Maestros are typically defined as midfielders who are able to control games with their creativity, similarly to how a conductor directs a musical performance. Maestros can flip games on their head with their trickery and technical ability. They are players with an uncanny ability to move the ball, whether it be by slaloming through defences or picking out passes that turned heads.
Maestros are a bit of a dying breed in football today, especially with the phasing out of the traditional number 10 role, but they made many of us fall in love with football. The likes of Ronaldinho and Zidane come to mind when considering world football’s greatest maestros, but what about the Africans?
In this series we will reminisce on Africa’s greatest maestros with words and video – and for this episode, Tosin Holmes dishes on his comptatriot Jay-Jay Okocha.
Back in the days when fans were allowed at stadiums the world gathered for a Joseph Yobo testimonial, and four 45 minutes, it became a Jay-Jay Okocha exhibition. The former PSG and Bolton Wanderers star dazzled, regaling the world with his gift, unleashing magic reminiscent of the Great Wizard of Oz. Okocha would begin his act by sending a nonchalant no-look pass laced with pure arrogance in the path of Ahmed Musa, then he’d beat Yobo and Stephen Appiah with an upper body feint, before providing a blinding assist for Emmanuel Emenike, by splitting the defence in two, leaving the forward with the goalkeeper to beat. It was pure filth. Not many footballers in their forties would boast a full highlight reel, playing forty-five minutes in a colleague’s testimonial. So good, they named him twice.
Perhaps the most gifted African to never win her individual gong, the CAF African Footballer of the Year, Okocha was otherworldly every time he stepped onto the lush green of the pitch or when he had the ball at his feet. Exhibitions, Leagues, Cups, International Competitions, nothing missed out on Jay Jay. The opposition wasn’t his business either, he cared less. When Brazil came to town in 2003 as Nigeria celebrated the opening of her National Stadium, then captain, Okocha twisted, twirled and dazzled, leaving everyone in awe at his grace, The Eagles lost 3-0, but the scoreline mattered not, it was all about his brilliance.
Watch @Zettergol’s Jay-Jay Compilation
After all, another of his virtuoso performances had come in another defeat, a 4-1 hiding by Denmark at the France 1998 World Cup. Wearing blonde hair, Okocha would torment Soren Colding time and again whenever he drifted left, enchanting him with stepovers and feints, the Right Back barely coped. Jan Heintze, the Left Back wasn’t left out, getting his own dose of the mercurial number 10 when he sold him a dummy. It simply was hard to see such talent leave the World Cup so early. Thomas Helveg, Marc Rieper and Martin Jorgensen all felt the dizziness Okocha’s skills induced. He was a handful, but not enough to put Nigeria in the plate for the Quarters. His three crosses into the box caused all sorts of problems, while his shots kept rising like smoke from freshly burning tyres. Many rightly fell aggrieved that had the chance he put on a plate for Kanu were converted, the game would turn out differently.
Such animosity wasn’t there at the AFCON in 2000, where JJ cleared everyone’s doubts with his final performance. The shots were decisive this time, where he rammed home a screamer. Again, Nigeria would lose, on penalties to Cameroon, however, all these were sandwiched in between another two gracious performances at the AFCON, both against then reigning Champions, Ivory Coast in 1994, and Cameroon ten years later. Nostalgia filled the air in the latter when Okocha held an entire continent spellbound as he stood behind a free kick just outside the box with time ebbing away. His gait over the ball, he would take his customary short run-up before unleashing a curler into the top right corner, one that left Idris Carlos Kameni for dead. On both occasions, he’d run the game like a choir master directing his orchestra. The game was at his mercy, the beats and tones his to choose. The ball was his servant, subservient and willing to do anything its master sent him simply because of how it was revered. Not once, did a football fail Jay Jay, not once, he never attempted a skill and failed at it, it was as effortless as breathing air. This was the maestro.
His shock arrival in Greater Manchester in 2002 after the World cup was solely because he wanted the freedom to run the game, dictate the tune. Bolton gave him what other top teams in the land couldn’t and they paid dearly for it. Arsenal’s Ray Parlour perhaps is still searching for the ball Okocha flicked over him at the corner flag as the clock wound down, bewildered, he stood in awe as his tormentor walked away. Not even the grit and intelligence of Paul Scholes and Roy Keane could stop him, leaving Scholes in a heap as he swatted him away like a fly, Keane’s ankles probably snapped when Okocha sold him a dummy, only to return, shimmy and then dummy him again, it was the appetizer. He’d deal both dangerous hands as they sought to end the show, hypnotizing them like the magicians from “Now They See Me”, only that they couldn’t touch. It was angelic, and yet Jose Angel of Aston Villa wasn’t left out, as Jay Jay flicked the ball over him not once but twice in what was a 5-2 success as Bolton attained the League Cup final. They’d lose to Middlesbrough, but Okocha had the Trotters dreaming, only that in this case he wasn’t selling them as he had did opponents.
Oliver Kahn could attest to the Angelic wizardry of the maestro, who dragged him all through the Karlsruher penalty box as one would treat a mop, an arrowing experience for one of the greatest goalkeepers of the game. It was a statement from the black man who had received racist treatment on his arrival, embarrassing opposition at every turn. Talent didn’t recognize color.
It is why in the colours of Fenerbache, he remains the man, the only one to score in four successive league clashes against Galatasaray, achieving the feat in the 1996-97 and 97-98 season. Nobody has since, nobody did before. His wicked free kicks; be it bending like a banana, or curling it past the wall, in those fixtures swung momentum the way of the Blue and Yellow either at the Sukru Saracoglu or the Turk Telkom arena. He needed no introduction, it was his home. He was the “Saha Buyucusu”, the wizard of the pitch. Everywhere was his home.
By the time he turned up in France post 1998 World Cup to become one of Africa’s highest earners abroad, Bordeaux particularly would feel his wrath, The stage for his debut, Okocha had barely played four minutes when he left everyone in the stadium mouths aghast. He received the ball, diced two players like pineapples before thundering home from 25 yards. He’d score a goal akin to Marco Van Basten’s impossible angle strike against the same opponent a year later, standing in front of the Parisian faithful, who worshipped him as the god that he was. Okocha is a deity, had he been born Brazilian or European, he would have been in the GOAT debate. Such was his brilliance. Even those in Enugu would attest.
Featured Image: Mark Yesilevskiy