Full name: Augustine Azuka Okocha
Born: 14 August 1973 in Enugu (Nigeria)
Position: Attacking midfielder
Clubs: Until 1990: Enugu Rangers. 1990-1992: Borussia Neunkirchen (Germany). 1992-1996: Eintracht Frankfurt (Germany). 1996-1998: Fenerbahce (Turkey). 1998-2002: Paris St-Germain (France). 2002-2006: Bolton Wanderers (England). 2006-2007: Qatar SC. Since September 2007: Hull City (England). Honours: Participation at the FIFA World Cup™ finals 1994, 1998 and 2002. Winner of the 1994 Africa Cup of Nations and the 1996 Olympic Football Tournament. 75 caps for Nigeria, 14 goals.
Miscellaneous: Married to Julia, two children (daughter Daniela, 10, and son AJ, 6).
“I have no regrets”
Nigerian Jay-Jay Okocha embarked on the final challenge of his career when he joined English Premier League side Hull City. One of the greatest footballers Africa has ever produced took a break from the club’s promotion challenge to reflect on his illustrious career. FIFA magazine: Many eyebrows were raised when you suddenly joined unfashionable Hull City in September 2007. So why the move?
Jay-Jay Okocha: I always ask God if it is his will, and if so, then let it be. Whatever comes out of it, I will accept. That’s the message I got and that’s why I’m here. It’s also a factor that all my career I’ve looked for new challenges. Hull have never played in the Premier League so this is as big as they come.
What was the response in Nigeria when you suddenly joined Hull from Qatar Sports Club?
Okocha: They’re glad I’m back in England. They weren’t happy that I went to Qatar because they didn’t have the opportunity to see me. For me the problem in Qatar was that they don’t get any crowds and there’s not the same atmosphere. That makes it boring and was one reason I decided to come back.
Will Hull be your final port of call?
Okocha: I’ve had a terrible season with injuries. I wouldn’t like to experience that again so I will decide in due course whether or not to continue. I have the option of another season at Hull but if I don’t feel right I won’t carry on because I’m not a greedy person and I don’t like people carrying me along.
If you do quit, how will you look back on your life in football?
Okocha: I’ve had a good career and have no regrets. Perhaps when I’ve stopped playing I can look back and think I could have done something better but to be honest I have to be pleased with my career.
What gives you most satisfaction on a personal level?
Okocha: The best thing has been making my mark like Tony Yeboah and George Weah did before. It’s not easy for Africans to adapt very quickly in Europe so that’s been my most significant achievement. Initially, I felt homesick, especially when winter approached, but what spurred me on was knowing my future was bright if I did well.
Has your European adventure helped you develop as a person as well as a footballer?
Okocha: Absolutely. The first time I experienced pure stress was at Paris St-Germain because they paid a lot for me. The pressure was unbelievable but it helped me mature because I started assuming more responsibility and enjoyed it. I also played with fantastic players such as Ronaldinho, Nicolas Anelka, Ali Benarbia, Mikel Arteta and Gabriel Heinze. Then Bolton manager Sam Allardyce convinced me to move to England. He made it clear I would face a new kind of challenge because beforehand I’d never played for a club fighting for survival. That situation brought the best out of me and we defied the odds to stay in the Premiership.
Who is the best player you’ve ever played with?
Okocha: Ronaldinho. When you learn how to play on the street and then you see someone who did likewise, you understand each other without even talking. It just becomes so natural on the pitch. I could see him think like me and vice versa.
How hard was it for Africans to carve out careers in Europe?
Okocha: It used to very tough to be successful in Europe because it was difficult for Africans to be trusted. Most managers did not believe we could take responsibility and play like true professionals in a disciplined way.
Was it due to xenophobic stereotyping?
Okocha: I would not go as far as to say it was racism, but these were people’s beliefs and the way they saw Africa. They saw our football as not being professional enough. Cameroon’s impact at Italia ’90 changed everyone’s perceptions. They helped a lot and made people in Europe sit up and take note of what was happening in Africa.
What’s the current situation like for aspiring Africans?
Okocha: It is easier now. Many who have prospered in Europe have taken their experience back home to change things for the better. We’re more professional, which makes it easier for players to make the leap and that makes me really happy. The future is looking very bright.
Bolton brought quite a few African players to the Premier League. Did you have anything to do with that?
Okocha: When I was at Bolton I talked with manager Sam Allardyce about the future. With the kind of budget we had, we couldn’t compete for expensive players, so I suggested that he look where I came from because there are hundreds of talented players there and they’re cheap. He followed it up and it went down very well.
Looking back, what are your first memories of football?
Okocha: As a kid in my hometown Enugu, I had freedom to express myself . without any expectation or pressure and just enjoyed playing the game I loved. I came from a football family and started playing as soon as I could walk. From then on, being a footballer was all I wanted to do. Like other kids in my neighbourhood, I idolised Pele. He was a hero and we always used to sing his name because of what he did at the World Cup.
Talking of the FIFA World Cup™, what does it mean to you?
Okocha: It really was a tremendous honour to be a member of the first Nigerian side to reach the finals. But I didn’t really appreciate the enormity of what we’d achieved the first time Nigeria qualified in 1994 because I was young and naive. I’d been really successful since school and success became a normal way of life. Then I realised how hard it was to qualify for the second one in 1998 and that qualification itself was a very big achievement.
What are your favourite FIFA World Cup™ memories?
Okocha: You can’t beat the overall atmosphere. It’s the best football tournament you can imagine. To have been part of it will live with me forever. It was incredible. Every game was special but playing against Diego Maradona and Ronaldo really stands out.
You must be glad the FIFA World Cup™ finals are coming to Africa in 2010.
Okocha: It’s great for the whole continent and I’m hoping an African nation will reach the final. It will be nice for people to see the other side of Africa because they usually see the bad side such as crime and poverty. This will give us an opportunity to show the world things are not really that bad. The best thing is the people, culture and mentality. We’re friendly, happy people – probably due to our weather – and we always like to welcome visitors. This will give us the ideal opportunity. I can’t wait.
Has the Africa Cup of Nations been kind to you?
Okocha: Winning it in 1994 was a great achievement. It was my first tournament and I thought I would go on to win it four or five times but it turned out to be my only success. It was special. It was the first time we won it away from home, which was great, and we enjoyed an unbelievable reception when we returned from Tunisia.
What do you make of Nigeria’s current fortunes?
Okocha: It’s a pity we’ve not lived up to expectations but we keep making the same mistake. We should be honest with ourselves and realise talent is not enough to succeed. You need to put the right people in charge, people who understand football, are hungry for success and can bring out the best in those talents. Until we improve our backroom work, we’ll stay at the same level.
Was appointing Berti Vogts as Nigeria’s manager a mistake?
Okocha: You cannot bring in someone who knows nothing about the place he is going to or the kind of people he will be working with. They gave him the wrong impression of the players, telling him they were ill-disciplined. He then tried to discipline them although they were already at top European clubs. Maybe the people that employed him have complexes about certain players. Perhaps they don’t know how to talk to them because the players have grown more than they have, and so they try to impress that issue upon the manager. Vogts became a schoolteacher instead of a manager and the players looked like schoolchildren, which will never work. If you respect them, they’ll do anything for you. At the Africa Cup of Nations, I didn’t see players fighting for the shirt, a cause or a reason. Something was holding them back.
Would you consider going into management when you retire from playing?
Okocha: No way. I want to do something that allows me to be with my family and to be a father. I’m also put off by the pressure. I’ve been under pressure my entire career and want to do something different. But I would love to give something back to football, so I’m thinking of being a scout, in order to find the talents that are out there and ensure that they don’t go to waste. That’s the way I think I can change lives. I have set up a football academy in Nigeria. It’s important for me to help kids fulfil their potential because back home we still lack organisation in terms of youth programmes. I can give something back by helping kids mature earlier.