An air of excited anticipation permeates the Bundesliga Suite at the RheinEnergie Stadium. Occupants vie for the best seat at the table, the ones nearest to where the man of the moment will sit, their phones at the ready to snap away.
He walks in, the smile on his face as wide as the river Rhein, and they gasp before falling silent - somewhat stunned into disbelief that they are in the same room with him. “Welcome Jay Jay,” one of them says and the tension is cleared.
Nigerian legend Jay-Jay Okocha shakes the hands of 12 journalists from different parts of Africa on a visit to the German Bundesliga and then takes his seat.
Like little children in a sweet shop, the media personnel strive to get selfies with the former Eintracht Frankfurt player. Here we bring you Okocha’s responses to the myriad of questions that were put to him.
On his relationship with the Bundesliga
“I share a very special bond with the Bundesliga and that is why it has been easy for me to continue working with them. The Bundesliga gave me my first experience of European football (1992-1996). The foundation of my professional football career was laid here. I came here as a boy and I left as a man. For me, the Bundesliga was a proper school from which I learnt to be the player I went on to become. And I am very excited to be working with them now and helping them raise their profile around the world, especially back home in Africa.”
On how the Bundesliga shaped his career
“The Bundesliga is very special in that it encourages young players. Even when I came here to play for Eintracht (Frankfurt), I was very young and there were others like me. But our clubs and our coaches gave us the chance. The fact that the Bundesliga believes in young players is good because you can see it in the way there are always new players coming through the clubs and in the German national team.”
On player development lessons for Africa from Germany
“Germany have always taken investing in their young players seriously. And they are now reaping the benefits. My belief is that development is not rocket science, you have to get it right. The difference between us Africans and the Germans is that we have no set structure for development. Look at the Germans, their academies belong to the clubs and because of that, the players are introduced to competition and rivalries early on in their playing lives and that serves to build the competitiveness we see on their fields. Back home we have academies owned by individuals and the players don’t even play in proper leagues and only join clubs later in their careers. How does that help?”
On comparisons of the leagues he has played in
“I’ve had a great privilege to play in four different leagues in Europe and they all contributed to my life in different ways because they are all different. Their mentality and the tactics used are all different. The EPL (English Premier League) is very tough and I am glad I went there as a player who was already matured. A lot of people think it is the best league in the world because it is the most advertised. The Bundesliga has improved a lot. It is much better now than when I used to play. Now there are much more foreigners playing here and this has opened doors for younger African players. The French league is gaining popularity now because of the investments from the rich Qataris who have made it possible for a club like PSG to buy top-name players like Neymar.”
On foreign investment in clubs
“Obviously that is dependent on the clubs and the policies adopted by the league. But there can be no denying that private investments are helping the previously smaller clubs to compete with the big giants. Like now PSG can take on the likes of Real Madrid and Manchester United. The fact that the Bundesliga clubs have not gone that route though does not mean they can’t compete because the likes of Bayern (Munich) and (Borussia) Dortmund have been doing it. For me, it is really a gamble whether you allow yourself as a club to be taken over by some rich Sheikh or stay as you are. There’s no guarantee that being bought out will bring success. For example, Bundesliga clubs continue to generate more money and are declaring profits annually even though they’ve ave retained the old ownership model.”
On his relationship with fans during his playing days
“Bundesliga fans are very passionate about their clubs. And as a player I learnt very early to appreciate them and give them my best all the time. As a professional, you need to realise you are not a normal human being anymore. Not everything will be rosy with the fans. But the key is to do your best and let them decide whether it is good or not. The fans pay their hard-earned cash to watch you play, they expect you to give your all. Also for some of them, this (the stadium) is where they come to get out their life’s frustrations. And sometimes they will take it out on you (the player).”
Mamabolo was in Germany courtesy of StarSat