Africa is a region of the world that somehow still remains truly untapped. The continent has produced superstars such as George Weah, Didier Drogba, Rabah Madjer, Abedi Pele and Samuel Eto’o – players that transcended in a sport where for so long they weren’t fully accepted. It still remains a region where passion for the beautiful game exists, but opportunities to shine have been hard to come by only until very recently.
One player who helped blaze a trail for those to follow in his footsteps was, for many, one of the most entertaining and skillful players in Europe: Jay-Jay Okocha. Born in the southern state of Enugu, Augustine Azuka “Jay-Jay” Okocha began his obsession with football like so many others in parts of the world not European – in the streets. He often reflected on how when he was a child they would use any round object they could find, but using ball was merely seen as a bonus. So it’s no wonder that the former Nigerian captain was renown for his ability on the ball and
being adept at beating his marker on the dribble, especially in tight situations.
He played his youth football at home town club Enugu Rangers, before a trip to Germany in 1990 to watch football would put him on a collision course with stardom. When visiting friend and Borussia Neunkirchen player Binebi Numa, Okocha went to watch a training session only to ask if he could join in. Neunkirchen’s manager was so impressed that not only did he invite him to return the following day, but also offering him a contract. After 35 appearances and 7 goals, Okocha moved to 1.FC Saarbrücken, only to move again to Bundesliga outfit
Eintracht Frankfurt just a few months later. It was here that he would begin to make his name.
Playing along side the likes of Tony Yeboah and Thomas Doll, Okocha would dazzle in the city on the Main for four seasons before a falling out with eventual legendary manager Juup Heynckes. Okocha would then join Turkish giants Fenerbache in 1996 after Frankfurt failed to avoid the drop, but it would be this move that would further Okocha’s reputation. Staring for the Istanbul-based side for two years, as well as bringing home a Gold medal at the 1996 Summer Olympics for Nigeria, Okocha’s time in Turkey saw him net 30 goals in 62 appearances as well as becomea full Turkish citizen under the name Muhammet Yavuz.
His next move would be to Paris to and an eventual mentoring of a young Ronaldinho at Paris Saint-Germain. His 14million pound move to the French capital at the time made him the most expensive African footballer in history, a fee that was undoubtedly justified. Four years later he would cross the Channel and find himself at Bolton Wanderers in the Premier League, but his time in the northwest was riddled with injury spells despite becoming a fan favorite and earning the captaincy. In 2006 he would leave England and commented on his time spent at Bolton was a wasted as the club had not progressed during his stay – this would be the last hurrah for a talented individual.
In the remaining two years of his career Okocha first went to Qatar and then back to England, this time with Hull City, where he failed to score a single goal in the final club season of his career. It was an unfortunate end to an impressive career for a player who many felt was one of the most influential at his position.
All told, Okocha made 454 club appearances while scoring 85 goals (these figures are for domestic appearances only), as well as running out for Nigeria 75 times and scoring on 14 occasions. But despite the rocky conclusion, his achievements were not overlooked, as he was named to Pelé’s FIFA 100, as well as receiving seven Nigerian Footballer of the Year awards over the course of his career. Many have Okocha to thank for continuing down the same path that Milla, Pele and Madjer did, a path that a countless many are sure to rely on not only in the present, but years to come.
Remember to check back in each Friday as we induct another great into the Robin Friday Hipster Hall of Fame. Thank you to Hipster Drew @AFCBvB1410 for this contribution.