Nigeria made a big impact in the 1990s, but have failed to build on their golden era. Ahead of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, Jay-Jay Okocha spoke to DW about his glory days and the current Super Eagles team.
DW: Nigeria was labelled the ‘Dream Team’ after winning gold at the summer olympics in Atlanta in 1996. What changed after that achievement?
Jay-Jay Okocha: Nobody was expecting us to do very well because we didn’t have the best preparation but as individuals we stuck together and said let’s just try and see how far we can go. Lucky for us we won it and since then we are like heroes in Nigeria. Some of us got stadiums named after us. We were (treated) like Presidents you know. We got the highest reception you could ever think of. After that there was pressure was on the next generation to then repeat that achievement, but they failed.
The Super Eagles team missed the two previous Africa Cups, however the team qualified for the 2018 World Cup. So there’ve been these up and down periods. So why hasn’t Nigeria's national team maintained the level your generation reached?
Well I think we have to change our mentality a bit and change our beliefs because we have limited ourselves to trust in our talent alone. Our talents are not good enough to get us those results that we need to be a world power when it comes to football. We’ve managed to be successful in patches but that continuity has not been there. And for me lack of planning. If you don’t plan for the future then you are planning to fail. You have to invest to be able to successful when it comes to football. Your talent might take you to a certain level but at the end of the day you will suffer for not having things that are needed to go all the way.
You’ve spent several years playing abroad. You’ve been in Germany, Turkey, and England. So how would you compare the football infrastructure overseas to what exists in Nigeria?
Having had the opportunity to play for a very long time in Europe I was expecting to see us emulating what they’ve put i place there in this part of the world. You can’t play football without having a good training pitch. So we need infrastructure. We also need to put a good youth system in place and invest. And that is definitely not happening in Nigeria unfortunately. I can use Germany as an example, they’ve invested over a billion euros in their youth system. How do we cope with that. Football is money we all know that, there are no two ways about it. People running football are not really ambitious enough in terms of making bigger investments. That’s why I come back home to help and change things. I’ve invested in pitches and continue to run clinics to help encourage others to do the same.
Despite Nigeria not investing ‘billions’ into its youth system, the senior team did decent at the world cup and played better than many expected...
Lucky for us we have a lot of players playing overseas, and that’s why we are doing well with the national team. We are not relying on our home based players to take over. When it comes to the local league I think we still have a long way to go because one of the issues is that most of the clubs belongs to government and their budgets simply are not adequate to run a competitive league. That ends up leaving talented players going abroad to learn the (technical) basics and in many cases they reach a level of success. All that experience from other leagues is brought together and those players are able to help our national team. Just take a look at the current roster and tell me how many players are playing in the domestic league, maybe one.
Arsenal’s Alex Iwobi is one of those players getting experience abroad hoping to help the Super Eagles succeed at the Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt, he’s also your nephew.
He’s like a son to me, I’m very proud of his development. Yes it does help to have an uncle who is a footballer, but he’s earned all he’s gotten. As far as the Africa Cup, I think we have a chance to get far in the tournament and possibly win it all. Because we’ve been progressing in the last few years. There is a certain level of stability. The coach Gernot Rohr knows his team now he’s been there since 2016. He knows the expectations are high, but it won’t be easy. Preparation is key and so is the mindset ahead of a tournament like this one. It’s important (for the players) to believe you can win it all. Afterall that’s what Nigeria expects from them. And of course that includes me, I expect Nigeria to win it all.
Augustine Azuka "Jay-Jay" Okocha , born 14 August 1973, is a Nigerian former professional footballer who played as an attacking midfielder. Known for his confidence with the ball, technique, creativity, and dribbling skills, Okocha is considered as the best Nigerian and one of the best African players of all time. He earned 73 caps for country winning Gold at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and the Africa Cup of Nations in 1994. Okocha played professionally in a handful of countries at top clubs in a career that lasted 18 years including Frankfurt, PSG and Fenerbahce.
The interview was conducted by Kres Harrington