come try out with Sharks FC. So I will credit Mr. Sinclair for discovering me.
And for the Nigeria National team, I will say Otto Gloria and that was in 1980.
You did many important things at OGS. Tell us about some of them.
I was in class four when I started playing for the team at the Inter Collegiate games at the Old Port Harcourt Stadium. I was about 16 or 17 years old at the time. There were games I scored three or four goals and won matches almost singlehandedly for my team. People were talking about me in Port Harcourt and that I guess prompted Sinclair to come watch me. I was Games prefect at OGS because I was better at Volleyball than football at the time.
Those were great times for me.
As we say, anyone who passed through OGS for five years could also live in the Moon.
What were your best and worst moments at Sharks FC?
First, we had great players at Sharks. Players like Joe Nattey, Raymond Quacopome, Million Nicholas, Tottey Okoro, Rolland Orufe, Benneth Okuru, Adokiye Amiesimaka, John Apollo and many others.
So imagine a scenario where a 16-year-old like me came into the team and scored important goals.
I got the nickname, Golden Boy at that period and those were definitely some of my best moments as a footballer.
We played on the continent too but fell short against Police FC of Senegal after losing 1-2 in the first leg in Dakar and drawing at home against the Senegalese.
Losing the FA Cup final in 1979 to Shooting Stars was one of the most difficult memories I take from my days at Sharks.
Why did Sharks struggle to win Silverware?
I don’t agree with you that Sharks didn’t win things. First, Sharks played some of the best and competitive football in the country and during my time at the club, we reached two FA Cup finals which is not an easy thing to achieve.
I think we had some organizational issues and this made Sharks look like a small club. Sharks was a big club that produced many international players like Peter Rufai, David Ngodigha and Amiesimaka.
But reaching Cup finals and winning them are not the same thing. Some persons said the club was cursed….
Cursed by who? The Devil? See, many of the Sharks players during my time were Christians.
If Sharks had structures like specific training grounds, specific accommodation and specific facilities for recovery for injured players, things may have been better.
Organizationally, we were not the best and that is one of the reasons why we did not win so much.
You clearly love Sharks so much. How did you feel when the club was merged with Dolphins on February 19, 2020 to form Rivers United FC?
I don’t think people were ready to invest in Sharks. And this includes the Government and private entities which is a pity and a shame.
How would you disband a club like Sharks that represented Rivers Sate for so many years as one of the best clubs in the country?
It was one of the most unfortunate things that happened.
So many times, I tried to get involved in the affairs of the club.
I wanted to bring in Brazilian players and coaches to make the club fashionable.
I spoke to the Rivers State Governor and Commissioner for Sports but nothing came out of those discussions.
Would you be interested if an opportunity to revive Sharks come your way again?
Of course, but I will require the free hand to work effectively as I don’t think interference will allow for the best results to be achieved.
You left Sharks in 1981 to join ACB. How difficult was it for you to leave your hometown club?
ACB gave me the opportunity to combine football with my studies. I did not reside in the (ACB) club house when I joined them.
I lived in the college House at Obalende (in Lagos). That was St. Gregory College, a wonderful college.
I had wanted to become a lawyer as my Dad was a lawyer and I wanted to follow in his footsteps.
There were some difficult moments but I still finished that season as the highest goal scorer in the league.
They (ACB) wanted me to stay but I refused as I wanted to go back home to help my Parents in Port Harcourt.
Shortly afterwards, I made my debut with the Nigeria national team at the age of 18.
I played again for Sharks then coached by a Brazilian, Luciano Abreu, who was extremely fond of me.
You had an encounter with armed robbers around this period…?
Yes……I wasn’t home at the time though. My Dad was shot in the kneecap and it was a very difficult time for my family.
What are the benefits of combining education with football for you?
There are so many. I am well-travelled and I speak five languages; Arabic, French, Portuguese, English and my local dialect, Okrika.
No amount of money can buy this and all the experience I garnered via my studies and football.
I currently live in Brazil and I am still undergoing a university course.
You joined the America club soon after. How did that move materialize? And what was your first experience like playing professional football outside the shores of Nigeria?
I joined the club in 1984 and it was my first experience outside Nigeria.
This gave me the opportunity to play with great names I had previously only watched on television.
Names like Zico, Falcao, Socrates and Clodoaldo.
Playing at the Maracana was a magical experience.
Six months later, I joined Victoria de Bahia where I scored even more goals.
Why did you choose to go to South America (Brazil) first and not straight to Europe?
I wanted to learn the Portuguese language and the best football in the world at the time was Brazilian football. I wanted to experience that, first hand.
It was a fantastic experience and I have been in Brazil now for the last 40 years of my life.
Now, I am working on becoming the President of the Victoria football club.
I will be the first Nigerian to achieve that feat if I eventually become successful.
How did you cope with not being able to speak the language (Portuguese) and how did you deal with the different culture?
These were not barriers for me. I knew I was going to learn fast because I am a person who is always keen and open to learning.
You then moved to France for your first professional football stint in Europe with the Stade Lavallois club. What memories do you have of your time in France?
The experience in France was fantastic. It was a completely different culture compared to Brazil.
I asked my club to arrange a French teacher for private lessons for me so my adaptation was great.
I arrived there in the summer so the weather only became a very slight problem during the winter months.
I finished the season as the third highest goal scorer in France.
Metz were my original owners and I was loaned to Lavallois because my parent club already had two foreign players.
At that time, no French club was allowed to field more than two foreign players at a time.
I returned to Metz the next season and I finished as one of the highest goal scorers in the league.
You moved to Portugal where you joined Benfica. You weren’t really so much of a success during your time there. What went wrong in Lisbon?
Excellent question. I broke my ankle in my very first game for the club.
It was a pre-season game in the United States and we played that game on an artificial turf.
I spent six months out trying to recover from that injury.
However, I have some fond memories at Benfica as I once scored six goals for the club in a Portuguese Cup game against Atlético Roaches.
We won that game (played on January 11, 1989) 14-1.
I then joined a smaller club, Estrela Amadora the next season and rediscovered my scoring touch finishing on a regular basis as third highest goal scorer in the Portuguese top flight in my first season with the club.
You worked with Jose Mourinho in Portugal. What was the experience like?
He was my physical coach. I recall that 35 years ago, Mourinho said to me, ‘Ricky, very soon, I will be one of the best coaches in the world’.
He said it and accomplished it. He is one of the greatest coaches in the world.
Then came the move to Boavista where you underlined your credentials as one of the best strikers in world football. How did the move materialize?
My move to Boavista was quite dramatic.
I had been called up by the President of Beira-Mar, another club in Portugal to join the club.
Just before I made the trip to Aveiro to speak with the President of Beira Mar and sign for the club, I got a call from the President of Boavista.
He was quite persuasive as he asked me to come over and join him in Porto.
Of course, I refused as I already had an appointment with the President of Beira-Mar.
I spoke to my wife about the dilemma and she told me not to go to Porto.
But the President of Boavista kept pushing and insisting that I come over to Porto. He paid for my flight ticket and kept pushing.
I prayed to God who spoke to me and asked me to go to Porto. So I boarded the flight to Porto.
What happened in Porto?
A car was waiting for me at the Airport. It took me to the President’s House. The coach and several other officials were there and they kept urging me to sign for the club. The pressure was unbearable and I agreed! However, I made one demand before I signed.
I told the President that for each goal I scored for the club, I would want to be assured of $1,000. I thought he would say no but he agreed without a moment’s hesitation.
I made all these demands because I felt Boavista could not match them and also because I wanted to honour my initial agreement with the President of Beira-Mar.
When the President of Boavista accepted the final demand I made, it became clear that they were serious about getting me by all means.
That was when I gave up as I then realized that Boavista were dead serious about signing me.
And what did you say to the President of Beira-Mar after signing on the dotted lines for Boavista?
The funny thing is that he took it well.
As a matter of fact, I met him a few months ago and he reminded me that he was still waiting for me at the Airport in Aveiro so I could sign for his club. We both laughed uncontrollably. He is a good man.
Was finishing among top scorers in all of Europe your most important accomplishment?
It was important for me. That was my best period in Europe in terms of the number of goals I scored.
I also had the opportunity of playing against great players like Marco Van Vasten, Lothar Matthäu and so many others.
Boavista gave me the opportunity of playing at the highest level of European football and rub shoulders with the best players in the world.
I am the only Nigerian footballer to have won the Golden Boot in Portugal, the Silver Boot in Europe and the Golden Boot in all of Asia.
It was a great privilege for which I am thankful to this day.
Why were you able to score so many goals at Boavista?
There was a season I scored almost 60 goals for the club in a single season.
I never stopped training after the coach ended the sessions. I would always stay back and work and the results were always clear for all to see.
These days you see strikers score 10 goals in a season and celebrate it. It is shameful.
Let’s discuss your time with the National team.
I had a great time in the National team. I had good and bad times in the National team.
I was part of the team that went to the Africa Cup of Nations in Libya in 1982 but the team crashed out early. There were some organizational problems in the national team when I played for Nigeria.
I recall the time I played for the National team, I was not paid my match bonus for the win against the Bafana Bafana (team) of South Africa in 1992. The Federation did not even pay for my air ticket.
That must have come to you as a rude shock?
You will not believe no one was at the airport to pick me when I arrived. This was normal in Nigeria when I was playing for the national team.
You get invited and no one knows where you are upon arrival in the country until two or three days to the game. I refuse to be a part of that kind of system.
But you had some good times with the national team too…
Yes, I did. I still remember that game against South Africa at the National Stadium in Surulere.
There were over 70,000 fans there, cheering us and I fittingly scored the first goal of the game.
I made so many friends in the national team them. Stephen Keshi was my great friend and we were roommates.
He visited me in Brazil before he died.
What did he say to you when he visited you in Brazil?
He came with the (Super Eagles) players as he was coach of the team.
We discussed family and professional issues but I never knew he was telling me goodbye.
We were very close. He encouraged me to continue with the National team each time I wanted to stop playing for the team because of the unprofessional attitude of the officials. It is shocking that sometimes you had to pay for your own hotel bills. This is shameful.
What kind of relationship did you have with Rashidi Yekini?
I was already (the) highest goal scorer when he came to Portugal so I tried to help him settle in the country.
He was in a small town called Setubal. I visited him and I recall that he was somehow difficult to talk to but not in a bad way. Yekini did not like talking too much. He respected me so much and would always reach out to me for advice. He was a huge contributor to Nigeria’s success in football.
Many say you and Yekini would have struggled to play in the same team at the same time. Is this true?
Were they (the people who say we can’t play together) there when we played together in 1992 against South Africa? It is a question of what the coach wanted to do at any point in time.
A coach can decide to play two strikers with similar attributes without any issues. I am a qualified coach so I know this. People like to make stories and have arguments to sell papers. They used to say so many stories back then.
Did you have any issues with (former Super Eagles coach, Clemens) Westerhof?
I have explained this so many times in the past. The only thing I will say is that at no time in the history of football was there a Nigerian who scored the number of goals in Europe that I scored when I was with Boavista.
I have been coached by some of the (best in the) world today like Jose Mourinho, Jesualdo Ferreira, Otto Gloria…I have been coached by some of the best coaches in the world so who is this Gentlemen who will…
When you have one of the top strikers in Europe, you don’t have to take such a person light…the records are there.
Coaches in Brazil today use me as an example during their match talks to players. I will go into history as the first African to reach this stage. That is my answer.
I am not worried at all that I did not go to the World Cup because I played football to the highest level.
What is important to me today is that I effectively fulfill my duties as ambassador for World peace and win the upcoming Presidential elections at the Vitória club.
How are the preparations going?
I was selected by some top fans of the club to contest for the Presidential elections.
It will be tough because the incumbent and my challenger has been on that seat for over 30 years.
Nevertheless, we have been working and praying for the best. I have gone round the world, learning about club management.
I have been to South Africa, England, France, Portugal, Argentina where I went to visit Boca Juniors and River Plate. I try to be updated at all times.
Like I said, the opponent is very strong but winning the election will represent another milestone in my life.
If I win, I will definitely bring one or two African players over here to Brazil to join the club.
The last time we saw an African player in Brazil was 40 years ago and I think that has been too long.
Tell us about the best goal you ever scored in your career?
I scored 423 goals in my career and three will remain with me for the rest of my life.
In 1984 I scored a memorable goal. I went for a challenge with a defender who pushed me violently to the ground.
I was looking at the referee expecting him to award my team a penalty because it was obvious I had been fouled in the box.
The referee looked at me and shouted, ‘Get up, get up, Ricky…it’s no penalty, it’s no foul’.
The goalkeeper of the opposing team was relieved and tried to quickly launch the ball forward to the other half of the pitch but he did it too quickly and the ball came towards my head at full speed.
I did not duck, instead I headed the ball firmly while lying on the pitch and the ball flew into the net.
That goal is still talked about in Brazil to this day as the fans all said they had never seen anything like that before.
The second was scored in the (UEFA Cup in a second round, second leg game decided at Estádio do Bessa Sec. XXI on Thursday, November 4, 1993) between SS Lazio and my club, Boavista.
Lazio had many great players at the time. Italy’s goalkeeper when they beat Nigeria at USA 94, Luca Marchegiani played in goal for Lazio that night. Roberto di Matteo and Pierluigi Casiraghi also played.
Yes. Very great names. Valentin Lorero, the club President met us, the players, before the game, with a very big bag. The bag was filled with money and he told us that if we beat Lazio, the money was ours.
After that, the captain and some other senior players of the club took me to a separate private room and told me that they were banking on me to help the club win that game. I felt so honoured.
We won 2-0 and I scored both goals.
But I will not take the glory which belongs to God and I also say thank you to my teammates for helping me score. The third was a goal I scored for Sharks in the semifinals of the WAFU Cup against ASEC in Abidjan. We won there and I also scored both goals.
Who was the best defender you ever faced in your career?
That will be Paolo Maldini when Boavista faced AC Milan.
Best coach you worked with?
Best memory in football?
Winning the Golden Boot in Qatar in 1996.
Worst memory in football?
Losing the WAFU Cup final with Sharks FC to Police of Senegal.
Thank you for your time, Ricky.
You are welcome.