PRETORIA, SOUTH AFRICA: 11 February 2007, Onyekachi Okonkwo during the PSL match between SuperSport United and Orlando Pirates at Loftus Versveld in Pretoria, South Africa, Photo by Lee Warren / Gallo Images

Matshelane Mamabolo

ONCE renowned as one of the Premiership’s hardmen, Onyekachi Okonkwo returned to the local league yesterday looking like he has softened up a bit.

At least his attire suggested this much, the Nigerian midfielder resplendent in an off-pink jacket complete with a purple pocket square, diamond studs on each ear as well as white loafers. The transformation was not lost on Orlando Pirates chairman Irvin Khoza, who was in his element making fun of England’s exit from the European Championships the previous night.

“You can see that he’s a boyfriend now,” laughed the Buccaneers supremo as he announced the Nigerian’s return to the club following a five-year spell in Europe and the Middle East. “He even keeps English time and comes late. But he tells me he has matured for the better, so I hope he’ll provide stability to the team.”

On a cold Johannesburg morning, Okonkwo’s return surprised many – the Iron Duke only unveiling him just as most of those who had been cramped in the tiny boardroom of Fli Afrika offices were lamenting having come to the conference.

Khoza had first introduced five new signings in the form of Patrick Phungwayo (Bidvest Wits), Khethokwakhe Masuku (Black Leopards), Aubrey Ngoma (Pretoria University), and Ayanda Gcaba and Manti Moholo (both from Free State Stars). Not the kind of signings to make the back page lead story most had anticipated.

But then Okonkwo emerged into the boardroom that Khoza uses as his base away from his Buccaneers’ offices in Parktown and drew gasps of surprises.

Chairman and player were quick to quell any suspicions Okonkwo is coming home because he failed overseas as has usually been the case with other players in the past.

“I did not fail, I just wanted to come back home because sometimes being away can be stressful. This is where it started for me. I could have joined other teams in Europe,” said the player nicknamed Tico.

Khoza concurred: “Two teams were keen to bag him. But I had a six months negotiations with him. We met in Switzerland and he told me he was keen to come back. He could have even come back in January but we agreed that he come at the beginning of the season.”

Okonkwo’s return, said Khoza, who apologised for the conference starting late and blamed it on “the owner of the company that provides the sound system who’s an England fan so he woke up late”, is timely given the departure of his former midfield partner Isaac Chansa for China.

“We’ve just lost Chansa so we had to replace him as a matter of urgency. Their planes probably met in the air when Okonkwo was coming here and Chansa was off to China,” Khoza joked.

Okonkwo rejoins Pirates on a three-year contract (like the other five players), eager to win a second African Champions League title, having previously done so with Enyimba in his home country.

While he is intent on seeing his club continue their local dominance, Khoza still craves continental glory, hence the signing spree is not over.

“Things are bad outside, we’re preparing for war this season (locally and on the continent). Everyone else is reinforcing and we can’t sit here and think we will do the treble again without going into the market, so this is not the last signing,” he said.

Khoza said Pirates would be releasing a number of players soon to make way for the new ones so the squad is manageable. And with Andile Jali likely to go overseas, Okonkwo could not have returned at a better time. But Pirates fans will no doubt hope he’s still the midfield hardman they used to love five years ago.