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Black History Month: The man so good, they named him twice

We begin this year’s Black History Month series with Jay-Jay Okocha, Nigeria’s greatest footballer ever.

FUSSBALL: Nationalmannschaft 1996 NIGERIA/NGA 03.08.96 Photo by Henri Szwarc/Bongarts/Getty Images

Welcome to February! February 1st marks the start of Black History Month in America, where we pause to recall the achievements that black people have made and the many things that black people have provided this great nation and the world. It’s also a chance to reflect on the many hardships black people have endured throughout American history and continue the conversations that will lead to the changes necessary to improve life for black people moving forward.

As I have done in previous years, I will bring that conversation to the soccer world. Soccer is a sport that’s rich with history, and a lot of the iconic moments, players, or events that define the beautiful game’s history is a result of black people. So, over the next 28 days, I will bring you quick, daily stories about a black player, an iconic moment in black soccer history, or other soccer achievements made by a black person or team. Some will be domestic stories, while others may span the globe. In the end, it’s an opportunity to recall some important players or moments that you may have already known while some days learning something new. By doing this, I hope to gain a lot of new knowledge, and I invite you to join me on that journey.

For more Black History Month stories, check out our Black History Month hub.

In the mid-1990s, Africa had a generation of incredible talent introduce itself to the world. One of these players, Augustine Okocha, became so electric that he became known by a single nickname: Jay-Jay. Born in Enugu, Nigeria, Jay-Jay received his nickname from his older brother, James. He cultivated his talents on the streets of Iwo, playing soccer with a makeshift ball and growing his juggling and dribbling skills.

“As far as I can remember, we used to play with anything, with any round thing we could find,” Okocha one stated in an interview with BBC News. “[Whenever] we managed to get hold of a ball, that was a bonus! I mean it was amazing!”

He got his soccer start with Enugu Rangers, where he was known for producing the spectacular. Still, it was a holiday trip to West Germany after the 1990 World Cup that he got his break. Visiting a friend who played for Borussia Neunkirchen, he asked to join in a training session one morning. He made such an impression that a day later, he had a contract.

He quickly moved up the ranks from the third division of German football to signing with Eintracht Frankfurt in 1992. Deployed as an attacking midfielder, he quickly brought his spectacular talents to the Bundesliga. He got the 1993 Goal of the Year for a goal he scored against legendary Germany goalkeeper Oliver Kahn and Karlsruher SC.

He remained with Frankfurt until 1996, when he left Germany for Fenerbahçe. There, he became known for his free kicks. He had 30 goals in 62 appearances, with his free kicks serving as his calling card. He was able to obtain Turkish citizenship while he was at the club.

His spectacular talents didn’t go unnoticed, and Paris Saint-Germain made him the most expensive African footballer in 1998 when they signed him for £14 million. He was beloved in his time at PSG. After 4 seasons there, he moved to Bolton Wanderers. There, he quickly became a fan favorite, and they came up with shirts that said “Jay-Jay - so good they named him twice.” That moniker always stuck with Jay-Jay, especially as he kept Bolton in the top flight with 7 goals. He eventually became Bolton’s captain and led them to the League Cup final in 2004.

Jay-Jay had a short stint in Qatar before returning to England to play one season for Hull City. Hull won promotion to the Premier League for the first time in their history. It was then he retired from the game.

Okocha also was spectacular on the international level. He made his debut for Nigeria in May 1993, and it did not take long for him to become a national hero. His free kick against Algeria in World Cup qualifying helped them earn a trip to the nation’s first World Cup. Nigeria won the 1994 Africa Cup of Nations and made it to the Round of 16 at the 1994 World Cup in the United States.

It was 1996 where Nigeria became a super team in Africa and the world, as Okocha helped lead the team to a gold medal at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. The team was known as the Dream Team by Nigerian media, and Okocha was one of the players that had fans all over the world wanting more of the Super Eagles. He served as captain of the team over his 13-year career with the national team. He ended his international career with 14 goals in 73 caps.

Jay-Jay Okocha is considered by many to be one of the best African players ever. In 2004, Pelé named him to his list of the top 125 best living footballers. His flair on the ball was what made fans hold their breath in anticipation. He could dribble, juggle, change pace, use trademark turns and stepovers, and just all out result to trickery to deceive his opponent and move the ball down the field. Few could create magic like Jay-Jay could.

In his career, Okocha was named Nigerian Footballer of the Year 7 times and was BBC African Footballer of the Year in 2003 and 2004. He won the Golden Boot at the 2004 Africa Cup of Nations and is widely thought to be Nigeria’s greatest footballer ever. A stadium in Ogwashi-Uku is named after Okocha. Current Everton and Nigeria winger Alex Iwobi is his nephew.

The guy so good, they named him twice, Jay-Jay Okocha quickly became a household name and his creativity endeared himself to millions of fans around the world. In a soccer world where we salute the most creative among us, Jay-Jay was one of the architects of creativity. What he brought to the game will forever be imitated, but no one could do it quite like Jay-Jay Okocha. He will forever live as one of Africa’s greatest talents in the generation that brought African football to the world.