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Up Close and Personal Jay Jay Okocha reminisces on career

The former Nigeria football star opens up on his career, his admiration for the Black Stars and also on his CAF best player snub

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play Jayjay Ochocha in Kente

Former Nigerian international Augustine ‘Jay-Jay’ Okocha has thrown more light on a number of issues concerning his life and career.

The iconic Nigerian was in Ghana for a two-day Bundesliga legends tour put together by pay-TV operators StarTimes, and he spoke on a variety of issues ranging from his career, his inability to win the African footballer of the year award and his support for the Black Stars.

The 43-year old arrived as a Bundesliga ambassador to help promote the German league in the country and across Africa. Headlining a series of programmes put together by StarTimes Group, Okocha took a tour around the country to meet members of the Ghana Football Association before doing co-commentary on one Bundesliga match during the weekend with C.K. Akunnor and ace broadcaster Kwabena Yeboah.

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In conclusion to the two-day legends tour, a press conference was held to give journalists the chance to interact with the African football legend. Seated in between Marketing manager of StarTimes, Akofa Djankui and Mr Ardey, Okocha responded to a variety of questions from the local media. In a fully-packed, brightened press room he insisted he was delighted to have been invited and called Ghana “my home”.

Having been to Ghana a couple of times in the past Okocha was in familiar territory. A day before, when he arrived at the Kotoka International Airport, he expressed his love and admiration for the West African nation – a country he faced so many times during his playing days. The rivalry between Nigeria and Ghana is one that travels a long path down history. Clashes between the two African heavyweights can be really feisty and intense but Okocha insists Ghana is a friendly enemy to him and opened up on his soft spot for the Black Stars. For him, the West African nation will only be second to Nigeria when it comes to where his heart lies.

In the next AFCON [Africa Cup of Nations], I personally will be supporting Ghana because Nigeria won’t take part. If Nigeria was going to be there, of course, I will be supporting them.

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The Black Stars have not had a smooth ride in recent months, with their bid for a fourth successive World Cup all but scuppered after a 2-0 reverse at the hands of Egypt. Okocha was a member of Nigeria’s victorious 1994 Africa Cup of Nations squad and he says the Black Stars can use the upcoming tournament as a perfect chance for redemption after a tumultuous last two years.

I think it’s [the Africa Cup of Nations] an opportunity for the Ghanaian national team to put smiles back on the faces of the [Ghanaian] people. They are struggling a bit in the world cup qualifiers and I think this is an opportunity for them to salvage their image.

“So hopefully they will sit down and understand that we are all expecting a lot from them. And hopefully, they will live up to our expectations.”

One Ghanaian player who also never won the Africa Cup of Nations is Anthony Yeboah despite the fact that he played in one of the most talented squads that the nation has ever produced. Okocha played together with Yeboah at German side Eintracht Frankfurt and the Nigerian has fond memories of his ex-team-mate. Okocha credits Yeboah – who he calls “my brother” – for helping him adapt to the German culture and hailed him as one of the most talented players he ever played with.

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“My favourite Ghanaian player ever – I will be very partial – is my brother Anthony Yeboah. I’ve played with so many players and when I signed for Frankfurt I got to meet a great man, a great guy. I tell you, Tony [Yeboah] doesn’t talk too much, Tony always keeps to himself. But when you get to know him, he is a great guy.”

Anthony Yeboah was the first African to win the golden boot in the German topflight and Okocha remembers very well how influential the Ghanaian was at Eintracht Frankfurt. The former Super Eagles star recalls how Yeboah used to pull crowds with his dazzling performances.

He was so good in Frankfurt that he had followers – instead of ‘Jehova witness’, they called it ‘Yeboah witness’. He was that good. Tony – I could remember vividly – rescued us in so many matches when nothing was going [right] for us. We would just kick one long ball further there to him and he would make good use of it. And so to me, he is my favourite Ghanaian player.” 

The playing career of Okocha represented a time when African football was on the ascendency, with the likes of Abedi Ayew Pele, George Oppong Weah, Nwankwo Kanu among others leading the pack of talents from the continent. Liberia’s Weah was the first – and so far only – African player to win the FIFA World Player of the Year Award. However, Okocha believes the quality of players being produced by African countries has waned. He attributes this to the non-competitive nature of African countries at the international level and says it will be very difficult for any player from the continent to repeat Weah’s feat.

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“At the moment it looks like a mission impossible [for an African to become the world best player], to be honest. Because when it comes to the world level, we [African countries] have not really done well. I think Ghana still holds the record [of finishing highest at the world cup stage (together with Senegal and Cameroon)], which is a quarter-final.

So until we [African teams] start competing very well when it comes to world competitions, then we [African players] stand a very good chance. Otherwise thinking that we might do it through our clubs is also like mission impossible. It [an African becoming world best] has happened only once and that says it all. It’s difficult because the Europeans will also want to promote their own players. And so as an African, you have to be ten times better before you stand a chance.

One of Nigeria’s biggest exports in the last decade is Chelsea midfielder, John Obi Mikel. The Nigeria captain was a revelation at youth level, coming second to Lionel Messi in the race for the golden ball at the 2005 World Youth Championships. But his club career has suffered a dip with the midfielder languishing on the fringes of the Premier League side. Okocha rates Mikel very highly and sees him as a very integral part of the Super Eagles set-up. But he also thinks that Mikel is too good to be sitting on the bench at Chelsea and must start looking at other options in search of playing time.

“Mikel’s situation is really not the best at the moment. But we know what a quality player that he is. The worst thing that can happen to a player is when you are not getting enough playing time.

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But I don’t think that [sitting on the bench] will affect him in the national team because he is very crucial to whatever that we [Nigeria] are doing now. We need his experience; we need [him for] the transition to the next generation to be smooth.

“And if I’m a young player that just joined the national team, I’ll be looking forward to playing with Mikel or sharing a dressing room with him. His role in the national team is priceless for us at the moment. And if he’s doing well [for the national team], then he not playing at Chelsea shouldn’t be an issue. But I can advise him to start thinking of a plan B because he has been there for I think 11 years now. So it’s about time he, maybe, starts thinking of a new challenge.

Not all Nigerian players are finding game time hard to come by, though: Just a few miles away from Mikel in London, Alex Iwobi is seeing many minutes and making waves at Arsenal. The young dynamic midfielder – who coincidentally is the nephew of Okocha – is enjoying his football in North London. The former Nigerian international feels Iwobi has great prospects and praised his level of humility.

I am very proud of him, not just as a football player, but also because he is a very humble boy. I’ve known him since he was a day old and he lived with me a little bit when he was young until he moved to England.

“For me, it is my job – it’s a must for me to guide him, to protect him and to direct him – because what he is going through [now], I have [already] been through.[But] what I’m going through now he has not. So I take it as my job to make sure that I guide him, direct him as much as possible.

Okocha is, however, careful not to overstep his bounds when coaching his nephew and sees the 20-year old only getting better with time.

At the end of the day he’s turned into a man now so I have respect also for him. I have to know how to talk to him and how to approach him because he has come of age whereby he can make his own decisions. But I must say that for now, he has fared beyond my expectations because his development is second to none because he has been at Arsenal since he was eight and you know it is very difficult to make that approach from youth to the first team. So far so good, and for me I think he can only get better because, let’s not forget, this is his first full season so he is gaining a lot of experience. And also what helped him is the fact that he accepted to play for Nigeria because African football has toughened him up."

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At his own young age, Okocha was an exciting player that caught the eye of many. He is one of the few African players to have played at the World Cup, but one notable thing missing from his collection is the Africa footballer of the year award. Okocha dazzled on the international scene for Nigeria between 1993 and 2004, winning numerous medals including Africa’s first gold medal in football at the Olympic Games with the Dream Team, but never quite managed to lay his hands on this coveted gong. In an impressive international career that spanned over a decade, he was part of the Super Eagles squad that qualified for two successive world cups in 1994 and 1998, reaching the round of 16 stage on both occasions.

Okocha won the BBC African footballer of the year twice in succession in 2003 and 2004 but only emerged as runner-up to Mustapha Hadji of Morocco in 1998 for the CAF player of the year award – his best finish in the award scheme. He was again nominated in 2003 and 2004 together with Didier Drogba and Samuel Eto’o but lost out on both occasions. But Okocha insists he is satisfied with what he managed to achieve in his career and has no regrets over not ever being crowned African footballer of the year.

”I must say that I have no regrets when it comes to my career. I believe that some things are not meant to be because maybe I happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s a long time but if I look back I think I gave it my all. I was very close to winning that personal honour – I came second on a couple of occasions.

But to be honest I have no regrets because if I look back from where I started – people always say that when they get to the top, it’s a dream come true – it happens to only a few people. Because certain things you don’t see it coming, sometimes you may even achieve beyond your dream. And I think that is my story. I achieved beyond my wildest dreams so why should I have any regrets for not winning one personal honour? I have no regrets.

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Okocha played for so many clubs across Europe and his constant travels led to many questioning his attitude. But the former Paris Saint-Germain, Hull City and Fernabache attacker says his passion for the game was unmatched. In an era where many players care less about playing in inferior leagues if only they receive huge sums, Okocha maintains that his love for the game was what influenced his decision to become a footballer, and not that of material things. He insists money was just an additional reward for doing what he loved most.

When I was playing the money was not that much like now. But honestly, if you have seen any of my play, you will understand that I had passion for the game. I had love for the game. I started by playing for the pride of the game – for the love of the game. And of course, later on, the money started coming in, which was a bonus to me. You can imagine doing what you love to do and getting paid while doing it as well. And so the money was like an extra bonus for me.

And I must say – not just to the youth that want to become footballers – that whatever you want to become in life, I believe that once you put in effort, once you put in a good job; the money will come.

In a largely glittering career, Okocha played in Germany, France, Turkey and England before moving to Qatar in the twilight of his career.  But his decision to retire after Hull City – his last club – had gained promotion to the English Premier League caught many by surprise. However, the star of Nigeria’s 1994 Nations Cup triumph says his decision to quit was down to a lack of playing time. Okocha admits he could not cope with the idea of becoming a peripheral member of the team, hence his decision to retire at age 35.

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I must confess that [not getting a lot of playing time] was one of the main reasons why I retired from playing at a very young age. I believe that it is not worth it to train from Monday to Friday just to have 20 minutes on the pitch or sit on the bench on Saturday. I am very competitive.

Jay-Jay Okocha was speaking at a press conference – organised by StarTimes – as part of his role as a Bundesliga ambassador to help promote the German league in the country.

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