Location: Banjul, Gambia
My passion for African football
I have a great passion for African soccer and a pure adoration for one great African legend, Jay Jay Okocha. His emergence on the African soccer scene saw the continent join Brazil’s ‘Samba train’, bringing on board a style that has ruled the world for decades in terms of appeal, but is not seen much in today’s football.
Football is perhaps the only game that enjoys worldwide popularity. Not too many sports in the world are blessed with the huge number of legendary players that football has seen so far in its glorious history. Football has the unique power to find fans in almost every corner in the world. Having said that, it is also true that football is not played with the same intensity in all parts of the world. The classic style attached to the game is not the same across the world.
It’s widely touted that European football has an international fan following, compared with African football, which is believed to be confined to the continent, both in international and club football. For example, it was believed that not too many football fans were interested in the 2008 Africa Nations Cup played in Ghana, yet Euro 2008 saw fans from around the world glued to their screen for the month-long European showpiece.
However, my own interpretation of the recent changing of the guard in African football is very simple. Nations like Nigeria and Cameroon had created shockwaves in international soccer in those days simply because they used to play in the typical African style of strength, constant perseverance in attack and unexpected moves.
The free-spirited willingness to attack, coupled with silky skills and great athleticism is what makes African football so attractive and competitive. However, many teams, it seems, have abandoned this as the influence of European-style caution spreads across the continent.
Now the same teams have fallen victim to their own success. They lost their identity when their top players moved to European clubs and adopted European football mentalities. Europeanization, I firmly believe, has taken its toll on these players and their national teams. The safety-first approach adopted by these European-based stars is killing the entertainment factor in African football.
A typical African style requires that players are given more freedom to express themselves on the pitch rather than playing a strictly team game. I truly adore this style of football and I’m not alone in my passion for it. It could be said that almost all the African legends still enjoy that typical African style that is giving way to Europeanization, which does not allow players to play their own game.
Born at a time when the African style was waning, I can comfortably say that I fell in love with African football by accident. Like a lover who takes time to warm to you, I skipped by the game often in my life without paying attention. Then, one day, it hit me between the eyes and my heart was forever taken.
It was during the 1998 FIFA World Cup finals in France, where Nigeria’s master dribbler, Austin Jay Jay Okocha, made me wonder whether there was any other skilful player on the globe that could dazzle spectators as he did. The France showpiece, as far as I can recall, had its fair share of its soccer wizards such as Zinedine Zidane (who was to become best player of the tournament), Brazilian midfield maestro Rivaldo, Argentina’s Gabriel Batistuta, Chile’s Marcelo Salas and Croatia’s Davor Suker.
For me, these players were all delights to watch but, in terms of full expression on the pitch, soccer effects flow much more freely from the fecund imagination of Jay Jay Okocha, whose brilliant display during the France tournament saw Nigeria as the only African side to go through to the second round and also earned him a record transfer deal with the country’s premier tier club Paris Saint German from the Turkish club Fenerbahce.
At the time, soccer artistry, exhibited with dazzling virtuosity, used to be the preserve of the brilliant Brazilians. But with the emergence of Okocha and others on the African soccer scene, Africa joined the “Samba train”, bringing on board a style that has ruled the world for decades in terms of appeal. Jay Jay led this “aesthetic” revival. His approach was methodical, his delivery masterly, making him my football hero forever.
He caresses the ball with effortless ease and leaves you wondering whether he has a spiritual pact with the round leather object. He takes on opponents with confounding confidence, reducing most of them to sleepwalkers on the pitch.
Love him or hate him, he remains evergreen in our collective consciousness; his abundant skills, his resourcefulness and amazing showmanship are a beauty on the pitch. That is Jay Jay Okocha, Nigeria’s answer to the ‘ballet dancers’ from Brazil.
How generous can nature be, giving one young man such priceless assets in abundance, where most athletes would pray for just a sprinkling. In football, Okocha is nature’s agent for the expression of its former beauty. His is the complete world of imaginative soccer, and he has a gift for the unusual.
Almost two decades into professional football, Okocha, even up until his last valedictory game in Warri in 2008, is still the apprentice alchemist striving to turn base metal into gold with spontaneous experiments that can change the course of a match and that make him the world’s most exciting player to watch.
Well before the France 1998 tournament, this gifted African hero had already hit the international headlines. During the 1994 Nations Cup championship in Tunisia, Okocha played only a few matches, and yet the legendary Pelé picked him out as the new soccer jewel from Africa.
Young as he was then, Okocha also played a few matches in the 1994 World Cup and was voted “the discovery of USA ’94”. His superlative performance at Wembley that year against England left the English press wondering if soccer artistry was not in fact an African creation.
Some sections of the press went to the extent of symbolically burying English football. One English commentator even dubbed him the “African magician”. At Wembley, Okocha was asked to play his normal game. He shone like a million stars. Any time he is instructed to play a strictly team game, he falters. He is not alone. Maradona did the same, as did Paul Gascoigne (Gazza) of England. Regiment them to team discipline and the team itself dies. Allow them room for self-expression and they would creatively steer the collective ship to victory.
Increasingly, the current African stars seem to adapt the western style of playing, but Okocha always refused this, and for that reason he never made it to big clubs like Barcelona or Manchester United, yet he had more talent and skills than anybody.
During his heyday, Okocha would bring his creative ingenuity to bear on the overall tactical approach of the Nigeria team. When team efforts failed to produce results, he would draw on his reservoir of energy and creativity, go solo and rescue the collective like a general with ten soldiers.
For Okocha, self-expression, rather than an end in itself, was a means to an end. Defence-splitting passes and solo efforts ran parallel with one another in the contest between the self and the collective. These are the rare qualities that Jay Jay possesses in intimidating magnitude.
Until his recent retirement from active football, Okocha enjoyed more rave reviews and acclaim in global media than any other soccer star currently in the game. Following his calculations and dexterity that dramatically saved his club side, Bolton Wanderers, from relegation in the 2003 English Premiership, Okocha received an accolade from the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), which had picked his solo effort against West Ham as “goal of the week” on April 19.
The leading media empire ranked Okocha’s goal in the same category as those scored by Tottenham Hotspur’s Robbie Keane against Birmingham on April 6 in another Premiership game, Michael Owen’s stunner against Liechtenstein in England’s Euro 2004 qualifying win on March 30, and Thierry Henry’s screamer against Chelsea, also in the Premiership on March 9, 2003.
However, the Nigerian international capped his effort in May of that year with a more daring performance when he actually rescued his team from relegation in the English Premiership tango. In that decisive and ill-tempered game against Middlesborough, the Nigerian midfield creator confirmed to speculators that he was the greatest wonder to have emerged from the Premiership that year.
After he’d dazzled and held the entire stadium spellbound for the greater period of the game with his sublime skill and magical displays, the match entered decision time. The Nigerian soccer sensation then grabbed a pass in the centre and in a twinkling of an eye, Jay Jay had outplayed five Middleborough defenders and was headed for the eighteen-yard box before he was brought down by a deadly tackle from one of the ’Boro defenders. With just a few minutes to the end of the encounter, he repositioned himself for the ensuing free-kick and then rifled home from 25 metres the clincher that upturned Bolton Wanderers’ fate.
That was how Okocha joined the list of the world’s great free-kick specialists such as Roberto Carlos, and David Beckham.
Meeting my hero
Having said all this, you would agree with me that all too often those whom we admire from afar appear less impressive once we get up close. And yet when I met this best-ever African footballer, the opposite was true. The closer I got to him, the more impressive he was. For as long as I can remember, Okocha has been and will remain my hero. I respect him enormously as the greatest footballer to have ever come out of the continent and for me where he really distinguished himself was during his playing career.
Each time I watched him play or whenever I read a story on him, I was always struck by the same feeling – that he is simply the best player I have ever seen. I saw a man who is to African football what Pelé is to world soccer. As a member of the Nigerian national soccer team and later its captain, and even at foreign clubs, where he made a name and fortune before hanging up his boots very recently, Okocha distinguished himself as one of the most talented players of his generation.
In a very direct and personal way, meeting Okocha had been my dream for over a decade. After failing to meet him in December 2008, when I travelled to his home town of Warri in Delta State, it was a different story when I was in Abuja in June 2009 for a week-long sports journalism training course organized by world football’s governing body (FIFA).
Serendipity struck while I was having my breakfast on the last day of the training. A Nigerian colleague, who had, during my short stay, realized my pure undiluted adoration for Jay Jay, asked whether I would like to meet this great son of Africa. Of course I said, “Yes, I would.” I knew the man to be a Nigerian sports journalist working with the Guardian newspaper, but I didn’t know he could facilitate my meeting with Jay Jay who is worshipped by every soccer fan in Nigeria.
A few hours later, however, my Nigerian colleague called me from my hotel room and asked if I could go with him to the Nicon Luxury Hotel where Okocha was staying with the members of the Super Eagles who were preparing for their ‘must win’ game against Kenya in the race for a spot in the 2010 FIFA World Cup finals in South Africa. Without hesitation, I said yes. I dressed quickly and met him at the reception desk before we headed to the Nicon.
As we drove through the crazy Abuja traffic, I was still not convinced that I was going to meet an African hero whom I had only ever seen on television. After a rough 30-minute drive, we finally reached Nicon Luxury, and there I saw a hotel that was indeed as luxurious a place as the name implies. As my Nigerian colleague journalist and I disembarked from the car, I still could not believe that I was to going meet a player whose name, Okocha, was my second name back home in The Gambia.
After dropping off the car, we headed for the reception desk where we were well received by the receptionist after we had introduced ourselves and explained what our mission was. As she used the intercom line to reach Okocha’s hotel room to let him know that someone wanted to see him, I was still sceptical of a successful mission – that is, to speak to him in person as I had always dreamed of since I was a teen.
After almost a five-minute anxious wait, however, I was finally ushered into the room where Okocha and his bouncers were. No sooner had we entered his room than the conversation started. And it went like this:
My Nigerian Friend: “Jay Jay, this is a Gambian journalist who has been dying to see you.”
Okocha: “I’m so honoured to meet him.” Pause.
Me: “Nice to meet you too.” Pause.
We then sat down together and started talking about a wide range of issues including his life as player, and life after football. Admitting that he did not regret anything he’d done during his football career, Okocha also insisted that the continent has a lot to gain if we are to return to the classic African football – a style he nurtured throughout his successful sting.
“During my time I used to attack the opposition from the start,” said the former Super Eagles star.
He added: “There is no harm in allowing a player to play his own individual games. People want teams that win and you win by scoring goals. And you can also score goals when you attack with vigour.”
The consistency of one African team in Egypt in winning a record third Nations Cup title in 2008 in Ghana with only home-based players can go a long way to reaffirm what can be gained if we are to stick to the classic African style.
Poor infrastructures coupled with gross mismanagement could be some of the factors leading the continent through one of its least successful periods, but I’m strongly convinced that our decision to turn our backs on the African style remains the main factor killing our game, hence the great need to restore it.
The strength of the Ivory Coast Elephants, the consistency of Egyptian Pharaohs, the potential of the Nigeria Super Eagles and the ‘never say die’ attitude of the Cameroon Indomitable Lions in the past can only help to explain what can be achieved with a return to the classic African style of soccer. As my Okocha put it, Africans must strive to bring back the classic African style in order to restore the olden glory days.