I ALMOST RETIRED AFTER ANGOLA GAME- JAY JAY OKOCHA
Definitely one of the very best of his generation, former Super Eagles skipper Austin “Jay Jay” Okocha epitomizes an iconic footballer. The former Frankfurt and PSG midfielder had an admirable career having played across the best leagues in Europe, scoring and leading his various teams to greater feats from his central midfield position.
Beautifully placed in the heart of midfield, Jay Jay (of whom it was often said he was so good, he was named twice) was renowned for his ability to read a football game perfectly and hence orchestrate play with visionary passing, exceptional skills and sensational if not barmy strikes that left all in complete awe of his footballing genius... simply put, football was second nature to this demi-god.
The Enugu-born ex-international started his senior playing career in Germany with Borrusia Neunkirchen before moving to Eintracht Frankfurt in the first division. Fernabache in Turkey was his next stop which was followed by a big money move to French side PSG In 1998 where he spent four years. The next four years of his career played out in England with Bolton Wanderers where the playmaker arguably dazzled especially under the then Bolton manager Sam Allardyce, but he soon swapped England for the far east with Qatar SC before returning to the Premier League with Hull City as the curtains came down on his playing career.
With over 500 senior career appearances for both club and country and 99 goals, Okocha- uncle to current Super Eagles and Arsenal FC forward Alex Iwobi is well regarded as one of the finest to ever come out of the continent as well as represent her on the global stage, alas, a lack of multiple if not major silverware presents a pantomime look to things.
An Olympic gold medal is notably the only major collective achievement won by Okocha admist several individual accolades he deservedly scopped in his time in the game that spanned 18 years, but what does the former Super Eagles captain make of it all looking back?
In an exclusive conversation on our sports show #GameOn on 99.3 Nigeria Info with #FemiAndTheGang, Okocha spoke on his time in Germany, the National team and that famous goal against Bayern Munich’s Oliver Kahn.
The Bundesliga unlike many other leagues is appreciated for its huge fan base, tactical nous and more importantly player development, something Okocha reckons changed his life and made him as a footballer. According to him, the league gave him the foudation that he needed to become a professional, taking away the pressure of responsibility and providing the space to be a “young and imperfect footballer”. Okocha played over a 100 games in Germany with both Frankfurt and Neunkirchen scoring 23 goals.
One of the famous goals scored by Okocha came against the great Oliver Kahn of Bayern Munich for Frankfurt. He literally took on the entire Bayern defence, leaving them all for dead before slotting home, taking off his jersey in celebration and subsequently was mobbed by his team mates in disbelief. Speaking on the show about that incredible moment, he said, “Honestly, I wasn’t thinking, all I had in mind was to score. I didn’t mean to hold on to the ball that long but everytime I raised my head, I would see a defender in front of me and then I keep trying to get rid of them... but at the end of the day, I managed to score, which was the ultimate result. I was very lucky that I scored."
Having played at three World Cup tournaments, a fourth beckoned during the 2006 World Cup qualifying campaign, a moment that would go on to be one the hardest time in his career, as Nigeria missed out on Germany 2006 after a 1-1 draw at home to Angola. “I almost retired after that game because we had it to lose and we threw it away,” said Okocha. He added, “To me, I was furious with the manager then Christian Chukwu because we had issues before the game. I was no longer the player I used to be and when you’re ageing, you need to cut down on the number of games you play in a season."
Despite Okocha opening the scoring in that crucial game against Angola in Kano with a stunning free kick, The Palancas Negras sealed a precious point that earned them the World Cup ticket at Nigeria’s expense, thanks to another free kick from their skipper Figueiredo.
“I asked him to leave me out in Rwanda but he wasn’t happy I opted out of the game before the crucial one (against Angola), so he dropped me before that. When the fans shouted for me to come on, he decided to call me back and I was already on holiday so I decided to come help the team qualify, and then I couldn’t understand why the game was taken to Kano because most of us were based in Europe and the weather was different and we were all like foreigners, so there were issues." With a tinge of disappoimtment on his face he added, “We gave it our best but it was heartbreaking. On a personal note, it would have been my fourth World Cup and moreso in Germany where I started”.