- He says Neymar has what it takes to succeed Messi and Cristiano
- “He plays with joy, but not just to entertain the fans,” he adds
- At present, he sees no African players who could make the shortlist
The Nigerian Jay Jay Okocha is arguably one of the most talented African footballers of all time. Blessed with sublime footwork and a mesmerising dribble, he was one of the golden generation of Nigeria players and a pillar of the Súper Águilas side that won gold at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and graced three successive FIFA World Cups™ between 1994 and 2002.
Eminently qualified to assess the best players in the modern game, Okocha chatted to FIFA.com about this year’s The Best Awards, what it takes to reach that level and his favourites to win the men’s award on 23 October in London.
You were one of those players who managed to dazzle on the pitch while always seeming to enjoy yourself. Are those qualities sufficient to be crowned The Best?
Jay Jay Okocha: Anyone aspiring to be the best, or one of the best, needs more than that. You also need to be able to focus, work hard, and be consistent, as natural talent alone is not enough to elevate you to that level. If you understand that, and you have the raw talent, then you can compete at that level.
Is there anyone today who resembles you as a player?
I’d say the player whose style most resembles mine would be Neymar. That’s because I played with a sense of joy and you can see that he feels the same and really enjoys his own play. He doesn’t play for himself or just to entertain the fans – he plays for his team. He uses his quality and skill for the good of the team.
Okocha at FIFA Tournaments
World Cups: 3 (USA 1994, France 1998, Korea/Japan 2002)
FIFA Confederations Cup: 1 (Saudi Arabia 1995)
Olympic Football Tournament: 1 (Atlanta 1996, gold medal winner)
Do you see him as a future successor to Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi?
Yes, I think he will be the one to do it. Messi and Ronaldo have dominated world football for a decade and, given the nature of football, at a certain point the baton will have to pass to someone else. I think Neymar has a great chance of filling that role.
Ronaldo and Messi have the shared the glory over the last decade, but do you favour one over the other?
I have to be diplomatic here, especially as I’ve a lot of Portuguese friends, but I tend to lean towards Messi. He’s a more natural talent. Ronaldo is a fantastic player, one of the best I’ve ever seen, but he’s been a bit unfortunate to be of the same generation as Messi. Consequently, they have to share the limelight.
Can you think of an African player with a chance of being among the final three for The Best FIFA Men’s Player Award?
It’s hard to name one at present. If you’re talking about the top tier of players internationally, we don’t consider ourselves good enough to compete at that level. We have to change that attitude, and then we’ll be able to produce a player of the stature of the other top guys.