For years he has tried to announce his international retirement, and for years the fans of Africa have pleaded with him to continue. But this time around, it will surely be his last curtain call on the global stage. When Augustine 'Jay-Jay' Okocha, the captain of the Super Eagles, contests his final African Cup of Nations by the banks of the Nile, he will be aiming to write a triumphant last chapter in what has been an amazing career…
At this 25th CAN in Egypt, "the child from Enugu" will be gracing his fifth Nations Cup. It was in Tunisia back in 1994 that Okocha's genius and magic were first paraded on the global stage. At that time, the young Nigerian number 10 was already mesmerising Bundesliga crowds in the colours of Eintracht Frankfurt, and in conjunction with gifted compatriots such as Stephen Keshi, Rashidi Yekini, Daniel Amokachi, Sunday Oliseh and Emmanuel Amuniké, he was about to lead African football into a brand new era. Jay-Jay's overflowing armoury boasted mind-blowing stepovers, bewildering dribbles, disconcerting shimmies and thunderbolt shots, making the boy from the Igbo culture a force to be reckoned with.
The world at his feet…
An African title now under his belt (after victory in the final 2-1 over Zambia), Okocha had broken into the elite circle of African football's rising stars. But in 1996, when the Super Eagles withdrew from the South African CAN at the last minute, CAF punished them with two years' further suspension, tragically depriving Africa's premier event of Jay-Jay's silky skills. While his country served out the ban, it was German, Turkish and French spectators who were treated to the Nigerian star's rich panoply of dribbles, feints and body swerves.
The Olympic Games in Atlanta offered an excellent showcase for his skills, as alongside Nwankwo Kanu, Amokachi and Oliseh, Okocha proceeded to wow the watching world. Neither Ronaldo's Brazil nor Diego Simeone's Argentina could prevent the Super Eagles from claiming the gold medal, a first for an African country. In Nigeria, the incredible precision of his passing and shooting led to Jay-Jay being likened to a football computer.
At the 1998 FIFA World Cup in France, Jay-Jay literally exploded onto the world stage. With a bag of tricks that included a mindblowing nutmeg that was also a stepover, he blew away the crowds, especially in the match against Spain.
In 2000, the CAN was co-hosted by Ghana and Nigeria. At home in Lagos's Suruléré National Stadium, Okocha carried the hopes of all Nigeria on his shoulders. In the final against an Indomitable Lions side that dominant before the break (2-0), Jay-Jay hauled the Super Eagles back in the game with a splendid 35-metre piledriver. But despite this stunning example of great technique and skill, the penalty shootout saw Cameroon take the trophy taken back to Yaoundé.
Jay-Jay: Master of all Africa
Two years later, it was a Jay-Jay hampered by recurring injuries that turned out in Mali. Unable to compensate for his poor form, Nigeria exited the competition in the semi-final against Senegal, Okocha having left the field a few minutes before time after receiving a red card.
The Tunisian tournament looked tailor-made for Jay-Jay's comeback, but ten years after his first CAN triumph with the Super Eagles, the Bolton Wanderers playmaker kept everyone guessing about his participation in the 2004 edition. There was much speculation among African journalists about the waning skills of the Nigerian captain but, in the end, Jay-Jay surprised everyone by starting the competition.
In Nigeria's second game against South Africa, Jay-Jay pulled all the strings, engraving his name even deeper in the annals of African football by scoring the 1000th CAN goal. In the aftermath, he was named man of the match and went on to put together a string of top-class performances.
In the end, Nigeria were eliminated on penalties in the semi-final by hosts and eventual winners Tunisia, and Okocha, looking to go out on a high note after being named player of the tournament, announced his international retirement after 10 years in his country's colours.
But the Nigerian authorities and African fans were having none of it, and they persuaded Jay-Jay to stay on for the combined FIFA World Cup and CAN 2006 qualifiers. However, problems of age and injuries conspired to limit Okocha's involvement and Nigeria were pipped at the post by Angola. Consequently, the old eagle, keen to soar imperiously over the summit of African football one last time, has decided to play - to win - in Egypt. It will then be time to pass on the baton to a fresh young genius. And the master has already designated his heir apparent: John Obi Mikel.