Today, Monday, 14th August 2023, Austin ‘Jay-Jay’ Okocha turns 50.
It is the perfect time to celebrate one of Nigeria’s most successful footballers and easily the country’s most gifted player in history.
Over the past five decades, Okocha has been many things to many people.
To Brazil great Ronaldinho Gaucho, Okocha is “one of the No. 10s I’ve always admired”. To Senegal icon El Hadji Diouf, Okocha is “the most talented player I’ve ever seen”. To Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp, Okocha “scored the most spectacular goal in German football history”.
Jay-Jay Okocha's unbelievable goal for Eintracht Frankfurt vs Oliver Kahn and his Karlsruher team in 1993. pic.twitter.com/cqYonklhUB— The Antique Football (@AntiqueFootball) February 23, 2015
To former AC Milan defender Taribo West, Okocha “was a better player than Zidane”. To Bolton Wanderers’ greatest ever manager Sam Allardyce, Okocha’s tricks on the ball were extraterrestrial, “there’s been no one else like him, not even Cristiano (Ronaldo)”. To George Weah, Africa’s only recipient of the Ballon d’Or, “all the things Okocha does on the ball, I can’t even do one percent of it”.
Still, Okocha means more to Eintracht Frankfurt fans. He joined the German club in 1992 from Borussia Neunkirchen and propelled them to a third-place finish in the Bundesliga in 1993. Many believed that the Frankfurt team was good enough to win the title that season.
Okocha only left Frankfurt when the club got relegated in 1996. He would go on to spend the next two years in Turkey with Fenerbahçe.
To Fenerbahçe fans, Okocha is Africa’s football magician. He played football in a way many had never seen before him.
Okocha had a new bag of tricks for every game; he danced past opponents with remarkable ease and scored free-kicks from impossible distances and angles.
They loved him and gave him Turkish citizenship and a new name – Muhammed Yavuz.
On one of Okocha’s recent trips to the club, 25 years after leaving, fans still sang his name, while former Arsenal ace Mesut Ozil was delighted to meet his childhood idol.
Paris Saint-Germain had to pay an African record transfer fee to tempt Fenerbahçe to part with their prized asset after the FIFA World Cup in 1998.
To PSG fans, Okocha will always be remembered as that gifted playmaker who helped Ronaldinho to blossom. They also recall his spectacular goals, with the Nigerian midfielder managing 12 Ligue 1 goals in 84 appearances.
Okocha joined Bolton Wanderers on a free transfer after leaving PSG in the summer of 2002 following the FIFA World Cup.
He spent four years at Bolton and left the club as the best player to have ever played for the Wanderers at the Reebok/Macron Stadium.
Bolton fans can never forget that Okocha wonger-goal against West Ham United that would later win the team’s Goal of the Season. The goal would also later be chosen as Bolton’s best-ever Premier League goal by a fan vote in 2008.
Okocha also captained Bolton to the 2004 Football League Cup final, their first cup final in almost a decade.
Since he left in 2006, Bolton have not had a player as gifted or as celebrated as the former Super Eagles skipper.
To Nigerian fans, Okocha is a living legend, the ball juggler who convinced millions he was a playmaker. He was no Maradona. He was no Pele. He was no Zidane. He had a bit of all of them and then some.
There was none like him before him, and no one has come close to picking up the mantle he dropped in the national team since he departed the scene.
And with how football has squeezed out the role of a playmaking number ten, there may never be another JJ.
Okocha retired in 2008 after short stints at Qatar SC and Hull City, but occasionally he emerges from the comfort of his bedroom to remind fans of what we are missing.
In May 2016, Okocha played in a charity match as part of “Team John McGinlay” against “Team Tony Kelly” at the Macron Stadium and scored a hat-trick in his team’s 6–2 win.
Jay jay Okocha played so well during a testimonial match, that Samuel Eto'o had to plead for him to be substituted. pic.twitter.com/LC1CGrgdX1— Africa Facts Zone (@AfricaFactsZone) August 14, 2023
Recently, Okocha stole the spotlight all for himself when he dazzled for Team Ronaldinho in a charity match against Team Roberto Carlos.
Little wonder then that at 50, football enthusiasts all over the world are still falling over each other to celebrate the player who made Frankfurt, Fenerbahçe, PSG, Bolton Wanderers, and Super Eagles fans dream.
No surprise either that Okocha continues to be listed among the greatest-ever players from the continent.
As Okocha’s story intertwines with the annals of football history, his legacy remains alive, an enduring testament to the extraordinary magic he brought to the hearts of fans worldwide.
Happy 50th birthday, Okocha!!!