FT African Legends Series: Austin Jay Jay Okocha [Nigeria]
As we continue with the FirstTouch African Legends series, we drift to the western part of the continent and reminisce the career of whom I consider being one of the greatest dribblers that ever played professional football - Mr. Austin Azuka “Jay Jay” Okocha. I think it’s no coincidence that he and Zimbabwe’s Peter Ndlovu were born in the same year - they were perhaps born for the same purpose in their respective countries. In my mind, Peter Ndlovu, the first black African footballer in the English Premier League was a goal scoring machine while Okocha was a rabid entertainer.
Born in Enugu, Enugu State in Nigeria, Okocha started playing football on the streets with what he described in the following statement, “As far as I can remember, we used to play with anything, with any round thing we could find, and whenever we managed to get hold of a ball, that was a bonus! I mean it was amazing!" I mean, if the guy could control let’s say a mango with his feet, how about a proper soccer ball with a 68-70 cm circumference and a 22cm (8.56 inches) diameter. Perhaps that’s why he was ever so comfortable with the ball. He got the first touch of professional football in 1990 when he joined Enugu Rangers at just 17 years of age. He immediately made a big impression with his slick movements and became guilty of handing some experienced players a run for their money and a taste of the dust, once in a while.
Club career in Europe
Okocha’s big break came later that year when he visited West Germany on holiday after the 1990 FIFA World Cup. He stopped by a third division side, Borussia Neunkirchen’s training ground with a friend and asked to join in, only to find himself getting pinned to a contract after mesmerizing the coach with his arm-like legs that caressed the ball effortlessly. In the following year, he would join FC Saarbrucken before completing a move to the top flight Bundesliga side, Eintracht Frankfurt where he linked up with the Ghanaian striker, Tony Yeboah. He appeared 90 times for Frankfurt and scored 16 goals, including the 1993 goal which attracted the Goal of the season recognition by numerous magazines after he had rounded some players in the box twice and slotted the ball past the infamous German international goalkeeper, Oliver Kahn. Jay-Jay then moved to Turkey after Eintracht Frankfurt got relegated, he had a feud with the manager Jupp Heynckes before relegation. Whilst in Turkey, Okocha attained citizenship status as “Muhammet Yavuz” and scored 30 goals in only 62 appearances with a number of them being direct free kicks.
In 1998, French Ligue 1 side, Paris St-Germain broke the bank and paid £14 million for Okocha who became the most expensive African player at the time, in a four-year deal. Other than his continued displays on the pitch, Okocha also mentored the Brazilian football icon, Ronaldinho - who in my opinion rivals him when it comes to dribbling. After the 2002 FIFA World Cup, he joined English Premier League side, Bolton Wanderers whom he helped survive relegation and also steered them to their first cup final in nine years as Captain, where they finished runners-up to the 2004 Football League Cup. He did score some memorable goals and became a crowd favorite. Bolton fans would wear t-shirts with the inscription, "Jay-Jay – so good they named him twice." He was stripped of the Bolton Captaincy in 2006 after speculation of him moving to Qatar intensified. Jay-Jay eventually left Bolton that year for Qatar, where he played one season before returning to England in Hull City colors on a free transfer. He hung his boots after a short spell with the Tigers where he scored no goals in eighteen matches as a result of fitness and injury challenges. He still was a part of the Hull troops that won the first Premier League promotion in their 104-year history.
The Super Eagles Years
Okocha won Nigerian hearts in only his second cap for the country. After losing 2-1 to Ivory Coast on his debut in a 1994 FIFA World Cup qualifier, Jay-Jay came on strong against Algeria where the Super Eagles came from one goal down to secure a 4-1 victory in a must-win match that secured their first ever FIFA World Cup qualification. The match was pretty much an Okocha-show. He also won the 1994 Africa Cup of Nations and the Olympic Gold Medal at USA 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, as part of the Nigerian team dubbed Dream Team.
The step-over king’s antics on the pitch cannot be rightfully described in words. He even indirectly led to the sacking of Zimbabwe’s famous football commentator, Charles Mabika after he got his dribbling displays stuck on replay underscored by unapologetic juicy commentary with the words, “Just look at Okocha,” - on national television when the Super Eagles visited Harare for a friendly.
In April 2015, Okocha expressed interest in becoming the president of Nigerian Football Federation, a dream he happens to be chasing as we speak. Feeling nostalgic? Check his displays in the video below, where at 43-years of age, he turned a Joseph Yobo testimonial match to a Jay-Jay Okocha Exhibition in May 2016.
Do you think his cousin, Arsenal’s Alex Iwobi could follow the footsteps of the veteran?