Okocha set to soar in last flight as Super Eagle

As the Bolton midfielder nears international retirement, he tells Conrad Leach why he is ready to lead Nigeria to a final triumph
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The Independent Online

Jay-Jay Okocha heard that one of his team-mates from the Nigerian national team of the 1990s, Sunday Oliseh, had retired from football. Okocha is not going quite that far just yet but whether he loses in the quarter-finals tomorrow or claims his second African Nations' Cup title on 10 February, this tournament marks the end of his time in the green and white of the Super Eagles.

He was tempted to bring an end to his international career last October, when his country were squeezed out of a place in the World Cup by Angola. It would have been understandable if, after the disappointment of missing out on Germany, he had chosen to step down immediately.

But 12 years on from helping his country win their last Nations' Cup, when he was a 20-year-old, eager to show his tricks on the ball, he felt the need for one last run at a continental title.

"I thought about retiring when we didn't qualify. Then I realised that the only thing left was the Nations' Cup and I had the ambition for myself to win it," he says. Thereafter his club career alone will occupy his mind and he will return to Bolton.

His first-team place there will be far from certain due to growing competition for places while his fitness has been a problem in Egypt. A thigh strain prevented him from playing in any of the group games, all of which they won. Despite that Nigeria have shown only glimpses of their potential as they rebuild after failing to reach Germany. But against the holders, Tunisia, in Port Said tomorrow Okocha is set to start.

If the north African side do bring an end to Okocha's international career there would at least be some symmetry. It was with victory in Tunis in the Nations' Cup of 1994, that his career with the Super Eagles took off, followed five months later by Nigeria's World Cup debut in the United States.

Having topped a group in 1994 that included Argentina, they had to play Italy in the second round. They were 1-0 up with two minutes to go before conceding a late equaliser and then losing in extra time. Looking back on that day, there is a large degree of regret in Okocha's voice.

"At that World Cup we should have done better, but most of us were very young. We didn't realise the opportunity we had at that time to really create history. Against Italy we were lacking experience. If it was today, I might have held on to the ball for two minutes."

Having won Olympic gold in the 1996 games, the team qualified for France 98. They won their group comfortably, thanks in part to a famous win over Spain and were faced with a distinctly winnable last 16 match against Denmark. Again, they failed to make that step up to reach the quarter-finals of the World Cup, and Okocha blames himself and his team-mates for being complacent.

"That was where we really blew it," he admits. "Because of a lack of concentration or a lack of professionalism. We lost to Denmark because we thought it was going to be easy." Yet he is witnessing a change in that mentality. "I see that African football is heading away from flair and more towards the team. I see African countries playing more like European ones."

Since losing the 2000 Nations' Cup final on penalties in his home country, the national side have been in a slow decline, while Okocha's club career followed a similar path. In 2002 Sam Allardyce stepped in to stop him sliding into oblivion.

That represented an entirely different aspect to his career, from having played for powerful teams in Germany, France and Turkey, to a relegation fight with the Trotters. They escaped the drop in his first season and have prospered ever since. But this summer could see yet more changes at Bolton, with Allardyce linked to the England job. Okocha feels he deserves the chance. "I think Sam is a very good manager," he says. "He picked up Bolton from down there. It takes a lot to bring a club to where they are now. I would be happy to see him as England manager. It would be a big step for him, he deserves it."

Okocha could also move on. He could accept one of the offers to play in the Gulf that have come his way.

"There wouldn't be anything wrong with going there and making some money. You don't want to be a plumber when you finish your career. You want to create your own future." Creating leaks in defences has been Okocha's work for 20 years. Three more games with Nigeria and he can call it a job well done.

African Nations' Cup

QUARTER-FINALS

Today:

Guinea v Senegal (13.00)

Egypt v DR Congo (17.00)

Tomorrow:

Nigeria v Tunisia (13.00)

Cameroon v I Coast (17.00)

All games shown live on Eurosport UK

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