The painful loss to the Cameroonians in the 2000 Africa Cup of Nations, AFCON, final in Lagos still rang so loud in the ears of Nigerian fans as both nations were set to collide again in 2004.
Just like in 2000, Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions paraded the deadly attacking duo of Samuel Eto and Patrick Mboma in the 2004 AFCON quarter final game against Nigeria’s Super Eagles.
Eto’s opener in the 42nd minute confirmed the sum of all fears for Nigerians watching back home.
Soon after, captain Austin JayJay Okocha calmed frayed nerves by drilling home a well crafted freekick goal to equalise – tying the scoreline, 1-1, at the end of the first period.
Then John Chukwudi Utaka happened in the 2nd half.
Kanu Nwankwo’s side footed pass cut through the heart of Lions’ defense to pick out Utaka who shrugged off a Cameroonian defender to nestle the ball low into the left hand corner of the post, beyond the diving fingertips of goalie, Carlos Kanemi.
Today Utaka cherishes the goal against Cameroon, out of the 6 he scored in 44 appearances for Nigeria, as his most priceless in his international career.
The then 22yr old Utaka also went on to score in the penalty shoot out loss in the semis against host, Tunisia.
The Tunisian championship marked his AFCON debut which eventually took him to a further two, in 2006 and 2008, alongside two world cup appearances in 2002 and 2010.
After playing for his last club Sedan in the 2017/18 European football season, Utaka, an English FA Cup winner with Portsmouth, is now focused on unearthing bright youngsters, like he was, thru his John Utaka Football Academy, JUFA, which is based in Minna, Niger State in northern Nigeria.
He said his dream is to help nurture players who will help Nigeria win the elusive FIFA world cup in 10 years time:
“The abundance of talents in Nigeria is a plus. All we need to do is to be systematic with the application of the basic and evolving principles of the game that will kick start the process of wining the world cup in 10 years time.”
His love for youth football may have driven one of the clubs he played for in France, Olympic Montpelier, to appoint him as a youth coach.
Utaka’s exploits at Portsmouth paved his way back to France to suit up for Montpellier where he formed a formidable partnership with the French world cup winner Olivier Giroud to fire La Paillade to their first Ligue 1 trophy in the 2011/12 season.
Consequently his appointment as a youth coach by Montpelier is expected to pose little or no problems to him because he understands the terrain he’s walking into, having played for the French outfit.
As he tackles his badges – which he’s neck deep into – Utaka believes the Montpelier opportunity is a sign of better things to come in his very young coaching career:
“I thank the Almighty God and am so grateful and super excited for this great opportunity to be able to impart knowledge and share my experiences to the youth team of Montpelier.
“I strongly believe that this is the beginning of greater achievements in years to come.”
Truly the coming years will present John with some trying transition time from a player to a coach.Perhaps starting gradually as a youth coach in France, where he made his mark playing for Lens, Rennes and Montpelier, might prepare him for the tough n demanding challenge of managing at the senior level.