So good they named him twice. That is what is commonly said about the brilliance of Jay-Jay Okocha. He is renowned for his fondness of the stepover and technical brilliance, particularly remembered for helping Bolton reach currently unimaginable European heights. What is less known, however, is the time the Nigerian spent honing his craft in the highly charged arena of Turkish football.
Okocha’s European journey began in Germany playing in the lower leagues, before signing for Eintracht Frankfurt in 1992. It started well with a third-place finish in his debut season, however things turned sour under the reign of Jupp Heynckes. The German clashed with Okocha, as well as Maurizio Gaudino and Tony Yeboah, over a perceived lack of effort in training. The other two would be quickly sold, leading to Eintracht’s relegation at the end of the 1995/96 season, after which Okocha also left the club.
His destination of choice was Turkish champions Fenerbahçe, with Okocha arriving for a fee of around £1m. He debuted in the first round of Champions League qualifying, playing the full 90 minutes of the first leg against Maccabi Tel-Aviv. Four days later he would score in his opening Süper Lig match against Samsunspor. Assisting Kemalettin Sentürk with a cross in the first half, in the second period he would showcase what fans could expect over the next two seasons. Just on the edge of the ‘D’, he would exquisitely bend the ball into the top corner past Alioum Boukar to cap a 4-1 win.
Just ten days later would come a completely different goal in the Champions League playoff against Maccabi Tel-Aviv, although spectacular all the same. Again receiving a ball on the edge of the box, Okocha would expertly sell a dummy to an onrushing defender. The deflection off the futile slide tackle failed to affect Okocha, who killed the ball on his knee before firing low into the bottom corner to send Fener into that season’s group stage proper.
These two goals serve to perfectly epitomise the stay Okocha would enjoy in Istanbul. Blessed with exceptional close control and tricks, alongside dead-ball accuracy and an underrated turn of pace, the Nigerian would terrorise defences across Turkey. Such swagger, wearing his red boots in a period where black was still the norm, would quickly endear him to the Fener faithful.
Okocha would serve to do this in the best way possible in early September 1996, taking centre stage to score a free-kick, alongside registering an assist, in a 4-0 demolition of Galatasaray at the Ali Sami Yen. Such accuracy from long-range was to become one of Fenerbahçe’s most potent attacking weapons. A fortnight later, at Zeytinburnuspor, he would score another in a 5-1 win, alongside unleashing a ferocious drive from 20 yards after a mazy run.
It appeared that every single goal Okocha would score in Fenerbahçe colours would be spectacular. Such sentiment was reflected during the following week’s 4-0 win over Antalyaspor, as he volleyed home a cross into the top corner. A month later, in November 1996, he would be impressive in a 2-0 home loss to Manchester United. However, a week later, Okocha’s starring role would produce results as Fenerbahçe secured a shock 1-0 victory at Old Trafford, robbing the English side of a 40-year unbeaten European home record that stretched back to 1956.
Returning to domestic affairs, Fenerbahçe continued to impress in one of the tightest title races in recent years. Going into February, the big four of Beşiktaş, Galatasaray and Trabzonspor were separated by a mere four points. Okocha continued to ensure Fener remained in contention, scoring in another victorious derby against Galatasaray.
March 1997 kicked off with a 5-0 thrashing of Antalyaspor, with Okocha notching a hat-trick. The pick of the goals was the first, = the Nigerian bamboozling İhsan Okay on the edge of the box before finding the bottom corner. This started a run that saw the Nigerian score in four consecutive games, although this was ended by a critical defeat in early April in Trabzon. Fenerbahçe were 4-0 down at half-time, but despite a second-half reprieve, lost 4-3.
The season was hotting up. Four days later, such emotions appeared to get the better of Okocha. Following a training session where two photographers were attempting to take pictures of him with his fiancée, Okocha grabbed their cameras before punching one of them in the face. Threatened with legal action, such an issue was erased after the player apologised to the journalists.
In the end, Fenerbahçe would fall way short in the attempt to retain their title, finishing some nine points behind Galatasaray in third. Nevertheless, it had been a wholly successful first season in Turkey for Okocha. Alongside the 16 goals he scored were 12 assists as the Nigerian had quickly asserted himself as one of the 1. Lig’s best players.
Okocha’s second season at Fenerbahçe would begin on a slower note, taking until the fifth league game of the season to witness a direct contribution. Characteristically, it came in another win over Galatasaray, with Elvir Bolić rolling back to the edge of the box for the Nigerian to fire into the top corner.
He would also star in the next game against Kayserispor, scoring a precise free-kick in addition to a fine solo effort, alongside assisting Saffet Sancaklı for a header in a 3-0 demolition. With no European football after a first-round UEFA Cup exit to Steaua Bucharest, recapturing the league became the sole objective for Fenerbahçe.
Okocha continued to be the side’s creative force, scoring another trademark free-kick in the mid-October draw at Bursaspor. Indeed, both the frequency and precision with which he hit his dead-balls made it appear like something out of a video game. In many ways, it was as dangerous to concede a foul outside the box as in when facing a Fenerbahçe side containing the Nigerian.
Not that he was a one-dimensional slingshot only good for positioning roughly on the edge of the box for a dead-ball. So much was demonstrated by his next goal, coming a month or so later against Vanspor. He would send Erik Yakhimovich back to Belarus with his quick feet before letting fly with a low shot that went in off the post to secure a 1-0 win.
Fenerbahçe would continue to make progress in the league; Okocha scored both goals in a 2-1 win against Antalyaspor and seven were put past Sekerspor. He would maintain his 100 percent record of scoring against Galatasaray in February, netting a special goal – for some his best – in a 2-2 draw at Ali Sami Yen.
With the ball not far from the corner flag, the Nigerian proceeded to deceive everyone to swing in at the near post. In response, Gala keeper Mehmet Bölükbaşı simply stood motionless, hands on hips. In the dugout, the entire bench of staff and substitutes went crazy, while the face of manager Otto Barić told the story: the Croatian just sat there, eyes wide in amazement.
It is expressions like this that would be firmly fixed on Fenerbahce fans’ faces for the majority of Okocha’s two-year spell in Istanbul. Despite going on to throw away the league to their bitter rivals again, helped in no small part by a calf injury Okocha sustained with three games left, the Nigerian would bring unique talent to the Şükrü Saracoğlu.
Unfortunately, such ability is difficult to hide, and following his showing at the 1998 World Cup, Okocha moved to France after a £14m switch to Paris Saint-Germain. Lighting up Paris before heading on to be a major part of Sam Allardyce’s miracle at Bolton, such accomplishments mean that, for many, Okocha’s time in Turkey is too easily forgotten.
This, however, isn’t a sentiment shared at Fenerbahçe. There is a reason why fans protested his sale to such an extent that the Nigerian was said to have been fearful for his life. Losing such a talent is never easy, especially when, just across the Bosphorus, Galatasaray fans were being indulged by Gheorghe Hagi. Jay-Jay Okocha’s time at Fenerbahçe may have been brief and trophyless, but it was far from tepid.