I first heard of Augustine Jay Jay Okocha sometime in 1988 or 1989, not too sure exactly but I know it was before 1990. A cousin, Eze Ahukanna, came visiting to our Festac, Lagos residence with his friend Ibe. I do not recall Ibe’s surname but he and Eze were “tight”.
Ibe had just returned from a youth tournament in Europe (Denmark or Sweden) with Black Rocks of Enugu and a certain Jay Jay was his team mate.
Eze was gushing about Jay Jay and his tricks but particularly about his shooting. He scored one free kick from an angle the players on the pitch thought was impossible to score. According to Eze “JJ told us ‘nna lekwa space there, rapu’m ka n’gba shot’ (Guys, I can see the space please let me shoot)”. They allowed him and he fired home the free-kick. I filed the conversation.
Between 1988 and 1990, British MP Chuka Umunnah’s dad of the same name bankrolled Rangers International of Enugu as the club chairman. The team paraded the likes of Toti O Toti, Jude Agada, Nnamdi Asomugha, Joe Ashinze, Dotun Alatishe, Akeem Ashiru, Hilary Azodo, Ogechukwu Ajah, Obi Achilefu, Emma Okocha, Charles Nduka and a host of other players in a team that came close but did not win any honours.
Living in Lagos I always used to go watch Rangers whenever they came to play any of the Lagos based league sides. In 1990 I was at Onikan Stadium one afternoon for Rangers’ visit to ACB. As usual I sat with the Rangers supporters club for the rhythm and drums.
Rangers were in all white and game was really tight. Kingsley Ogbodo and Emma Okocha were prompting for Rangers in the midfield but Azodo upfront and Alatishe wide left were getting no change from the ACB back four.
Midway through the second half, Mathias Obianika, the Rangers coach had had enough and hurled off Ogbodo for another little player. The Rangers supporters around me exploded with shouts of “Jay Jay!!” Puzzled, I asked the nearest person who that was. “nna, that boy wu oku” (the boy is fire/hot) was what I got. Turned to another for his name and I was told Okocha.
There was no stadium announcer to introduce the player, this was 1990!
Anyway, five minutes after his arrival, this lad gets the ball, and trundled forward with it. Now, anyone who has played the game can – sometimes – imagine the mind of a player with the ball by his body shape. I knew he wanted to shoot, and having calculated the distance in my mind I was screaming “no do, no do”.
Dude did not even hear me let alone pay heed to my instruction. He let rip a swerving howitzer that left Willie Okpara in goal for ACB rooted to the spot. We were sitting behind the goal Rangers attacked and saw the ball hit the net. Pure bedlam around us! The guys I had asked about the sub turned round to me with the “You see what we mean” look. It turned out to be the winner and I had indeed seen what they meant!
On my way home after the match I remembered that previous conversation with Ibe and his Black Rocks of Enugu team mate. The next time I saw Okocha was when he led Rangers International out during the 1990 FA Cup final vs Stationery Stores. It was a ruse since he did not even start nor play the match. A few weeks later he was off to Germany.
In my many years of watching footballers play for the Nigeria Super Eagles I have not seen anyone nearly as gifted as Augustine Jay Jay Okocha. He is not human. I do not even make light of this statement. Every time I watched him on the pitch he was always capable of doing something that would make me gasp.
After his exploits with Eintracht Frankfurt in Germany he was in the Flying Eagles team that played at the U20 AFCON of 1993 in Mauritius. The less said about that James Peters led side the better.
His Super Eagles debut in Abidjan, Cote D’Ivoire in May 1993 was as a Right Wing Back. Even in that position his passing was just awesome. If Rashidi Yekini had not been so wasteful, the debutant would have registered at least one assist.
Okocha’s ability to strike a ball ferociously or to hit passes over 50 yards to the feet of the team mate belie his physique. Especially because he does these things without any backlift. As a kid playing football when you watch someone like Okocha on the pitch you will be convinced that football is easy to play. He struts about the pitch with very little care and proceeds to do stuff with the ball that are so magical that you want to get out there and do them.
The snag: because you are human you will fail spectacularly trying to copy him.
The Ibrahim Babangida led Armed Forces Ruling Council finally allowed Presidential elections to take place on June 12th 1993. Two weeks later Babangida annulled the elections in a nationwide television broadcast. It shocked majority of the country.
There was heavy tension in the south-west parts of the country as a result of this annulment. Days later a new group of pro-democracy activists declared that there should be a sit at home protests from Monday the 5th of July 1993. The aim – according to the organisers – was to force Babangida and his AFRC to release the election results and hand over to a civilian government as he had promised in the previous five years.
It was against this background that Algeria arrived Nigeria for the next World Cup qualifier for US ’94. Those of us who set out for the stadium that afternoon knew that there was a likelihood of trouble or riot but there was no way we were going to stay back home and watch on TV. Westerhof’s Super Eagles were Box Office.
The journey to the stadium was in my brother’s Nissan Cherry car. From Festac into Mile 2 through Orile, all the way and down the bridge descending into Costain and onto what is now Funso Williams Avenue (Then Western Avenue).
Got to National Stadium just after Noon and parked under the bridge. Bonnet was lifted and my cousin took something out of the engine – whatever it was, meant that the car could not start and so won’t be stolen!
At the stadium, more leaflets (announcing the sit-at-home protests for the next Monday) were handed out, adding to the tension while everybody in Military Uniform was booed. The national anthem too was booed as was the guest of honour when he was introduced to the two teams.
This was 1993, by then I had been watching the National teams at that stadium for at least eight years, I had not experienced an atmosphere quite like that before kick-off.
A defensive mistake allowed Abdulhamid Tasfaout to give Algeria the lead inside the first five minutes. The National Stadium was stunned into silence. You actually could not hear any murmur of discontent but that was purely out of shock.
You can’t blame them. The last time Algeria came calling on this same ground in a World Cup qualifier twelve years earlier they took the lead through a defensive mistake, scored a second before the half ended and walked away with a two-nil win.
I was sitting at the scoreboard end so was in a good position to see the little Algerian round Wilfred Agbonibvare before slotting into an empty net. I remarked to my cousin sitting beside me “I do not envy these players this afternoon”.
After that goal a few things happened. With his fellow defenders standing around in shock, full back Nduka Ugbade picked the ball out of the net, shoved his still transfixed mates forward, shouting encouraging words at everyone. A largely unreported show of leadership by the former national U17 and U20 skipper.
Okocha then took centre stage. An innocuous challenge on Rashidi Yekini was called a foul by Jean Diramba the center referee, a fair bit out from goal. A tiny roar came from the crowd, more in hope than anticipation because this team had no record of scoring from that range.
Algerian wall was set, Okocha took languid steps towards the ball to plant a deliciously floating kick over the wall and into the roof of the net. Keeper rooted to his spot. Stadium erupted and the legend of Jay Jay Okocha was born.
Later in the half, he dropped deep to pick the ball off Emeka Ezeugo in that “give me ball, Emeka” kind of way, then proceeded to drop the ball nonchalantly over 30 metres into the path of the galloping Yekini. The striker managed to squeeze home his effort from the touchline to add to his earlier volley, increasing Nigeria’s lead to 3-1.
Daniel Amokachi would scramble home a 4th goal but by then Okocha had been substituted to a raucous reception. Everybody clapping him off that afternoon knew that his free-kick, which drew the team level, had changed the course of history.
They also felt that in this bow legged maestro, a new star has emerged, one in which they were ready to be thrilled by his confidence and ability.
Augustine Jay Jay Okocha will go on to win AFCON in 94, score a sensational goal in a losing final (AFCON 2000), play at 3 FIFA World Cups and win an Olympic Gold Medal but it was on July 3rd 1993 at National Stadium, Lagos that his Super Eagles Legend began.