art-of-football-okocha

This article has been featured on InBedWithMaradona.

1993. Eintracht Frankfurt v Karlsruhe in the Bundesliga. A 20-year-old kid called Jay-Jay Okocha comes off the Frankfurt bench. 10 minutes later, a Karlsruhe attack breaks down and Frankfurt tear up the field on a counter-attack. But a few passes later and it seems the attack has broken down and Karlsruhe have regrouped. Okocha receives the ball on the edge of the penalty area – the opposition goalkeeper in front of him, a defender on the goal line and another defender to his left. How do you score in that stifled space? You don’t, unless you’re Jay-Kay Okocha.

The Jay-Jay Okocha dance-off had begun. He feinted left and then right and left the goalkeeper flat on the ground. By this point, a third defender had raced back to make up the numbers. Okocha feinted left again to leave another defender flat on his back. The goalkeeper had managed to get up and track back between the sticks and Okocha was furthered faced by the remaining two standing centre backs. Another feint towards right and then left again, and as soon as a sliver of space opened up between the two defenders, swish! He arrowed a left footed rocket into the bottom corner.

You might recognise the goalkeeper – it was Oliver Kahn.

23 years on from that goal (which was voted the goal of the season by many magazines and websites), Kahn finally admitted how dazzlingly brilliant that work of art was:

“Exactly 23 years is the sensational goal from Jay-Jay Okocha today ago – and I’m still dizzy…”

Jay-Jay Okocha’s rise from poverty to footballing glamour is well documented and follows a familiar story – on the streets of Lagos, Nigeria, he learnt the free-flowing brand of football most fans of freestyle football will be familiar with. There was no academy to burn out his talent, no coach around to tell him to stop showing his repertoire of skills and start playing as he was told. There is nothing in the world that quashes footballing potential like being told you have to sacrifice yourself to fit into the system. The so called ‘Big Picture’ has extinguished many golden talents but thankfully, Okocha was never a victim of that.

He was on a trip to Germany with his friends (to watch a few Bundesliga games having been enamoured by the German national team at the 1990 World Cup), when he was taken to a training session at Borussia Neunkirchen, a third division club, by his friend. The Neunkirchen coach was stunned by this young, and as yet undrafted youth, and immediately offered him a contract. But his talent far outstripped the limited ambitions of the club and , after spending a few months with second division side 1. FC Saarbrücken, he soon earned a move to the top flight with Eintracht Frankfurt.

However, in 1995, Okocha, along with his team-mate Tony Yeboah (yes, the same Tony Yeboah), had a major falling out with the manager Juup Heynckes, and he eventually departed for Turkey and Fenerbahce. He scored a remarkable 30 goals in just 62 appearances for the Turkish club, many of them stunning free-kicks from all sorts of angles. Paris St. Germain signed him for £14 million ($24 million) in 1998 but during the 4 years he spent at the club, he could not quite assert himself or fulfil the potential he had shown in Germany and Turkey.

He was out of contract at the end of the 2001/02 season and was snapped up by Bolton Wanderers and this is where his story pick up again. Critics, at this point, had given up hopes that Okocha would reclaim his best form. After Nigeria’s early elimination from the 2002 World Cup, Okocha was being overlooked by the big clubs. But the Okocha roadshow still had a long way to go and at Bolton, the showstopper had arrived.

During the four seasons he spent at the Trotters, he tallied up 124 appearances peppered with 14 goals. But there was far, far more to his time at the Reebok Stadium than the stats portray. He was the lynchpin of Sam Allardyce’s Bolton side, and even though his first season in England was marred by injuries, he generated an instant cult following. The official Bolton store started selling shirts with the slogan – “Jay-Jay, so good they named him twice”.

With audacious tricks that are considered more at home in Sunday league football than the top flight of England, Jay-Jay lit up the Premiership with his refreshing style of play and his sheer determination to not succumb to the physicality of English football. For his brief time in England, and 4 years is far too brief to watch this man’s skilful mastery of the game, he was idolised in the north-west of England, if not up and down the country.

It’s the 95th minute against the top side in the country and you need to waste time down by the corner flag. How do you do it? By flicking rainbows over the Arsenal defence, of course:

O5Lk3P
Oh Jay-Jay..

Even though Big Sam has developed a reputation of long-ball football since his time at Bolton, no one who watched this team week in week out would fall for those pre-biased notions. During his time at Bolton, Okocha was surrounded by some excellent technicians – Fernando Hierro, Youri Djorkaeff, Gary Speed, Ivan Campo and Nicholas Anelka. But ask any Bolton fan from those days who they remember and miss the most. The response is invariably always the Nigerian magician.

In today’s game, apart from Lionel Messi, we rarely see flashes of skill or slaloming runs through the opposition midfield. We might see an occasional feint by Philippe Coutinho, a couple of step-overs by Neymar, but with Jay-Jay Okocha, the unorthodox happened almost every week.

In the dying embers of a League Cup semi-final against Aston Villa at the Reebok Stadium, with Bolton leading 4-2 and heading to the final, the Trotters won a free-kick to the left of the Villa penalty area. The angle was acute, and with 2 men in the wall, a way through looked impossible. But with Okocha standing right in line with the ball, it was clear he was not going to cross. Bolton had runners to the left and right of Okocha, willing to take on the ball and while away the remaining few seconds. Okocha stepped up, ran the 4 steps to the ball, put his laces through it, and the ball caromed off like a Japanese bullet train, curling away from the near post before checking it’s trajectory and curling back into the back of the net. Just another day in the life of a Bolton legend.

He captained the Bolton team to a English League Cup final, led them to consecutive top half finishes in the Premiership and they went as far as the last 32 in the UEFA Cup but were eliminated by Marseille, losing 2-1 on aggregate.

Jay-Jay Okocha will never be considered among the world’s elite players, he will not threaten footballing royalty or ever be part of the top 100 players discussion, but, while he was performing (and performing is indeed the word), there was no one more fun to watch. He turned football into pure spectacle, the kind we love to devour on a weekly basis but are too often denied by high stakes matches and tactical stalemates and end up finding only in YouTube compilations. Okocha had a propensity to entertain, to capture lightning and unleash it on his opponents, and there has never been a player like him since in the top flight. His career was once that should always be celebrated rather than swatted aside by the modern social media savvy fans as a “poor man’s Ronaldinho”.

There is an oft-repeated phrase in football – “he has magic in his boots” and for those lucky enough to follow his career at Bolton, Jay-Jay Okocha was the ultimate magician.

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