JOHANNESBURG – Following his successful stint with Eintracht Frankfurt in the Bundesliga, Nigerian legend Jay-Jay Okocha is one of the most celebrated icons in German football.
The Bundesliga and its broadcasting partner StarSat recently brought Okocha to South Africa as they look to expand the two brands. Our writer Mihlali Baleka sat down with the 45-year old former footballer now-turned soccer pundit to talk about the evolution of the Bundesliga.
Baleka: Jay-Jay, most African players normally prefer countries such as France or England, but tell us, how did your move to Germany come about?
Okocha: I think them winning the 1990 World Cup was a good motivation for me to go there and play in the country of the world champions. I wanted to show that I am good enough to play in their league. So that was the key thing when I moved to the league.
Baleka: Racial prejudice is an international concern, especially abroad. But there are a number of African footballers who have found comfort in Germany.
Players such as yourself, Solomon Kalou (Hertha Berlin) and Kevin-Prince Boateng (Hertha, Borussia Dortmund, Schalke and Eintracht) have enjoyed a couple of years in the Bundesliga. How did you survive so long?
Okocha: The Bundesliga offers you the opportunity to showcase yourself. If you are good enough, you’ll shine and if you’re not, you’ll have yourself to blame. I think it’s not a fluke that players like that find joy in playing in the German league. I had a wonderful career there, together with Tony Yeboah (Eintracht and Hamburg) and Steven Pienaar (Dortmund). It’s a place that we can call home because they are willing to work with African players.
Baleka: At some point in your career with Eintracht, you had a fall-out with coach Jupp Heynckes. Did you guys get a chance to resolve the matter later on?
Okocha: We had our clash but later, we made-up.
Baleka: In the Bundesliga, we normally see Bayern Munich dominating the league from early on. However, this campaign, it’s been a contrasting start as Dortmund have been the pacesetters, while Bayern have struggled.
What do you think has been the difference between the two teams this season?
Okocha: I think it has to do with the changes that Bayern made, because they’ve got a new manager (Niko Kovac). So, maybe the players are struggling to adapt to his philosophy a bit, and Dortmund is capitalising on that. In general, I think the league is getting stronger and teams are making it difficult for Bayern.
Baleka: Naby Keita who left RB Leipzig in the Bundesliga to join Liverpool during the last transfer window, hasn’t hit the ground running in England. Do you think African players take time to adjust when they move to different league?
Okocha: We have to accept the challenges that come with it. He took a step higher than where he was playing before and that’s why they made that big money transfer for him. Sometimes it takes a while for a player to adapt, but without a doubt he needs to impose himself and learn what’s required at his new club. Without a doubt, he’s a great talent.
Baleka: On Saturday Bafana Bafana will welcome Nigeria to the FNB Stadium for a 2019 Afcon qualifier, how do you foresee that encounter?
Okocha: I think it will be an interesting encounter considering what is at stake as well. Whoever wins is one leg in the Africa Cup of Nations, and that brings the excitement. I am excitement and can’t wait to see the game.