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 Posted by ESPN Staff
Jan 19, 2006

Okocha hoping for final hurrah at Nations Cup

Jay-Jay Okocha is determined to leave the big stage and go into retirement in style.

The African Nations Cup marks the end of the Bolton playmaker's international career with Nigeria, having taken the captain's armband and been one of the country's most influential figures over a 13-year spell.

Okocha, 32, is one of 28 British-based players in Egypt for the next few weeks, the competition kicking off tomorrow when the hosts take on neighbours Libya.

There are few with a reputation for skill and the surprising like Okocha's, however.

And the Nigerians have been given extra impetus to succeed after failing to make the World Cup.

'Anything less than a place in the final will be disappointing,' said Okocha. 'That's the only thing we have left.

'It is a chance to prove we are still one of the best teams in Africa.

'I was hoping I would end my international career in Germany, where I started in football. But it wasn't meant to be.'

Okocha's professional career came about by chance. While on holiday after graduating from high school he went to training with his brother's friend at Borussia Neunkirchen.

He joined in, the club signed him up and within a year, in 1992, he secured a contract at Bundesliga side Eintracht Frankfurt.

It was there he won his first cap for Nigeria and Okocha recalls the game as if it was yesterday.

'That was one of the best moments of my career making my debut,' he said. 'It was an away match against the Ivory Coast, which unfortunately we lost 2-1.'

Okocha then helped steer Nigeria to victory in the 1994 African Nations Cup.

Two years later he was a key member of the side that won Olympic gold in Atlanta.

'They were two great occasions, ' he said. 'I now realise these days don't come very often.'

Okocha moved across Europe, first to Turkey and Fenerbahce then to France and Paris St Germain, before arriving in England at Bolton in June 2002.

He changed the landscape of the famous old club as his arrival, the first of a string of talented players, who had fallen on difficult times, to be tempted by Sam Allardyce's charms.

Bolton, from being relegation strugglers, are now UEFA Cup contenders and face Marseille in the last 32 next month.

For the moment, though, Okocha has serious business to attend to with Nigeria, who also boast West Brom's Kanu and Everton's Joseph Yobo.

They open their campaign on Monday, January 23 against World Cup finalists Ghana in Port Said.

Senegal - with the largest British-based contingent of six, including Okocha's Bolton team-mates Abdoulaye Faye and El Hadji Diouf - and Zimbabwe make up Group D with the top two going through to the quarter-finals and is the closest thing the tournament has to a `Group of Death', given that three of the teams have qualified for World Cups.

The tournament is arguably the most open of its kind in the world with any one of 10 or so teams legitimately aiming to win the final in Cairo on February 10.

Egypt - featuring Tottenham striker Mido - are a good bet as hosts but, as well as Libya, they must also tackle North African rivals Morocco and Didier Drogba's Ivory Coast.

In Group B, Cameroon - traditional powerhouses on the continent - face new powers Angola and Togo who, unlike the Indomitable Lions, have secured World Cup berths, as well as DR Congo.

And in Group C, Tunisia will fancy their chances against Guinea, Zambia and a faltering South Africa.

Okocha said: 'It will be a good tournament as a lot of teams have improved over the years.

'Most of the so-called big sides are out of the World Cup, so they will be keen to make an impression.'

While his future with Bolton is up in the air, Okocha is adamant he will call it a day at international level after the Nations Cup.

He concluded: 'I have made it clear this will be my last tournament for the country.

'I will be doing my best for us so we can win it.

'Then I have to make way for the young players that are coming up. We have now got a very good group and the future is bright.'