Achara: Nigeria legend Jay-Jay Okocha remains my mentor

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Like all soccer-playing kids his age in Nigeria, Ifunanyachi Achara spent his days trying to emulate Nigerian (and Bolton Wanderers) legend Jay-Jay Okocha.

Okocha is widely considered the best Nigerian player of all-time, an attacking midfielder who dazzled defenders and captured the imagination of fans with his dribbling skills. Okocha was so good that they named him twice, as the famous Bolton serenading chant goes.

He represented the dream for Nigerian kids. He reached the top, he was an inspiration.

“I always do the one trick he does, where he rolls the ball with his right and steps over with his left foot,” Achara told MLSsoccer.com. That move is aptly named the Jay-Jay Okocha stepover. “At this point in time it’s not even intentional, it just happens. I love it, it’s great.”

Achara isn’t proud to admit he cried when Okocha hung up his boots, but he shares an even more personal story with the Nigerian hero.

Playing at a national tournament during his teenage years, Achara caught the eye of Okocha. The legend thought he deserved a chance with Nigeria’s youth national team, so he let a few coaches know, and Achara was called up.

“It’s absolutely crazy,” Achara said, still almost in disbelief. “If someone like Okocha thinks I’m good, then I should probably think I’m good, right?”

Achara aimed to make Nigeria’s squad for the 2015 U-17 World Cup, but was one of the final players trimmed from the Chile-bound roster. He’d watch the tournament from home.

At first, Achara was just happy to be in the conversation as someone who previously wasn’t really part of the youth national team set-up. The team included players who would soon jump to Europe, like Samuel Chukwueze (now at Villarreal), Victor Osimhen (Lille) and Montreal Impact winger Orji Okwonkwo.

Nigeria won the tournament, too, beating the likes of Brazil and Mexico en route to lifting the trophy.

“All my friends were going to European clubs,” Achara said, “but it was disappointing for me. When they won, that’s when it hit me: It was a really good opportunity that I missed. I kind of saw it as my last opportunity to be a professional soccer player. Thankfully, I got another opportunity.”

That opportunity presented itself through a program that connected prep schools with promising soccer players, helping Achara get a scholarship to attend the Berkshire School in Massachusetts. He’d play with future Toronto FC teammate Jacob Shaffelburg and former NYCFC winger Jack Harrison, interestingly enough.

It wasn’t easy at first. Achara hadn’t been to America before and he wasn’t yet fluent in English, with his schooling taught in Igbo.

“When I got to the US, I couldn’t really communicate,” Achara said. “I wasn’t as fluent, plus with my accent, people couldn’t understand. It was really difficult to express myself at first. I was really anti-social.”

Achara expressed himself on the pitch, where he quickly excelled, helping ease his transition. Once he became comfortable with the language, he got to experience his first winter in the Northeast.

“The winter in Massachusetts, man,” Achara exhaled.

One day, he says, it was around negative-10 degrees outside. Where he grew up, 55 degrees was the closest thing he experienced to cold. Strapped with multiple layers, he left his dorm to attend class. He promptly turned back around to the warmth of his room. The head of school came to his dorm to see what was going on, to find out why he was skipping class.

“I told him I just can’t go outside, it’s too cold!” Achara said, laughing. “I was wearing four or five jackets!”

Achara’s time at Berkshire led him to Georgetown, a solid four seasons that should have been better had injuries not hampered his collegiate career. He only started 11 games during his senior season as he battled injuries, captaining the Hoyas to the NCAA Division I national championship in 2019.

Given the stop-start nature of his time at Georgetown, Achara thought he might not get drafted. Toronto picked him with one of their two first-round selections (25th overall), giving him a preseason chance to impress.

“I felt like if I wasn’t drafted, it’d be because teams hadn’t seen me enough, not that I wasn’t a good soccer player,” Achara said. “So the fact I was drafted and had a chance to go to preseason, I was excited.”

Achara took that chance with both hands, scoring three goals in four appearances to earn his first professional contract.

He didn’t make the gameday squad in Toronto’s season opener, but an opportunity presented itself in Week 2 with a few injuries. The day before TFC’s game against NYCFC, he was taking extra shots after training. A member of the medical staff told him that the coaching staff was debating his place in the squad, so, stop shooting or you might get hurt.

On gameday, head coach Greg Vanney gave him the good news: Not only was he in the squad, Achara was getting his first MLS start.

“I was so happy, I thought my dream was going to come true,” Achara said. “I thought I was going to come off the bench. Then a few hours before the game, coach Greg told me I was going to start. I was so happy and I was already mentally ready.”

Achara’s preparation paid off. He intercepted a wayward pass to spark an attack that eventually led to him scoring the game-winning goal in his professional debut, a dream.

The goal was a close-range header. Not quite a goal Okocha often scored, but it’ll do.

Series:
Tom Bogert

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