“So good, they named him twice” as the saying goes when speaking about Augustine “Jay-Jay” Okocha. No truer words could describe this man. The Nigerian playmaker never grabbed the headlines for any of the wrong reasons and was idolized at pretty much every club he played for, not to mention whenever he wore the green colors of the “Super Eagles” of Nigeria. His country’s supporters, obviously, lauded him as the greatest player ever and it’s not without reason; because the man could pull off pretty much every trick in the book whilst playing with a smile on his face.
Fitting perfectly under “the world’s most underrated players” category in my opinion, Okocha always had something unusual to show off during games. His finesse, his touch, his vision and especially his skills were all part of what took him from the streets of Lagos all the way to the biggest venues in world Football. His story, like most Nigerian footballers, started on the streets. It’s where some of the biggest and best African footballers learnt their trade. Okocha was no different. But while others unfortunately remained on the rough streets of Lagos, Okocha’s talents were spotted on a trip to visit a friend in Germany; where a Borussia Neunkirchen scout took him on trial at the then 3rd division club. Talk about luck...or destiny. What followed was a journey that enabled him to play for Eintracht Frankfurt, Fenerbache, PSG, Bolton, Qatar SC and Hull City as he became a cult figure at almost all of these clubs.
His performances in Germany’s 3rd tier earned him a move to the Bundesliga. It was at Eintracht Frankfurt where Jay Jay really broke into the European football scene and made a name for himself during the 4 seasons he spent there, particularly after scoring one of the goals of the season during his 1st season at the club against a young Oliver Kahn (click here). The magician's tricks were now being watched; however his time at Frankfurt ended on a sour note as a dispute with coach Jupp Heynckes meant that he was surplus to requirements when Frankfurt were relegated in his final season in Germany in 1996.
Okocha abandoned the Bundesliga and headed to Turkey to join Fenerbache. Even though his spell there only lasted 2 seasons (1996-97, 1997-98), he was showcasing his talents on Europe’s biggest stage...the Champions League. At Fenerbache, he had what turned out to be his most consistent performances and his personal best goals/games tally of his career (63 games, 30 goals). Arriving at the World Cup in 1998, he was at the peak of his powers. Okocha impressed with Nigeria, as he usually did whenever he donned the number 10 jersey of his country. His silky skills caught the attention of numerous European clubs and a move soon followed. His love for Fenerbache and Turkey was never in doubt as he even adopted a Turkish name when he obtained Turkish citizenship (Muhammet Yavuz), but when Paris St Germain came calling with a massive $24 million deal to take him to the French capital, Okocha couldn't decline the offer.
The expectations on his shoulders were huge and looking back it's easy to say that he had mixed fortunes in Paris. A fantastic goal versus Bordeaux on his debut (click here) is one of the better memories PSG fans kept of him. Taking over the number 10 from PSG and Brazilian legend Rai meant that he had big shoes to fill – but he never really lived up to the hype nor justified the hefty price tag. Injuries and management issues were among the many reasons that Jay Jay wasn't able to demonstrate his true ability to the Parisian fans, even though he was a firm fans favorite. In his final season at the club, 2001-2002, PSG signed Brazilian superstar Ronaldinho and this signalled the beginning of the end for Jay Jay in Paris with injuries hampering what could have been a dynamic duo. Even though both complimented each other the rare times they did play together, their roles were often considered to be too similar to be complimentary. Okocha stayed with the club for 4 years and was even named captain for a short period. Despite that, he was heading for the exit door. His contract at the end of the season wasn’t renewed and he became a free agent. Following the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea, despite Nigeria’s early elimination, Okocha shined once more. The Premier League came calling and it seemed like a match made in heaven when Bolton Wanderers snapped him up on a free transfer.
And so it proved to be. His time at Bolton turned out as one of his more enjoyable experiences - at least in the eyes of his fans and peers. From 2002 until 2006, he racked up an impressive 124 games for the Wanderers, which was more than at any of his previous clubs, and became captain at the club. He was the lynchpin in Sam Allardyce's aggressive side and was soon displaying all his skills in a free roaming role in midfield, a role that he had longed for. The Premier League seemed to suit Okocha's style of play and he's still recognized as a Bolton legend whenever he's spoken about. Despite the club being a far cry from the fashionable city of Paris, Bolton and Okocha appeared to be a perfect match. However, just like at PSG, in 2006 his contract wasn't renewed and he looked for greener pastures to end his career as age was catching up with him. Qatar's big bucks came calling and even though he went there for a short spell with Qatar Sporting Club, he soon returned back to England with Hull City and that didn't last long either. He called time on his career as his tenures at both clubs weren't fulfilling and by the end of the 2008 season, Okocha had hung up his boots.
Never winning a major trophy remains Okocha’s biggest failure and one of the major reasons he was never considered for the top personal accolades in Football, both in Africa and Worldwide. I still think that it is a Football crime that he never won more accolades. The man possessed skills that most players could only dream of doing during a game. Had he been at bigger clubs, or maybe of a different nationality, maybe he'd have gotten more recognition. But for some, like myself, he's always going to be regarded as a truly magnificent footballer. Being able to pull tricks off in training and for fun is one thing, doing them at full speed when the pressure is on is something else. Being able to calm a game down and bring others into play with such ease is a skill that very few can master. But with Jay Jay it seemed like there was never any pressure on him. Everything looked always so natural. A god-given talent to a man who smiled every time he played. A laid back attitude on the pitch, just like his character, and even now after he's retired and gone on to different ventures both in and out of Football, he still oozes with coolness. Jay Jay Okocha, a hero of mine, I salute you.
Watch this footage of Jay Jay on Soccer A.M in May 2011: