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What Our Players Must Learn From Jay-Jay Okocha

How often have we heard of South African footballers being involved in car accidents or having a drink too many after a game? How often do we ask why not more of our local heroes go and try their luck overseas? The answer is simple and if you ask me, I would tell you loud and clear: Too often! That is why I would like to tell you what our South African stars must learn from the mighty Jay-Jay Okocha, who now works as an ambassador for the Bundesliga and came to Mzansi for the Bundesliga Legends Tour over the weekend. 
 
The African legend made his name in the Bundesliga, becoming one of the German league’s best ever players – Jay-Jay Okocha “so good they named him twice”, goes the saying or the “African Ronaldinho”, as Pitso Mosimane called him when we visited Mamelodi Sundowns as part of the Bundesliga Legends Tour on Thursday. He moved to Germany as a 17-year-old without having a club, but taking his destiny in his own hands, knowing that his feet would do the talking. I have spent three fully packed and eventful days with Jay-Jay and it is clear why he has made it to the top. He simply had the desire to make his own career, whether that be taking a chance and entering the unknown as a 17-year-old, or now giving back to the league that made him a star. “Life does not end when you stop playing football. You must start to think about what comes after football, now that you are still playing,” Jay-Jay told Masandawana’s players on Thursday.
 
He continued, “I would love to still play, but I can’t. My time has passed. But I made the most of it, on and off the pitch! It is important to stay humble, important to remember your roots and important to lay the foundations for life after football! I am now with Bundesliga, the league that made me because I made sure that I have a good reputation. I made sure whenever they call me for an event or to visit a school or projects like the AMANDLA Safe Hub, I am on point and represent the league well.” Big words by the mighty legend and even the Sundowns stars were impressed with the wisdom coming out of his mouth.
 
But, just like during his playing days, Jay-Jay does not just talk the talk, he also walks the walk! It is just that his playing field has changed from the green grass to activities off the pitch. Throughout these three days, I was honoured enough to follow his every move, to travel around with him from interview to interview, radio station to radio station. Not once Jay-Jay was late for any appointment and, while during his playing days he took Bundesliga legends such as Oliver Kahn for a dance, he charmed the likes of Robert Marawa or Thabiso Sithole with memories of a career filled with highlights. Of course, they ask him about the upcoming Bafana Bafana clash against Nigeria, his Premier League-playing nephew Alex Iwobi and his time mentoring the young Ronaldinho at Paris Saint-Germain. Of course, Jay-Jay answers them with nice anecdotes and some funny stories, but at the same time he does not forget that he is here doing a job for Bundesliga, making sure the conversation goes back to the “best league for young talents”, explaining why more African and South African players should go overseas to make a real difference. “Rather fail at trying to become a real hero overseas than stay at home in your comfort zone,” he told Sundowns players during what turned out to be an emotional pep talk. 
 
I hope the PSL champions listened to the legend! Jay-Jay’s accolades reach from lifting the African Cup of Nations and winning the Olympic gold medal with Nigeria to being twice named BBC African Footballer of the Year. He is a real legend of the game and more South African players should follow his path. We need players in Europe’s top leagues such as Bundesliga in order to compete with Bafana on the continent again! “It’s easier these days,” Jay-Jay told us in an interview, which you can read on page 21 of this week’s edition of Soccer Laduma. “At least the players enter the known, they know what to expect of a new country, new culture and new language because other Africans have been there before. When I went, it was different, I went into the unknown.” Yet, he has still made it and it paid off for him! So why can’t more of our players – with many of them coming from poor backgrounds and dusty streets just like Jay-Jay, who has six siblings and grew up in Nigeria – leave their comfort zone in SA and make a name for themselves in leagues such as Bundesliga? Write positive headlines and not bad ones! I hope our South African players listened to Jay-Jay’s wisdom.
 
And I would like to thank him for allowing me to literally be his shadow for three days, being able to learn from him what it means to be a true professional. I would also like to thank Bundesliga, in particular, Robert Klein and Daniel Donaldson, for having me as a guest during the Bundesliga Legends Tour and I hope more of Soccer Laduma’s readers will follow the German game, because it creates legends such as Jay-Jay and has a lot more to offer than just Bayern Munich. Football, as it’s meant to be! 
 
Until next time, 
David
 

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