For a goalkeeper to be the number one choice for more than 12 years at one of Africa’s biggest football teams is something special. Williams Okpara achieved this remarkable milestone at Orlando Pirates and his consistent performances helped the ‘Buccaneers’ win a number of major trophies, including the coveted African Champions League title in 1995.
Okpara’s dedication and defensive organization stood out when he wore the famous black and white jersey.
“When I came to join Orlando Pirates in South Africa from Nigeria I was very determined to succeed in my football career. During the years I spent with Pirates as a goalkeeper, I played under many good coaches and I was also privileged to team up with quality players,” says Okpara.
“Our team had a very good defense. Papi Khomane, Edward Motale, Mark Fish and Willem Jackson were brilliant. I had a very good understanding with my fellow defenders; I used to tell them who to pick up during the game and they responded well. They used to position themselves in good areas, for instance, when I was away from the goal line one of the defenders would come and clear the ball from danger. We played very well together and that is why some teams found it very tough whenever they played against us.”
Okpara won numerous man-of-the-match awards while playing in the South African league—the Premier Soccer League (PSL)—after frustrating strikers with his wonderful saves. He was outstanding between the poles and many of his fellow goalkeepers looked up to him as a role model because of his composure in highly competitive games. Whether Pirates were playing against a small team or their biggest rivals, such as Kaizer Chiefs or Mamelodi Sundowns, he always gave his best. He regards his self-motivation as the main reason he was able to stand out.
“My fitness level was very important. Every game that I played for Pirates, I gave my best, no matter who we were playing against and where we were playing. Even when I knew that we were going to play against a top team, I was always confident because I prepared myself well for every match. As a goalkeeper and the last man of the defense, I was aware of what was going on around the field of play,” he says.
“It felt good making those saves and it is was very encouraging for me when my game was improving. There were goalkeepers that I used to admire from other teams like Andre Arendse and Mark Anderson. There are certain things I benefited from by watching other good goalkeepers.”
Okpara is a true ambassador of African football when considering his achievements. He was a Nigerian international and the big role he played when Pirates won the biggest cup competition on the continent.
Pirates faced Ivorian club ASEC Mimosas in the final and an inspired Okpara was in the thick of the action. The goalkeeper managed to keep a clean sheet despite his opponents’ 27 attempts at goal.
Okpara is still involved with Orlando Pirates. He is the team manager at the club and his burning passion ensures that Pirates continue to be competitive in South Africa and on the continent.
“At the moment, I am the team manager at Orlando Pirates. You will still find me on the pitch when the team is training. Also when we are playing our games, I am always around, very close to the team,” he says.
“I am very committed to my duties as a team manager. I have a good working relationship with the entire technical team as well as the management of the club. I also communicate well with the players and we talk about important things in football.”
The current squad made South Africa proud when they reached to the finals of the Caf Champions League late last year. They lost to Al Ahly of Egypt 3-1 on aggregate. Already this season, the Buccaneers have impressed in cup competitions but were unfortunate to lose to Platinum Stars in the final of both the MTN8 and the Telkom Knockout tournaments.
However, so far this season, Pirates have been inconsistent in the PSL and have dropped unnecessary points against the so-called league minnows. Their 1-0 loss against AmaZulu at FNB stadium early in the season and their 2-1 defeat to SuperSport United at home in Orlando Stadium took many fans by surprise. However, Okpara feels that there is no need to panic as they are working hard to improve their position on the log. He also feels it is important for Pirates to do well in the only remaining cup competition, the Nedbank Cup.
Okpara is confident that the current players have a bright future and through his contribution as a team manager there is a lot that they can achieve in the coming seasons.
“I was very happy with the good run that our current Orlando Pirates team had in the Champions League, reaching the final of the competition. It was good for our players to go as far as they did because they gained experience of playing in tough conditions in Africa which is important.”
“We have quality players at Pirates at the moment and I feel we have what it takes to do well in our remaining games in the league,” he says.
Okpara is impressed with the standard of football in the PSL and feels that the league is getting stronger because of the number of top-quality players that the other teams are signing.
He still keeps up to date on the latest happenings in international football and is proud of the success the Nigerian national team achieved when they won the African Cup of Nations in South Africa. The Super Eagles squad then went all the way to represent Africa in the Fifa Confederation Cup as the current soccer champions in the continent.
The current number one goalkeeper at Pirates, Senzo Meyiwa, has praised Okpara for helping him improve as a player. Meyiwa, who is also in the South African national team, acknowledges that Okpara’s mentorship has contributed to his achievements so far in his career.
Okpara has been a fan of Manchester United since he was young and avidly keeps an eye on the progress of African players in the leagues around the world. He is most impressed with the displays of Yaya Touré, the Ivory Coast and Manchester City midfielder, and feels there are more African players that can make a big impact in global football.
“There is a lot of talent in Africa. We have many gifted and skillful players who are capable of achieving a lot in football,” he says.
“Just look at Yaya Touré from Ivory Coast, who is playing in the English Premier League. He is a very intelligent player. He is a creative midfielder that can produce good passes and is also capable of scoring goals.”
You need a big heart and strong character to face all the challenges and emerge victorious at a big club like Pirates. Okpara has showed these traits throughout his career and is justifiably regarded as one of the greats.