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Former Super Eagles captain Austin Okocha is regarded by many as the best dribbler in global football. In this interview with OZIOMA UBABUKOH, the Nigerian legend talks about how he honed his dribbling skills, playing in the Bundesliga and more
What special things do you remember about your growing up years in football?
For me, it was like all I had, all I wanted to be – a professional football player, even though we never used to get a lot of encouragement then. It was all about education, going to school. But you can only be well educated if you are given the right opportunity. For most of us who were from average families, football gave us the opportunity to be able to wine and dine with the elite, and for some of us, that is what eradicated poverty from our families.
You are known worldwide for your football artistry, how did you develop your ball joggling skill?
I think it was on the streets – the freedom to express yourself on the streets as a child and perfect some of those skills. And then when I turned to a professional, it was all about knowing how to use it for the interest of the team.
Can football be taught, or is it a matter of talent?
To an extent, it can be learnt but you must have talent.
Beyond giving alternative to football lovers in the country, what specific value do you think the sport can bring to the country?
I think it will bring unity because we know that once football is on, we forget our cultural differences. We forget about our depression or whatever that is upsetting us in the country. We always forget whether you are Hausa, Igbo or Yoruba. So I think it will bring unity.
Let us talk about your journey to professional football. How did the transition happen?
It was a coincidence. I went on holidays (to Germany) and then managed to get a trial and from there my professional career started. It was a massive coincidence, which I never thought would happen. It happened so fast and today if I look back, I can only be grateful for that first opportunity.
On the other hand, was the poor Nigerian image a challenge to you while you were playing?
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Not at all. That is why I refused to change because I believe in changing people and not changing who I am. I believe strongly in our culture; my upbringing as well means a lot to me. But it is all about channeling it the right way; showing it to people in the right way and letting them know that in as much as they think that Africa is a poor place, that we have got something good there. For me, I was an advert for African football and for Africa, and that was why I stick, to an extent, to my own kind of game, because I realised that they do not have it and it was a bit late for me to start learning their own trade.
Is the present crop of players doing this?
Things have changed. I always say, ‘Don’t forget your identity; don’t lose your identity, especially if it can be an advantage for you.’ Unless you don’t know how to use it, then you try to use what will work for you. But for me, keeping that African way of playing, and African style of playing, helped me a lot.
In Europe, your talent seemed to have exploded in the Bundesliga. How would you describe the German topflight league?
If you want to be a proper professional, the platform there has got it all to make you a great professional. And if you can succeed in the Bundesliga, you can succeed in any other league in the world.
There is a particular goal you scored for Eintracht Frankfurt and you tore your jersey…
(Cuts in) It was an amazing goal and I think sometimes, you don’t plan for it. The emotion takes over when you score a fantastic goal; it is like a mission accomplished.
Now you are into football management at the FA level, what unique things did you pick from the Bundesliga?
I am limited to what I can do here because the structure will not permit me to execute what is going on in Germany.
You currently are representing StarTimes to promote the Bundesliga, what does this mean to you?
It means a lot to me. I am glad that StarTimes is now able to bring it to our people and at an affordable rate. What intrigued me is the fact that they are reaching out to the normal people. What do you think this will mean to the society, football lovers and to Nigeria as a nation?
I think it will give them more options because they have been promoting the premier league for the past decade now. Most of us who have had very successful careers started in Germany. I believe the Bundesliga is a top league.
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