By Oyediji Oluwaseun Babatunde
Sports Writer, kick442.com Nigeria
We round up Green/Super Eagles Greatest of all Time, GOAT Countdown with the top player on the list as compiled by Soccernittygritty. A quick rundown of the countdown from number twenty to two.
20. Thompson Usiyan
19. Celestine Babayaro
18. Peter Rufai
17. Taribo West
16. Emmanuel Okala
15. Christian Churkwu
14. Uche Okechukwu
13. Joseph Yobo
13. Yakubu Aiyegbeni
12. Vincent Enyeama
11. Segun Odegbami
10. Victor Nosa Ikpeba
9. Emmanuel Amunike
8. Daniel Amokachi
7. John Mikel Obi
6. Sunday Oliseh
5. Stephen Keshi
4. Rashidi Yekini
3. Finidi George
2. Kanu Nwankwo
1. Austin Jay Jay Okocha
1- A GOAT must be indispensable to club and country: An average player plays his best football anywhere around his mid-20s to his early 30s, usually an 8-year window (24-32) where his real attributes are shown to the world. A conclusive appraisal of any player outside this bracket is perceived as either ‘premature’, before, or ‘inconclusive’, after. Little wonder at 23+, JJ not only shed his unproductive and playful approach to games for club and country which honestly stalled his attainment of instant reverence, he slowly but steadily kickstarted a path to self-discovery which tossed him to the top- worthy of an audience by a Champions League club, PSG with a fee, which until that time, had never been splashed on any African player -$24m.
Talk of indispensability, JJ was a pivotal component of Turkish giants, Fernabahçe as they won the Prime Minister cup and Atatürk Cup in 1998 and also a third and second-place finish in his two seasons which saw him score once in less than every 2 games – 34 goals in 62.
Below are specific national team assignments, emphasis on senior team, showing JJ’s degree of indispensability to the squad.
France 98 World Cup: JJ was a vital component of the Super Eagles at the Mundial. He was Nigeria’s best player at the France 98 world cup, as a result, named by FIFA in the team of the tournament regardless of Super Eagles’ early round of 16 exits. JJ was the ‘only African’ on the list, not even Mustapha Hadji whom CAF later found worthy of African Player of the Year, APOTY.
JJ’s performance at the Mundial earned him the record transfer to PSG where he had fairy amazing seasons including mentoring Ronaldinho to superstardom. He scored 12 goals in 84 games, a decent record for a midfielder, and won the Trophée des Champions and UEFA Intertoto Cup in 1998 and 2001.
African Cup of Nations, AFCON: JJ participated in 5 AFCON tournaments and made CAF 11 in 3: 1994, 2000, and 2004. He was the only Nigerian on the list in 2000 where he netted three goals. JJ doubled as the tournament’s best player, Most Valuable Player MVP, and highest goal scorer in 2004 alongside strikers as Santos, Kanoute, and M’Boma.
Still on Indispensability: To ascertain how good a husband/father is, the voice of the wife/children must be prioritized ahead of the neighbors’, hence, the voice of Nigerians which crowned JJ the country’s player of the year a record seven times must count for something as we search for Naija’s G.O.A.T. It’s a feat yet to be attained by any Nigerian- dead or alive and logically takes precedence over CAF’s goof in failing to pronounce JJ as APOTY at least once, especially in 1998- a blunder not far from a scandal such that, an apology to the legend wouldn’t be inappropriate.
JJ was such who gave every club he played for way more than he received and Bolton Wanderers aren’t an exception. He singlehandedly saved his side from relegation in his first season as they picked up the last spot to safety.
Bolton even played in the Europa League after finishing sixth the following season courtesy JJ’s pure wizardry. It’s quite unfortunate to hear his die-hard critics fallow in ignorance by uttering such erroneous statements as big clubs never approached him. He was on the verge of moving to a Mourinho-assembled Chelsea amid equally intense interest from Tottenham following his sublime second season, despite clocking 31 and naturally less-marketable. He’d acquired a home for £1.8m in London as he prepared for an exit, however, the bids by the two clubs were overwhelmed by Bolton’s plea. As a way of reciprocating JJ’s loyalty to the club, he was quickly rewarded with the armband. It’s no coincidence Bolton’s regression happened at the same time as Okocha’s dip in form in 2006, aged 33, the spine had been weakened which ultimately rubbed off on the club as they crept towards oblivion- where they truly belonged.
Till date, JJ’s position in the Super Eagles has proven to be the hardest to fill as Rohr’s team falls short of creativity.
2 – A G.O.A.T must mirror completeness: JJ epitomized the very essence of completeness with his great individual technique, unbelievable vision, unrivaled dribbling ability, incisive passes and shot accuracy, incredibly high work rate, and stamina, unique dead-ball mastery including game-changing throw-ins and Ambi-pedal proficiency- he’s got it all.
Whoever saw him as a mere showboater must have ditched soccer probably for hockey since late 1990s. They must only have those years in the 1990s on their minds when he lost possession and smiled, even though he explained those smiles on his face were a reflection of frustration, they must only remember his ballet dance moves that led to Oliver Kahn’s harassment, even though it led to a goal and there’s hardly any month that goes by across the world without the clip popping up somewhere in the social media – a legacy engraved in the sands of time. Such a rigid outlook to criticizing him is utterly unfair. Whatever happened to showboating leading to productivity? Ask Parlour and Keane.
Whatever happened to his debut goal for PSG from 25 yards after dancing past multiple markers from deep in his own half? Whatever happened to the expression on his face and that ‘finger pointing to the turf’ gesticulation signaling – We die here today, after his screamer vs Cameroon in an AFCON final? Whatever happened to the 30-yard screamer for Bolton Wanderers against Westham after going past a sea of legs? The goal sent Bolton to a historic cup final in 2004 just to mention a few. JJ purged himself of every Robinho/ Dennilson syndrome, added a productive edge to his game, and moved on since the late 1990s, sadly, not so his unforgiving critics. They’re stuck in the past and can only view and appraise him with the early 1990s mindset.
Like JJ rightly once said: “It’s a big risk because if you don’t get it right, you’re playing for yourself, but if it works, you are playing for the team”- That’s the harsh reality in the game. He was pronounced Man of the Match, MOTM in Nigeria’s 3-2 win over Spain in 1998 by match-day commentator and named Bolton’s GOAT in June 2018.
3- A G.O.A.T is a game changer especially in big games: Again, some of JJ’s die-hard critics make such erroneous assertions about his inability to make assists. It’s a submission that exposes more their comprehension of the game than the deficiencies in his game. Back in the 1990s, a typical no.10 is given a ‘free role’, orchestrating play from deep, Zidane, Maradona, Valderrama, in his own half and masterminding attack for typically a two-man strike force. He isn’t necessarily the player with the final assist as prevalent today. The game evolved in the early 2000s when teams ditched two strikers upfront in preference for one goal poacher flanked by two widemen and closely supported by a no.10. As a result of the modem day no.10’s proximity, Silva, Fabregas, James Rodriguez, to the top striker, they are mostly always well-positioned to deliver that final decisive pass.
JJ belonged to both schools as evident in the 1990s, France 98 for instance, On the dot of 71:56s, he masterminded the attack from deep in his own half when he sprayed an immaculate 25-yard crossfield pass to Lawal, the former Roda winger, in turn, found Yekini who held up well to lay an assist for Lawal to score. JJ masterminded the best chance in the game vs Italy in USA 94 when his razor-sharp pass cut through the Italian defense to find Emenalo in space, the wingback drove in before he fed Yekini who uncharacteristically couldn’t finish from close range. On the dot of 36:14s vs Spain in France 98, JJ’s 40 yard assist from deep in our half located ikpeba who face to face with Zubizarreta failed to hit the target. We’ll mention only these few instances of creativity from deep consistent with the 1990s era.
By early/mid-2000s, JJ evolved with time and played closely with the top striker which resulted in several ‘direct assists’ with Bolton, Djorkaeff was the biggest beneficiary. And with the Super Eagles, poor finishing at different times eroded the genius in his several direct assists in several AFCON and world cup games from 2002 till his retirement in 2006.
JJ’s completeness as a player enhanced his ability to effect changes in crucial games- his seven goals in only 2 AFCON, 2000 and 2004, propelled Nigeria to the latter stages of both competitions. Save for Ikpeba’s naivety, his screamer against Cameroon in the final was the game-changing goal that could’ve triggered Nigeria’s quest for a third AFCON title. How dare we forget his game-changing world-class freekick vs Cameroon in 2004. His long throw-in which Campo failed to clear led to Oliseh’s stunner vs Spain. Again, JJ’s throw-in was the required game-changing assist which led to Kanu’s last gasp equalizer vs Brazil at Atlanta 1996.
His corner-kick vs Zambia at AFCON led to Amunike’s equalizer off Uche’s cushion header. The list of his game-changing inputs is near-inexhaustible Hence, his critics should look elsewhere for other flaws even though it’ll be an attempt in futility.
4- A G.O.A.T is hard to replace: Bolton’s inability to replace JJ resulted to their state of extinction while Nigeria’s inability to replace him has continued to hunt Rohr’s squad even though brimming with quality but evidently lacks the required cutting edge needed to take the team to great heights. They often looked clueless in games without one player who can be assuredly labeled a consistent set-piece master.
Other attributes of JJ includes: Ambi-pedal ease, escaping fierce tackles in the tightest of spots, ferocious shots- When he hits them, they stay hit. He was an embodiment of varying talents in one package. No single player on the countdown strikes as much ‘balance’ across all criteria to the degree JJ did, they’re either gravitating more towards titles at the expense of indispensability or lack completeness with several apparent deficiencies to their game, or ‘hide’ in big games when they ought to step up to the plate and be counted. No Nigerian player accessed the list of any major tournament 11, CAF or FIFA as much as JJ did, an indication he mostly left major competitions with the biggest of impacts.
While it’s excusable for a player worthy of the G.O.A.T tag to ‘compliment’ his team in the nascent (developmental) & latter (twilight) stages of his career, it’s near-forbidden for such a player to be viewed as a ‘mere option’ from the dugout at his ‘PEAK’ (24-32) just to impact games or used as makeshifts in the absence of a regular. NO! A G.O.A.T at his ‘peak’ MUST be a mainstay! This is consistent with the timeline of JJ’s career with clubs & country.
Unarguably, football’s GOAT is Brazilian legend, Pele. Hence, his view must command all forms of attention because he’s the SI unit of the game. As part of FIFA’s Centennial celebrations, the body released a list compiled by Pele, tagged ‘FIFA 100’ which comprises 125 names of the greatest footballers of all time, active and retired, and JJ Okocha was the only Nigerian player found worthy of such an esteemed mention. Also, in 2015, football greats, Ronaldo Delima aka ‘The phenomenon’ and enigmatic Zidane assembled a crop of football greats in an exhibition game in St. Etienne with such names as Frank and Ronald De Boer, Seedorf, Trezeguet, Cafu, Karembeau, Poborsky, etc, only JJ was found worthy of an invite amongst Nigerian greats.
7- A G.O.A.T must mirror longevity: JJ, though wasn’t the most capped Nigerian player in history, however, a career which mirrored a 13-year ‘quality’ timeline with 73 international caps is worthy of mention. His wasn’t just a case of quantity, numbers, they were backed with unprecedented quality.
8- A G.O.A.T must win titles: This is inevitable but often over-patronized. For every great player, winning titles should be the ‘icing’ on an already well-baked cake. A good cake can be ‘enjoyed’ without the icing while the icing can only be ‘endured’ without the cake. A great player is first of all remembered by what he stood for, the quality he oozed before the titles he won.
Diego Maradona is first remembered by his overall quality, class, and poise including that famous surging run which reduced England to shreds in Mexico 1986 world cup before the titles he lifted for clubs and country. The mention of the great Rashidi Yekini, first of all, evokes ‘fear and love’ in opposition and fans respectively as a result of the flurry of goals he scored including Nigeria’s first-ever world cup goal in USA before the title he won in Tunisia. JJ Okocha is the legitimate ‘face of Nigerian football’, the first name on the lips of a random foreigner at the mention of Nigeria, hence, the crown fits him.
Nonetheless, JJ complimented his distinguished career with ‘icing’ as evident in the titles and individual laurels he won.
Titles and Individual Laurels: Saarland Cup in 1990 and 1992 with Borussia Neunkirchen, Fuji cup with Eintracht Frankfurt in 1992, AFCON in 1994, Afroasian Cup in 1995, Olympic gold medal in 1996, he was named Nigerian Player Of The Year a record seven times- unequaled by any Nigerian dead or alive, Atatürk cup and Chancellor cup in 1998 with Fernabache, Trophee des Champions within 1998 and UEFA Intertoto Cup in 2001 both with PSG, April, and November Premier League goal of the month in 2003, twice British Broadcasting Corporation, BBC, African Player of the Year, APOTY, in 2003 and 2004, Bolton Wanderers footballer of the year in 2005 and GOAT in 2018 not to mention his inclusion in FIFA ’s 125 greatest players of all time as stated in the previous part.
Augustine Azuka ‘Jay Jay’ Okocha unlike other players on the series struck a ‘fine balance’ across all the parameters deployed in compiling this very difficult list without upsetting the equilibrium upon which the entire countdown is built, he ticked the most boxes than any other player without gravitating towards particular criteria at the expense of another, hence, crowned Nigeria’s Greatest Player of All Time. He was so good, they named him twice.
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