“I didn’t know worth of winning AFCON until I retired” — Jay Jay Okocha
Nigeria legend Austin Okocha talks about his time in the Bundesliga, scoring a wonder goal in 1993, winning the Africa Cup of Nations and more in this interview with ’TANA AIYEJINA
Does being part of the Bundesliga Legend Tour bring back memories of your playing days in Germany?
I feel so honoured to be part of the Bundesliga Legend Tour. I’m always overexcited when talking about the Bundesliga because Bundesliga is the league that made me, that changed my life. And that was even when most of our people (Nigerians) were not familiar with it. I got to Germany at 17 and as an African, you can imagine how difficult that would have been but on the contrary, I was welcome and given the opportunity to excel. It’s difficult to find that happening in any other place. In England, for example, that can’t happen. You have to be an international player; and not just that, you have to play 75 per cent of your country’s games before you are considered. So, you can imagine going to Germany with no experience, I didn’t even play for the U-17 national team, but they gave me the opportunity to showcase my talent. Maybe that’s why I’m so passionate about the league, because of the foundation they gave me. They injected that discipline in me, not just on the pitch but off it as well. In my career I can proudly say that I had no scandal throughout; no serious injury worries because of what I was taught – how to look after myself, how to eat and drink. It was very important. If I have the opportunity, I will ask every kid to start their careers in Germany. The structure they have is comparable to none. In the Bundesliga, they give you everything to express yourself.
What makes the Bundesliga different from other leagues?
I think they don’t call them German Machines for nothing. In the Bundesliga, there’s nowhere to hide. The challenges bring out the best in you. I don’t know if they still have it now. In my time, if you start every game, you have a bonus for it. So, training was even more competitive than the matches because you had to fight hard for your place in the starting 11. I think on the whole, the structure is great.
For you, what made the Bundesliga tick?
I see Bundesliga as a complete league. The prices of tickets, the atmosphere that’s created, the stadium; it’s like a family day out. Financially, the clubs are very sound. You can never hear of clubs going into administration in Germany. None of the clubs owe players. The fans are close to the players. As a player, that gives you the comfort to do your job because you don’t have to do any other thing but focus on your football. Tactically, they are very sound; the pace of the league is amazing. They give you the opportunity to express yourself. African players are gifted naturally; so, it’s an opportunity to excel. I always use myself as an example. At the beginning, I looked like a player that never wanted to pass the ball, but they taught me how to get the balance right and used my natural ability to the advantage of the team. In other leagues, they don’t really give you this opportunity, all they need is the results. They don’t have that time to make you a better player.
Was it easy settling down considering the language, food, weather and cultural differences?
My desire to succeed made me to see beyond the food, the language and the weather as well because my first winter was an experience. So, I think it’s always about the desire to succeed because I saw my opportunity and I realised that if I did well, I would succeed. I wasn’t expecting to see pounded yam and egusi there; it was Germany and not Asaba. These are things you don’t need to complain about except you’re lying to yourself. You have to learn how to speak the language to be able to communicate with the people. It’s the same everywhere; if you can speak a bit of every country’s language, they will open the doors for you; they’ll welcome you. It also shows that you have an interest in staying and pursuing your career. I’ll say it again; it’s all about your desire to succeed.
Former Ghanaian striker, Tony Yeboah, played a major role in your settling down in Germany, when you got to Eintracht Frankfurt…
(Cuts in) I think it makes life a lot easier if you are lucky enough to have somebody who’s got the same upbringing and mentality in the same team; you can always encourage each other. Yeboah played a big role in my career because he was already established in Germany. Our dream then was to open doors for more Africans to be recognised. At that time, we had just four of us, but today 22 African players are playing in the Bundesliga. This gives me a lot of joy because it is a great privilege and a good place to develop as players because we don’t really have proper youth structures in Africa.
But we don’t have so many Nigerians among these 22. What do you think is responsible for this?
I think it has to do with our structure here. We don’t have the proper set-up here to allow scouts to come and get players in Nigeria to play in the Bundesliga. But we are doing our best at the moment to do something about that, especially with Bundesliga International.
One of Nigeria’s promising youngsters, Victor Oshimen, was at Wolfsburg but found it difficult to adapt and moved to Belgium, where he’s playing regularly and scoring goals. Would you say Germany is a difficult place to play?
It’s not a difficult place; it is just that you might be exposed if you are not good enough. As a player, you have to challenge yourself because if you want to play with the best, you must have what it takes to be among the best. There is no hiding place in the Bundesliga; so, if, as a player, you cannot cope, maybe you are not good enough; although that is difficult to accept. But if you are honest with yourself, you have to know when to up your game as a player. I won’t say the Bundesliga is a difficult place to play because we used to have several Nigerian players who excelled in Germany. Apart from me, we had Sunday Oliseh, Chinedu Obasi. Anthony Ujah is still there.
You scored one of the best goals ever in the Bundesliga in 1993, dribbling Bayern Munich players over and over again inside the box before slotting past goalkeeper Oliver Kahn. Was it something you learnt in training?
(Laughs) The truth about that goal is that it wasn’t planned but I think it was meant to be. I was on the bench during the game and I was a little bit upset for not being selected from the beginning. So, when I got that ball, I felt ‘okay, maybe this is an opportunity to regain my place (in the team).’ I never wanted to hold on to the ball for that long but whenever I looked up, I saw a defender, I would manage to get rid of him; another person would come. So, I was patient enough to hold the ball for that long and I was able to get the ultimate prize – scoring. But I can tell you that in as much as the goal was celebrated, my manager then, Klaus Toppmöller, told me that if I hadn’t scored that goal, I would never play again as long as he remained Eintracht Frankfurt coach. So, God rescued me because I never knew what he (Toppmöller) was planning for me.
How would you describe the Nigerian fan?
Our people are very loyal to our players. I remember dragging a lot of Nigerians to Bolton. Nobody knew about Bolton; I didn’t know much about Bolton. I see people tell me that they supported Bolton because of me and I ask, ‘Are you not supporting Bolton anymore?’ They’ll say, ‘No, since you left, I no longer support them.’ And I’ll reply, ‘Me too!’ So, Nigerians are loyal to their players.
You speak so passionately about the Bundesliga. How emotional was it when you had to quit Frankfurt for Turkish giants, Fernabahce, in 1996?
They made some money from the Turkish club. It’s not like now that you can decide where you want to go. I was still on contract; so, it wasn’t the best farewell and I wasn’t planning to go to Turkey. I wanted to stay in the Bundesliga before Fernabahce made the offer. That season, Frankfurt were relegated and I had wanted to stay.
The Super Eagles are back at the Africa Cup of Nations after missing the last two editions. What are your expectations?
I will speak as a supporter now because I am a big fan of the Eagles; it’s all about my own expectations. I expect them to go all the way because in football, anything is possible. For me, based on experience, it is all about getting it right on the day; if they can do that, they can beat anybody. We are not short of talents, but our preparation is key. We have to make sure we prepare in the right manner and of course, we stand a good chance of winning the AFCON.
If you were to advise the coach Gernot Rohr, which area would you tell him to work on?
As the coach, he owns the team and I am sure he is aware of the people’s expectations. Since he has been with the Eagles, he has done well for the team. He has been able to stabilise the national team, which is a good one for us as a nation.
What will be a good performance for you?
All we ask for is for them to play with passion, for them to represent us in the right manner, for them to play their hearts out on the field of play. If that will take them all the way, great, but if they don’t give their best, that’s when we are going to be having problems. But if they give their best, I think the people will appreciate them.
Nigeria is in Group B with Guinea, Burundi and Madagascar. How do you see the Eagles’ chances?
You cannot underrate any team any more; those days are gone. If you feel you are better than any country, you have to do the talking on the field of play and not by mouth. You have to stamp your authority because there are no small teams anymore.
AFCON has been expanded to 24 teams. Do you think Africa is ready for this considering the facilities available on the continent?
Yes, and I think that was one of the reasons why they took it away from Cameroon and gave it to Egypt. No sentiments anymore; if you don’t have what it takes to host a big tournament of that magnitude, they will take it away from you. Facility-wise, I think Egypt is good enough to host 24 countries and I am sure it is going to be a wonderful AFCON.
What did it mean winning the AFCON trophy at the first attempt?
Honestly, I didn’t realise how big it was then. I was thinking I was going to win it several times, but I started appreciating it more after retirement. As a young man, you don’t understand the privilege and opportunity.
You are still very fit and some even feel you can still feature for the national team. What has kept you going?
(Laughs) I will say the discipline. For me now, it is a way of life; it’s all about discipline and sacrifice, because in-as-much as you want to enjoy yourself, you have to do it in a minimal way. What was injected in me while playing in Germany has helped me a lot.
Did you witness racism in Germany?
Racism is everywhere, not just in Germany but in England, France, Italy and Spain. Black players are usually abused. Here in Nigeria, there are cases of racism too. As a child growing up, when you see a whiteman, there is a way we look at him and I couldn’t imagine a foreigner coming to marry my sister; we would surely send him away. However, in some places, we have more and some less. It’s like a fear of people coming to take what they have. It’s all about you knowing where you belong, what you are going there for and what you are doing there, and know that nobody can take your joy or happiness away from you.
Who was the toughest defender you played against?
Not to sound immodest, I will say I was my own toughest opponent when I was playing. I had that trust in myself that as long as I had the ball, no one could stop me from achieving whatever I planned to do with it. But I’ll say I had the biggest challenge with my African brothers. We all had this ‘eba’ structure and body. We all wanted to excel and that made it difficult for us, especially when we were playing against each other. I remember Samuel Kuffour breathing down my neck and I would be like ‘why are you stalking me like this. Are we not supposed to be our brother’s keeper?’ And he’ll say, ‘I have work to do, brother.’ And that made it more fun for us all.