Family first for talented Okocha
"Come to see Okocha - you've only come to see Okocha" is the taunt that Bolton Wanderers FC supporters sing at visiting fans whenever the Super Eagle is in full flight on his home ground. In an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, Okocha describes the road that took him from the streets of Africa to footballing glory in Europe, praises his family's support and reveals his hopes for the future of the game in Nigeria.
FIFA.com: Jay- Jay, what is your earliest footballing memory?
Jay-Jay Okocha: I can remember playing football as a very young boy in my home town of Enugu - just for fun. In fact, a football was the only toy that I had. I was out there on the streets, every day, just enjoying myself with the ball. I never dreamt that it would lead me to such a wonderful career. Football wasn't that highly-rated in Nigeria at the time, so the chances of me becoming a professional were very, very small. I simply played for enjoyment, the love of the game - not for a career.
How did you get from the streets of a small South Nigerian town to playing at the highest level in Europe?
I was very lucky. After I finished high school, I signed for a local team who were playing in the Nigerian first division. Then I went on holiday to celebrate my graduation from high school. My brother had a friend who was playing in Germany, so I went over there to visit. It was shortly after they had won the World Cup. Because it was a footballing country and I had a place to stay, I went over there.
One day, I went to training with my brother's friend - the club was Borussia Neunkirchen. I saw the way they trained, I saw the way they played and I asked the manager if I could train with them - and luckily for me, he said yes. After I finished my first day's training, he asked me if I could come back! So, I went back, trained again and they signed me up, - that was how my career started.
Within a year, I was at Eintracht Frankfurt, which was a tremendous move for me. They were playing in the Bundesliga and I learnt a lot while I was there. But it all started with my holiday to Germany! After that, things moved really fast.
You have had spells in Germany, Turkey, France and England - what have you learnt from each country that you have played in?
One of the best things that I have learnt in my career is that football speaks all languages. I think that that my spells in those three countries have not only made me a better footballer, but a better person as well. Because of the cultures that I've had to adapt to, I think that has made me view life, value life and appreciate the opportunities that I have been given. Of course there are a few technical differences when you play in each country, but football is a simple, universal game.
Is there any other country that you'd like to play in?
No, not now. I think my next move will be retirement! To be honest I did want to experience other cultures, but I am getting older and I think that I have to be fair on myself and, more importantly, my family.
Do your family play a big part in your career and the decisions you make?
My family plays a massive part in my career. They are only people who stick by you when the going is really bad. I know that they are always there for me. Nothing compares to the love that a family gives you. And, therefore, my family comes first - yes, even before my football career.
What are your targets with Bolton Wanderers this season?
Our target is to finish in the same place as last season - sixth. If we can finish even higher than that, it would be a miracle! But anything is possible and here at Bolton we have a lot of talented players who work hard and play well for the team. This season (Jared) Borgetti and (Hidetoshi) Nakata have signed for the club and I think they will do very well for the team. They are good players.
People appreciate your talent and tricks with the ball. Do you think that there are a lack of entertaining players in football nowadays?
Yes, I think it is difficult to find players who can entertain the crowd, but you have to remember that football has changed now. It's not all about individual players, now it's all about teamwork. In the past, I don't think managers were that concerned about tactics - and there were always one or two players in every side that would, and could, do their own thing. Now, football has got back to basics. As well as results, tactics and game-plans are extremely important. It's very difficult for an individual to stand out now. But if you have extra qualities and extra skill, you can always contribute that to make the difference.
Do you think that coming to Europe has helped you develop as a player?
Without a doubt. As I mentioned before, when I played in Africa, I was playing for fun. I couldn't make a career out of football, but here in Europe, it's a business. You can make a living out of the game and also become better at what you do. You learn how to be a professional. I am pleased to see that other Nigerian footballers have also done the same thing as me, because their example will give more African players the opportunity to come over here.
Did you follow Nigeria's progress in the FIFA World Youth Championship this summer?
Of course! I followed it closely. I was very proud of our U-20 team. I was really happy when I was watching it because I now realise that we have got some very talented players to replace the old ones like me! It would be nice if we can keep that team and develop those players as a group, because they are good footballers. The future is promising for Nigeria.
Were you surprised at how well they did?
No, not really. Nigeria has always produced a lot of talented players, so I wasn't surprised with how they played or the results they achieved. However, I was delighted with the way the coach, Samson Siasia organised the players. It was a good advert for the young coaches making a name for themselves in Africa at the moment; many of whom have played in Europe and are taking their experience back to their native countries. Hopefully, the foundations are being laid for a successful period in African footballing history.