Okocha never won the coveted CAF Player of the Year Award despite finishing in the top three on three occasions.
One of the greatest mysteries that baffle Nigerian football fans is how Austin Jay-Jay Okocha missed out on big individual awards during his playing career.
Okocha is one of, if not the best football talent to come out of Nigeria. While he may not have the trophy collections to back his talent up like Nwankwo Kanu or John Obi Mikel, his skillset is arguably the best Nigeria has ever produced.
He was known for his trickery, dribbling skill, set-piece quality and wizardry on the ball. Okocha was a fan delight during his playing days.
Opposition players were scared to get close to him so as not to get embarrassed by his skills or genius.
The former Super Eagles star was a cult hero at every club he played for, including Bolton Wanderers where he remains arguably their greatest player.
Ronaldinho admired him, same with Pele and former England international John Barnes. In fact, Barnes claims that Okocha is more skilful than Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, two of the greatest players to play the beautiful game in the modern era.
Superlatives are not enough to describe what Okocha could do with the ball during his playing career.
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However, for all of his gifted talents, Okocha never won a lot of trophies but more importantly individual awards.
Aside from the BBC African Footballer year, the ex-Super Eagles captain did not win any other major individual award.
While it was always going to be difficult for him to win the Ballon d’Or or the FIFA World Best, it is baffling that Okocha never won the African Player of the Year despite being one of the best players to come out of the continent.
But does Okocha really deserve a CAF award, as it has been argued by many of his fans? We look at his case.
Before we get into the debate, it is important to know the number of times Okocha had the chance to win the award.
Okocha's CAF award nominations
Okocha was nominated for the CAF Player of the Year Award three times. The first of his award came in 1998 when he finished a close second behind Mustapha Hadji.
The former Paris Saint-Germain star then got consecutive nominations in 2003 and 2004, finishing third behind Didier Drogba and Samuel Eto’o, respectively, on both occasions.
Now that we have established the years Okocha was nominated, let us take a look at his performance those years and that of his rivals.
1998- Hadji edges out Okocha
Given the nature of the way football season operates, we are looking at the 1997/1998 season, the first half of the 1998/1999 season and the World Cup.
The 1997/1998 season was arguably Okocha’s best year in his club career. It was his last season with Fenerbahce before sealing an African record move to PSG in the summer of 1998.
Okocha played 29 times in the league with the Turkish giants, scoring 14 goals and setting up another four.
Six of his goals came in the second half of the season (1998), including three at the business end of the season, although Fenerbahce finished third that season.
Okocha continued in the same vein when he left to join PSG, scoring four goals in the first half of the 1998/1999 Ligue 1 season, including one on his debut.
Overall, Okocha scored ten goals and set up two assists in league matches in 1998. In contrast, Hadji had a campaign to forget in both seasons.
He started the 1997/1998 campaign with Sporting Lisbon but only made one league appearance and five Champions League appearances (two goals) before moving to Deportivo La Corouna
Hadji did not fare better in Spain, either, failing to score in ten league matches. The first half of the 1998/1999 season followed a similar pattern, with Hadji scoring just once, although he did score twice in the Copa del Rey.
Looking at the stats, it is clear that Okocha had a better year than Hadji at club level in 1998. But 1998 was also a World Cup and Africa Cup of Nations year, with France hosting the World Cup.
Both Nigeria and Morocco qualified for the World Cup, but the Super Eagles were not at the AFCON due to a CAF ban. However, Hadji never stood out at the AFCON, scoring just one goal as Morocco crashed out in the quarter-final.
Meanwhile, at the World Cup, both did not do much, but Hadji had a better tournament after scoring once and setting up another.
However, arguments could also be made for Okocha, as Nigeria qualified for the round of 16, something Morocco failed to achieve.
2003- Eto'o triumphs over Okocha and Drogba
It took Okocha another five years before he was nominated for the award, coming up against Eto’o and Drogba.
The ex-Super Eagles captain was now at Bolton after leaving PSG, with Eto’o and Drogba plying their trades at Real Mallorca and Olympique Marseille.
Okocha actually had a good year in his first season in the Premier League, single-handedly saving Bolton from relegation.
The now 49-year-old scored seven goals in that season, with four coming at the business end of the season, including one against Middlesbrough on the final day of the season.
But while Okocha had a good debut season in the Premier League, Eto’o was also great for Mallorca in the same season.
The Cameroonian striker scored 14 goals in 30 league games in the 2002/2003 season, setting up another two.
Eto’o came alive in the second half of that season (2003), scoring nine league goals to help Mallorca qualify for the UEFA Cup- a competition in which he scored a hat-trick the same year.
There was no major international competition in 2003, although Eto’o did represent Cameroon in the Confederations Cup.
2004- Eto'o beats Okocha again
A year later, Okocha was back again on the podium with Eto’o and Drogba. This year was also an Africa Cup of Nations year, meaning there were many things at play.
At club level, Okocha did not really reach the heights of his first year in England, but he did lead Bolton to the League Cup, scoring three goals in the process.
Okocha did turn up in the first half of the 2004/2005 season, scoring four goals and setting up three more in the first half of the season.
However, Eto’o had another great season with Mallorca, scoring 17 league goals in the 2003/2004 season. Again, nine of his 17 goals came in the second half of the campaign (first half of 2004).
His performance that season earned him a move to Barcelona ahead of the 2004/2005 campaign, scoring 13 league goals in the first half of the season to finish with 22 league goals in 2004.
As stated above, 2004 was a special year because of the AFCON. While Eto’o won the battle at club level, Okocha was the better player at AFCON.
The Cameroonian scored just one goal in that competition, which ironically came against Nigeria in the quarter-final.
Meanwhile, Okocha was the best player of the tournament with four goals, including that stunning freekick against Cameroon in the 2-1 win.
Was Okocha robbed of a CAF award?
Objectively, Okocha deserves at least the 1998 African Player of the Year award ahead of Hadji. Looking at the stats, Okocha had a better year than the Moroccan and should have won. Although during that time, international football tournaments played a big role in deciding the winner, it still feels like Okocha was robbed because Hadji did not have a great World Cup.
It was indeed a close race, but there is this feeling that Okocha could/would have won if he was from a Francophone country.
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However, while Okocha may feel hard done in 1998, it is hard to make a case for him in 2003 because Eto’o was clearly better in a year with no major international tournament.
Okocha’s case was stronger in 2004, considering his performance at the AFCON. But Eto’o did great things at his two clubs, with Barcelona being one of them.
His move to Barcelona might have shifted the momentum in his favour, and he backed up that move with goals.
But with that said, Okocha should have won the award in 1998 ahead of Hadji.
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