The Premier League has been a melting pot of footballing brilliance since its inception 30 years ago, but few compare to the mesmerizing brilliance of Jay-Jay Okocha.
Okocha’s freedom and expression on the pitch border on the ridiculous – he’s done things with a soccer ball that few could, or even thought possible. To this day, such talent is rarely seen at the top level of the game, but for him it was a simple continuation of the football philosophy he nurtured on the streets of Enugu, Nigeria.
“I think that was my background, my upbringing, playing for the love of the game as a kid,” Okocha said exclusively. sky sports, reflecting on what made him the player he was. “I wasn’t taught how to play football; I went there and just started playing because I love the game.
“It was our only toy, it was where we could express our joy, our freedom without any manager, nobody harassing you, telling you what to do. Taking football later as my profession, you can imagine [how good it was] have your toy and get paid for it.”
Okocha’s introduction to European audiences came completely by chance. A stay in Germany in 1990 was an opportunity to train with Borussia Neunkirchen. He grabbed it and a trailblazing spell in German football, which would see him play alongside Tony Yeboah at Eintracht Frankfurt, took hold.
“Yes, it’s true,” Okocha recalls. “I was there on vacation; Germany had just won the World Cup in Italia 90. Of course, everywhere I go, I go with my football boots.
“One day I met the manager, I asked if I could train with them, he asked me if I was sure I could cope, and I said, give me a chance . After practice, he asked me if I could come back the next day.”
Moves to Fenerbahce and then Paris Saint-Germain would follow before Okocha’s career reached an unexpected crescendo in the North West of England.
Sam Allardyce’s Bolton side saw the likes of World Cup winner Youri Djorkaeff, Champions League winner Ivan Campo, Finland goalkeeper Jussi Jaaskelainen and England striker Kevin Nolan come together to tear Premier League settlement in the early 2000s, and Okocha provided the magic as the club’s star striker.
“It’s amazing to see people who have different mentalities, different cultures [working together]“, said Okocha.
“It was like a multicultural team, but what made us strong was that we had the same goal. We managed to change our mentality to adapt. At some point, we started playing snooker the Thursday – I had never played snooker before, I sucked!”
From his spectacular solo run and finish against personal favorite West Ham to an extravagant free-kick brace against Aston Villa, Okocha has earned a fearsome reputation at Bolton for delivering goals and moments in his dazzling fashion.
“Well, that’s me,” he replied when asked why he even considered going for goal before shooting this Outrageous free-kick around the Aston Villa wall with the outside of his right boot with an effort that was quickly coined as the ‘banana kick’.
“Yuri was by my side, and I said, ‘back off, I want to try something’. He said, ‘are you crazy?’ and I said don’t worry When it works it looks great, if it doesn’t you look stupid but I’ve never been shy about taking risks and trying things out.”
Risk and reward are an essential component of football. Finding the right balance with one of the fundamental principles of the game is what separates good footballers from the best. Okocha kissed her with a smile on her face.
After a career that took him to so many locker rooms and countries, saw him taste so many cultures and deliver so many memorable moments, it was a balance Okocha struck just right. This characterized his football career.
“I consider myself lucky, lucky,” Okocha said. “It made me a better person, I learned a lot and saw the world from a different perspective. Being almost everywhere in the world helped me to be the person I am today.”
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