Austin Okocha’s popularity has endured beyond the end of his playing career, as evidenced by his relevance in modern day football. The football icon explains why he rates the Belgian so highly and talks about his time in the English topflight and Super Eagles. Okocha, whose creative genius on the pitch and inventive brilliance as a player contributed to the growth of the modern game, spoke to Goal.com as he accompanied the Premier Trophy on a tour across Nigeria, courtesy MultiChoice Nigeria.
The Premier League trophy is currently touring Nigeria courtesy MultiChoice Nigeria and you are accompanying it, given your status as a Nigerian and Premier League legend, how do you feel?
Okocha: I feel great, I think this is a rare moment and people do not realize that it’s only a few people that have got the opportunity to lift this trophy. During my playing time in Bolton, I never had the opportunity so for me, it is a special moment.
In 1988, Paris Saint-Germain splashed £10 million to make you Africa’s most expensive ever player then. And four years down, you moved to Bolton FC on a free transfer? Why did you choose Bolton?
I wanted to play in the Premier League and Bolton offered me that opportunity at that time and that was why I signed for Bolton.
You are perhaps the only Nigerian to have captained a side in the English Premier League, could you provide insights into some of the things you did to keep the boys on track and maintain harmony in the dressing room?
It’s is all about you leading by example and making sure that everyone is okay, you are like the first child of the family and you feel like you are the oldest as well because it comes with a huge responsibility, you have to find a way to make sure that everyone is in good spirit and you have to also show good attitude towards training. It was a responsibility that I welcomed with both hands and I enjoyed every bit of it.
We have seen a drastic reduction in the number of Nigerian players plying their trade for top teams in the Premier League. What do you think the problem is?
To be honest, we failed to build on the foundation that we laid, and that can only come from our league back home. We’ve failed to improve our league even though it is a bit better now but we still have a long way to go to be able to produce players that can compete at that level, so it is not a rocket science, we just have to make sure that we put a good structure in place that will enable our youths learn about the basis early enough to be able to play for those big clubs.
Looking back, you never had a chance to lift this trophy with Bolton in your four years playing in the English Premier League. How did that make you feel?
Well, I have no regrets that I did not the Premier League. I would have been regretting my time England if I had not left my legacy, some people are lucky enough to be at the right place at the right time even without playing many games, they won it. But, the most important thing for me is the opportunity that you have. I think I maximised my opportunity at Bolton, changing the mindset of the people from when I arrived till the time I left. Bolton was one of the relegation candidates when I got there but we took the club to another level and even had the opportunity to play for the first time in the Europa League. So when I look back at what I achieved at Bolton, I think it makes me happy because it was never on our agenda to go for the title.
And have you thought of why the English Premier League is the most popular league in the world?
Without any doubt, it is the publicity and also the money that is in the PL now is unbelievable so, they have taken it to another level, it is a league where every player now wishes to come and play. I think it is also the most demanding league; the pace of the game in the EPL is something else and rightly for me is maybe the best league in the world.
Can you remember the chant Bolton fans had for you? How did you feel every time you heard that chant? And do you miss it?
It feels great and I think it is very encouraging. It shows that you are doing the right things, you are being taken at heart, it is very encouraging. Well, I knew it was going to end one day, what I emphasized on then was to make sure I enjoyed it as much as I could. I do not really miss it that much because I’ve played my part and some things will not last forever.
SuperSport’s Let’s Play initiative which is geared at getting children out of their homes to reduce the amount of obesity and develop an outdoor experience for young children, what is your take on this enterprise?
It is a wonderful initiative, I think kids nowadays are spoilt with computer games and with the fast food that they eat now unlike our time that you have to walk to get to your destination and on your way, you might branch somewhere and play five-a-side. So it is a great initiative to get them out of their comfort zone to come and exercise and also to do what they love to do because kids now have developed a great interest in football and it is good to give them that opportunity to come and experience or play with the legends that they look up to.
Let’s talk about the Nigeria national team. How do you feel about Super Eagles’ qualification for Russia 2018?
I am very happy about that because we have been struggling for a while now and for us to come out of that group on top shows that we are not too far from being where we are supposed to be. I know the expectations are very high in this country but you have to also realize that in a country of almost 200 million, we should be able to have a good strong national team, so I am delighted that they have qualified now but also at the same time, it is about time to challenge ourselves and believe that we are good enough not just to be partakers but to make an impact.
Isn’t it ironic that your nephew, Alex Iwobi scored the only goal that sealed qualification for the global football showpiece?
There are some things you cannot change, I never thought that it would happen but I am so glad that the young man is doing so well and also that he is not regretting the fact that I convinced him to play for Nigeria, so it has worked out well in both ways so I am delighted.
You played in three Fifa World Cups and captained Nigeria on one occasion. How would you describe the experience, and what advice do you have for the Super Eagles as they Grace the 2018 tournament?
I think it is where every football player wants to be because people like us will have prayed to be there but I would say that nothing is impossible, it is all about staying focused, setting the right targets for yourself and just show commitment and it is all about playing six or seven matches and if you can sacrifice and believe that, you can play at least maybe five games in the tournament, you are talking about semifinals.
Who is your favorite player in the Premier League right now?
At the moment, the person that impresses me the most is Kevin De Bruyne because of his vision, his unselfishness, and I think he is one of the reasons why Manchester City are tearing the other teams apart now.
How much has the English league changed since you were a player?
I do not think it has changed much, yes the fees have changed but the ambition is still the same and the mission is still the same, so thing have not changed much I will say.
Who were the best players you played with during your first time in the English game?
Youri Djorkaeff, Ivan Campo, El Hadji Diouf – love him or hate him, he was instrumental to what we achieved then, Fernando Hierro and Hidetoshi Nakata from Japan. So we had all nationalities in one team and it was great to have these players in the team.
What were your best and worst moments in the EPL?
My worst moment I would say was my first season because I did not realise how tough the EPL is and I did not realise early enough that I signed for a struggling team, but then at the end of the day I will say my greatest moment in EPL was the day that we survived relegation, we survived after the last game of the season.
Do you still remember the best advice you were ever given during your playing days?
It’s for me to believe in myself, believe in my ability, never let anybody bring me down and keep working hard because talent is not good enough, you have to work to earn whatever you want to achieve, so hardwork is key.
How would you assess DSTV and SuperSport contribution to developing the game of football in Nigeria, in view of its value offering over 300 live games and this EPL Trophy Tour?
I think for football lovers, it is like being in dreamland, even in England they do not watch this many matches. So, it is a wonderful opportunity that has been given to us by DSTV and I can only say thank you to them because fans have developed more interest in the game now courtesy of all these television stations, the EPL is booming because of TV rights and also I can only say kudos to DSTV.