1993. Eintracht Frankfurt v Karlsruhe in the Bundesliga. A 20-year-old kid named 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. A few passes later, the counter-attack appears to have come to nothing as Karlsruhe have regrouped. Okocha receives the ball on the edge of the penalty area with 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-Jay Okocha.
The Jay-Jay Okocha dance-off had begun. He feinted left and then right, leaving 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 opponent on his back. In the meantime, the goalkeeper had managed to get up and track back between the sticks, along with the remaining two standing centre-backs. Another feint towards the 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 in a tweet just how dazzlingly brilliant that work of art was:
Jay-Jay Okocha’s rise from poverty to footballing glamour is well documented, and it follows a familiar story - on the streets of Lagos, Nigeria, he learned the flowing brand of football most fans of freestyle football will be familiar with. There was no academy to burn out his talent, and 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.
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, Okocha was taken to a training session at Borussia Neunkirchen, a third division club. The Neunkirchen coach was stunned by this young and as yet undrafted youth, immediately offering him a contract. The player’s talent far outstripped the limited ambitions of the club, though; after spending a further few months with second division side 1. FC Saarbrücken, he soon earned a move to the top flight with Eintracht Frankfurt.
In 1995, Okocha - along with his team-mate Tony Yeboah - had a major falling out with the manager Jupp Heynckes, and he eventually departed for Turkey and Fenerbahçe. 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. It was enough to convince Paris St. Germain to sign him for £14 million ($24 million) in 1998. During the four years he spent at the French club, however, he could not quite assert himself, or fulfil the potential he had shown in Germany and Turkey.
Out of contract at the end of the 2001/02 season, Okocha was improbably snapped up by Bolton Wanderers - and this is where his story picks up again. At this point, critics had given up hopes that Okocha would reclaim his best form; following Nigeria’s early elimination from the 2002 World Cup, he was 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. His 14 goals might pale in comparison with his time in Turkey, 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 four years is far too brief to enjoy this man’s skilful mastery of the game - he was idolised in the north-west of England, if not up and down the country.
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 notions. During his time at Bolton, Okocha was surrounded by some excellent technicians: Youri Djorkaeff, Gary Speed, Fernando Hierro, Ivan Campo, and Nicolas Anelka, to name a few. Ask any Bolton fan who they remember and miss most from that era, and the response is invariably the Nigerian magician.
In today’s game, apart from exceptions like Lionel Messi, we rarely see flashes of skill or slaloming runs through the opposition midfield. We might see the occasional feint by Philippe Coutinho, or a couple of stepovers by Neymar.
With Jay-Jay Okocha, however, the unorthodox happened almost every week.
Witness the League Cup semi-final first leg in 2004 against Aston Villa at the Reebok Stadium. Bolton were leading 4-2, and, in the last ten minutes of the game, the Trotters won a free-kick to the left of the Villa penalty area. The angle was acute. With two 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. Okocha stepped up, though, took four strides towards the ball, and put his laces through it. The ball careered off like a Japanese bullet train, curling away from the near post before checking its trajectory, bending the other way and bursting into the back of the net.
Just another day in the life of the Bolton legend.
He captained that Bolton Wanderers team to an English League Cup final, led them to consecutive top-half finishes in the Premiership, and even took them to the last 32 in the UEFA Cup, where they 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 be part of the top 100 players discussion. However, 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 would love to devour on a weekly basis, but, with high-stakes matches breeding tactical stalemates, we often end up finding only in YouTube compilations.
Okocha had a propensity to entertain, to capture lightning and unleash it on his opponents. It could be said that there has not been a player like him in the top flight since. His career was one 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”. For those lucky enough to follow his career at Bolton, Jay-Jay Okocha was the ultimate magician.
By Pranav Dar.