In the era of multi-billion pound TV deals, referees being assisted by videos, as well as Cristiano and Lionel scoring a goal every few minutes: can you remember the Nigerian fella who looked like he was actually having fun?
If you look up football in the Oxford English Dictionary this is what you’ll find: Football: Noun: Any various forms of team GAME involving kicking (and in some cases also handling) a ball.
See that word that I highlighted? I don’t even need to thumb through my OED again; games are supposed to be fun. Jay-Jay Okocha didn’t even let having to live in Bolton wipe the smile off his face!
One of my most vivid footballing memories isn’t a fantastic goal, thrilling game or even a dramatic-fingertip-save. It was the 96th minute of Bolton versus Arsenal –at the Reebok in 2004…
Bolton were holding onto a precious point against the champions; Arsenal—fresh off their invincible season. The Gunner’s poster-boy, Martin Keown, had glanced a Youri Djorkaeff free-kick past his own keeper to complete Wanderer’s comeback from two goals down.
Frenchman—Djorkaeff—rolled the ball to Okocha, we were all expecting him to shield the ball in the corner. Surrounded by ‘Invincibles’: World Cup winner; Robert Pires, England’s first choice left-back; Ashley Cole and… Ray Parlour.
But the most super of all of Nigeria’s Super Eagles simply rolled the ball up his left calf with his right and flicked it over the Romford Pele’s curly-locks. Next, he flicked the ball away from ‘Mr Cheryl (then) Tweedy’, who for some reason was hanging out a yard-or-so off the pitch.
He finished the move by selling Pires a dummy before passing the ball back to Djorkaeff. It was just the most elaborate piece of time-wasting that I have ever seen. Here, have a look:
But that is my point, that’s the sort of fun that we need in the game. That was by no means an isolated incident, I used to go out of my way to watch Bolton Wanderers’ games just to see the odd Okocha flick or shuffle.
I know there are other examples (mainly Brazilians) who played the game in a similar fashion. Ronaldinho is one who sambas to mind. Their paths did actually cross at PSG in 2001-’02.This is in no way downplaying the Brazilian’s talent and the masterful way that he made the game beautiful.
But Ronaldinho —in his prime— won pretty much everything: the Champions League, various league titles, a Ballon d’Or and even a World Cup. So it’s not hard to be happy with those medals around your neck.
Jay-Jay did win the African Cup of Nations and even an Olympic Gold medal with Nigeria, but his trophy cabinet is definitely more Bolton than Barcelona. His flicks and tricks lit up English football from 2002 to 2008, from Bolton to Hull (with a quick hiatus in Qatar in-between).
I’m sure every generation has their favourite entertainers: Matthews, Best or Gazza. There are still entertainers today; Neymar, Hazard or Messi. But that doesn’t stop me missing Jay-Jay…