Okocha, love you. Pass Maradona!

The midfielder Augustine "Jay Jay" Okocha is arguably one of Nigeria's best men's football players ever. It is his birthday today, August 14th.

Jay Jay Okocha. Image via Wikimedia Commons (CC).

I know Jay Jay, the real Jay Jay. Unlike pop singer (and aspirant politician) Banky W, I don’t think he knows me. There has been much ado about his legacy, as football fans debate on Twitter. Reading the sometimes-savage comments, I remembered that I was at his wedding at Sheraton Hotel, Ikeja when I was still a 10-year-old football obsessive. I remember the French suit with the heavy shoulder pads. It made me look like I had reversed Tom Hanks in Big and shrunk from middle age overnight, but kept the clothes. It was my father’s idea, anyway—the suit and the wedding. An unusual idea, since he hardly ever goes chasing after celebrities. Three of us trooped to the reception to glimpse Nigeria’s most famous footballer, perhaps to see if Jay Jay’s wedding style bore any semblance to his football skills.

Augustine “Jay Jay” Okocha was Nigeria’s best-loved footballer well before Bolton Wanderers fans discovered him and decided why his parents named him twice. Around the time of his wedding, I had an appetite for football history and in the pages of Complete Football magazine, which I collected every month, I learnt that the maestro had borrowed his name from his elder brother, Emmanuel, the original “JJ” Okocha who by all accounts was as gifted as his baby brother. As it turned out, Jay Jay was the one who would go on to dazzle the world with his talent. The first time I watched him play was at the 1994 World Cup when he was a 20-year-old ingenue in Nigeria’s greatest ever team. Before Italy’s Roberto Baggio broke the hearts of Nigerian fans, Okocha had delivered a highlight reel of magical close control and movement that dominated the Round of 16 tie. Throughout the match, I was spellbound. I was just seven years old but I already knew that the things he did with a football verged on sorcery, and also recognized this was not everyone’s cup of tea.

There is a procession of Argentinian number 10s that remind me of Okocha in one way or the other. Incidentally, each of their careers overlapped with his. In build and stride, the similarity between Maradona and Okocha is uncanny to my mind. Strong upper body and legs like supersized mortars. Like Maradona, Okocha had the preternatural gift of foreknowledge to foresee the tackle and evade it. Like Maradona he never chose easy, preferring instead to leave his marker feeling bamboozled by an extravagant touch. Another number 10, Pablo Aimar—mischief maker at the 1998 World Cup—is similar to Okocha in the way he promised much but plateaued at Valencia, one of the lesser lights in the Spanish first division. Yet, it is Juan Roman Riquelme whose playing style most closely resembles Okocha’s.

Riquelme could do almost anything with a football, and he left many defenders wondering what it was that he did do. He could whip, curl or caress the pass, the cross, the shot; could finish his man with a look and a dummy and deceive any goalkeeper with a shimmy. Possessing supreme ability on the feint, Jay Jay once left Germany’s legendary goalkeeper, Oliver Kahn, clutching at blades of grass after he had danced through the defense and scored a magnificent goal. Both men scored spectacular and crucial goals like that throughout their careers. In a fitting parallel, both men were the leading lights for their respective national teams, but never appeared able to will the country on to major championship success.

Riquelme won Olympic gold in 2008, the best he would ever do at international level. On the other hand, Okocha would star in Nigeria’s “Dream Team,” which won the football tournament at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta while he was still on the up and up. At Bolton Wanderers, Okocha seemed content to be the talisman of a middling team, freed from the capital expectations of Paris Saint Germain where he became Africa’s most expensive footballer. Riquelme found the same contentment at Villareal, admired but never winning a trophy—the kind of adornment that earns the respect of European football fans. At Fenerbahce in Turkey, where he actually won things, Okocha thrived, albeit outside the Big 5 European Leagues in Spain, Italy, England, France and Germany. It was the same for Riquelme at Boca Juniors, his beloved club in his Argentinian homeland: plenty of spoils but little respect for his honors outside those shores.

My father once told me that Jay Jay was happy to be the big fish in a small pond. He was a showman and not a general. The comparisons with Maradona stop dead at this capacity for trickery. He could not put a team on his back like Maradona when he led Napoli to their only Scudetto in 1987. You saw it in the fact that Clemens Westerhof, who coached that 1994 World Cup team, did not trust him to start Nigeria’s three group-phase games, not even the second against Argentina. Maradona careened around the pitch high on cocaine with the football world begging for an adversary to embarrass him, searching for another player blessed with his extraordinary gifts but free from the taint of scandal. Meanwhile, Okocha languished on the bench in anonymity.

However, today on the occasion of his birthday, maybe it is time to reconsider Jay Jay’s legacy. There is the suggestion that the kid who made Oliver Kahn blush ought to have risen to the top of the global game. He may not have reached the same peaks as his idol, but Okocha will always be Nigeria’s favorite Super Eagle. He was a model pro, captained club and country and was a champion at the 1994 version of this competition. That is why it is he and not the original JJ whose song will live on:

“Love you pass Maradona ohhhhhh, Okocha, Love you pass Maradona, Okocha!”

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