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Utaka: Former Super Eagles and Montpellier star recounts how Kanu and Okocha inspired him

The 38-year-old has recalled the roles of the Nigeria legends in his career as well as his success with the Stade de la Mosson outfit

John Utaka has recounted how former Nigeria internationals Nwankwo Kanu and Jay-Jay Okocha served as a source of encouragement to him.

The forward watched on television as Kanu inspired the West Africans to win the 1996 Olympic Gold medal in Atlanta.

Utaka then got a chance to play with the former Arsenal star in the Super Eagles in 2000 after he was handed his first call-up following his impressive performances for Egyptian club Ismaily.

The winger, who had 49 caps for the three-time African champions, revealed the roles of Kanu and Okocha in helping him to settle in the national team.

“Kanu competed in the Olympic games. He inspired me a lot because he was not a fast player but he is very smart and very technical in games,” Utaka told the Montpellier website.

“When I got my first call-up to Nigeria in 2000, he was there with Okocha and for me it was… I was watching them on TV and there I was playing with them. It was a dream fulfilled.  

“They encouraged me by telling me not to be afraid to express myself as I knew how to do and especially to listen to the coaches. It was good advice.”

Utaka explained there was a lot of pressure while playing for the Super Eagles as players have to give their best for the side at all times in order to continue enjoying the support of their fans.

“There are lots of expectations when playing for Nigeria. We are about 180 million in population and almost everyone loves football,” he continued.

“In each match, there is always immense pressure for the XI who starts the match. Every time I wore this jersey I knew there was no room for errors.

“Above all, you have to give your all whether we win or lose. We have to play well because the fans don’t forgive. It is very important you give it your all when playing for Nigeria because there is a lot of criticism.”

John Utaka

Utaka returned to France after leaving Portsmouth in 2011, joining Montpellier, having previously featured for Lens and Rennes.

The winger played a key role as the Stade de la Mosson outfit won the 2011-2012 Ligue 1 title for the first time in their history and scored 12 goals in 68 appearances during his two-year stay with the side.

“I think it was a collective strength. We could core in any way. Sometimes Mapou could score, other times it was Vito. It was not just one player even if it was obvious Olivier,” he added.

“Giroud did us a lot of good. He was like a scoring machine. When we make an effort to give him the ball he finishes well and we were champions of France.”

After leaving the Stade de la Mosson outfit, Utaka played for Turkish club Sivasspor before he made a return to Egyptian club Ismaily in 2016.   

The forward also featured for Nogoom El Mostakba, Aswan and Sedan before his retirement from professional football.

The 38-year-old former Nigeria international is currently Montpellier U19 assistant coach.


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