A legend of Nigerian football, former Paris Saint-Germain playmaker Augustine “Jay-Jay” Okocha was back in France for the 12th Match Against Poverty. Answering the call of Zinedine Zidane and Ronaldo, the men behind this unique initiative, the 41-year-old lit up the star-studded event and showed he had lost none of his magical skills. Sitting down for an interview with FIFA.com, the inimitable Jay Jay also showed that his sense of humour remains very much intact. Displaying a love of life and for the game, the Nigerian great, who appeared in three FIFA World Cup competitions and won the CAF Africa Cup of Nations in 1994 and Olympic gold two years later in Atlanta, remains as much of an entertainer as he always was.
What does it mean to you to take part in a charity match like this?
Jay Jay Okocha: This event means a lot to me. It’s an opportunity for us footballers, who’ve enjoyed all the advantages life has to offer, to give something back to people in need. It’s a great and beautiful initiative.
How much pleasure do you get from being able to play again in front of a large crowd?
A lot. It’s a special feeling and it’s something you miss. It’s wonderful to have the chance to relive it all again, to run and play, to express yourself on the pitch, and all without any pressure on you either. I was very excited about it.
What’s your happiest memory of your career as a player?
I’ve got quite a few and it’s impossible for me to pick out one in particular. Every second I’ve spent on the pitch is a good memory for me, every moment when I’ve been able to express myself with the ball. I enjoyed every single moment of my footballing career, for every club I played with. I’ve got nothing but good memories.
You played for Eintracht Frankfurt, Fenerbahce, Paris Saint-Germain, Bolton Wanderers and Hull City during your career. Is there one club that’s especially close to your heart?
Yes, there is one that is particularly important to me… just don’t expect me to tell you who it is (laughs)! I don’t want to disappoint the other clubs, who also mean a lot to me. I’m keeping my secret.
And do you have a favourite goal out of all the ones you scored?
Yes, the one I got for Frankfurt against Karlsruhe in 1993 stands out a little for me. I was very young and I hadn’t made a name for myself yet. Klaus Toppmoller was my coach at the time and he started me on the bench for that game, which I wasn’t especially pleased about. We were 2-1 up when he finally decided to put me on. We were under pressure and my job was to keep the ball, but we put a break together and I suddenly found myself in the opposition penalty box with four or five defenders facing me. I just dribbled with the ball, going one way and then the next before putting the ball past the keeper, who was none other than Oliver Kahn.
That goal said a lot about how skilful you were, but do you feel you missed out on achieving something big in your career?
Yes, I feel like that about Nigeria, especially the 1994 World Cup. I really think we could have sprung a surprise, but at the time we didn’t know just how good we were. It was our first world finals and we settled for that. Looking back, though, I’m convinced we had the potential to shock the whole world.
What does football mean in Nigeria?
It’s a religion in my country. It unites the whole country as one. If the football goes well, then everything goes well. It’s more than a game, more than a sport. It’s part of our culture.
What’s your view on the state of the game in Nigeria?
You can’t be completely satisfied with the situation at the moment. We’re lacking a bit of consistency, but there’s plenty of work being done at the top. We’ve been through some tough times, but the good thing is that we’re a big country with a lot of talented players. We just need to get the right structures in place so that the light can shine for good.
And what about African football? Do you think African teams are closing the gap on the big European and South American sides?
I think so, but the problem is that we still settle for very little. We celebrate a World Cup quarter-final place when it’s not enough. You have to go further. The gap has closed a lot, though. African teams are getting harder and harder to beat, and that’s a fact.
Who’s the best African player in the game right now?
I’d say Yaya Toure. He’s the most consistent performer. And then there’s Jay-Jay of course (laughs)!
Nigeria won the last FIFA U-17 World Cup and their U-20 side are the reigning African champions in the age group. Are we seeing the emergence of another golden generation?
I think so, but we have to make sure that these youngsters can kick on. If we’re going to do that, we must give them support and encouragement. If we don’t give them the right backing, then it’s just going to be the same old story. We have youth teams that have shone in the past but which haven’t been able to push on at senior level. Let’s try and protect this emerging generation of players and help them mature. I think it’s important that we set up structures that allow us to achieve the kind of continuity we’ve always needed.
Can you see a new Jay-Jay Okocha coming along in that new generation?
One thing’s for sure: there’s an awful lot of talent among those youngsters. No two players are the same, though. Every player has their own attributes, characteristics and flaws, and their own story too.
Are you thinking of going into coaching one day?
No, not for the moment. I’m more interested in the executive positions. I prefer to be the one who appoints them and tells them what to do (laughs)!
You see yourself as the presidential type, then?
Why not? Yes. In fact, I’ve just been named the chairman of the Delta State Football Association, which I’m delighted about. Who knows what the future has in store, though?