Nigerian Football: Which Way????

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Sitting here, relaxing and surfing the internet for the latest football Transfer News, I noticed a common ‘anomaly’ amongst Nigerian footballers.

All the Nigeria International footballers that have been linked with a move away from their respective clubs, attracted interests from relatively small clubs in top European leagues or clubs in Turkey and other obscure countries.

With all due respect to these clubs, every fan wants to see his countrymen sign for top European sides and I am no different. It signifies the quality of footballers the country churns out year after year.

A lot of fans have forgotten what it feels like to see a good number of Nigerian footballers show off their skills at the biggest stage, the UEFA Champions League (UCL). Former Chelsea manager Roberto di Matteo made every African football fan proud when he listed four Africans in his squad for the 2012 UCL final against Bayern Munich, which they won on penalties.

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These Africans include: John Mikel Obi (Nigeria), Michael Essien (Ghana), Salomon Kalou & Didier Drogba (both Ivory Coast). Hence, Mikel became only the third Nigerian to win the UCL after Kanu Nwankwo and Finidi George (with Ajax in 1995).

David Olatokunbo Alaba, Nigerian-born Austria International, would have become the fourth Nigeria International to win the UCL when he won the title at Wembley with Bayern Munich in 2013 against fierce rivals Borussia Dortmund  if Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) had approached him on time to switch his allegiance from Austria.

Just like Alaba, there used to be a time when Nigerian footballers attracted or commanded a starting berth at top European clubs.
These footballers were termed the “Golden Generation of Nigerian Football”. The Kanus, Georges, Babayaros, Wests, Ikpebas, Amunekes, Okochas, Okechukwus, Olisehs made headlines across the globe and caused a bidding war amongst top European sides after their heroics at 1994 CAF African Cup of Nations in Tunisia, 1994 FIFA World Cup in United States and 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.

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Kanu Nwankwo and Finidi George moved to Ajax Amsterdam in 1993 and went on to win the UCL in 1995 under the tutelage of Louis van Gaal. They also returned to the same stage a year later but were unlucky to succumb to Italian giants Juventus on penalties. Kanu moved on to Inter Milan and Arsenal amassing a number of trophies to become the most decorated Nigerian footballer ever whilst George moved to Spanish club Real Betis in 1996 after his proposed move to European heavyweights Real Madrid collapsed.

Celestine Babayaro joined Belgian club Anderlecht in 1994 and became the youngest player to play and receive a red card in a UCL game aged just 16years 86 days. He spent three years in Belgium before joining Chelsea, where he won the UEFA Cup Winners Cup and UEFA Cup in over 200 appearances for the London club.

Emmanuel Amuneke, the 1994 CAF African Footballer of the Year, represented Portuguese club, Sporting Lisbon between 1994 and 1996 under late Sir Bobby Robson. In 1996, Robson left Sporting for FC Barcelona and took Amuneke with him, however, his time at Nou Camp was cut short by a knee injury.

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Sunday Oliseh, who is fondly remembered for his thunderbolt winner against Spain at the 1998 FIFA World Cup, played for Ajax Amsterdam, Juventus and Borussia Dortmund.

Victor Ikpeba, the 1998 CAF African Footballer of the Year, played for AS Monaco and Borussia Dortmund in France and Germany respectively with distinction.

Now fast forward to the current crop of players avaliable to the Super Eagles coach for selection and only Victor Moses, Peter Osaze Odemwingie, Ogenyi Onazi, Vincent Enyeama, Kenneth Omeruo, Elderson Echejile, Joel Obi, Ahmed Musa and John Mikel Obi stand out. Mikel caused a tug of war between Manchester United and Chelsea in 2005 before eventually settling for Chelsea. He has gone on to play in UCL and FA Cup finals as well as make the bench for the UEFA Europa League and Capital One Cup finals. He is hot on the heels of Kanu Nwankwo and may usurp the latter to become the most decorated Nigerian footballer ever.

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Others, including Taye Taiwo, who shone at 2005 FIFA World Youth Championships with Mikel, have failed to live up to expectations. To be fair to Taiwo, he started his career on a high and went on to play for Olympique Marseille and AC Milan but lost his form and confidence in 2011 aged just 26 and hasn’t recovered ever since.

There are three main reasons why I think Nigerian footballers aren’t the lure of leading European clubs anymore. The first is age; a number of Europeans still believe Africans and South Americans lie about their ages hence most prefer to take their chance on young players that can offer their clubs a good number of years in return for the astronomical figures they command.

The second is lack of ambition; Africans, rather Black men in general, are often known to become complacent once they achieve their dream. Most Nigerian footballers could care less about winning laurels and trophies. They are in the football business, just for the money considering their family backgrounds. Football has taken many from bottom to the top of the food chain. However, they fail to understand that a player that aims for titles and shattering records will make more money.

The third is lack of quality; the naked truth is that if these players were quality, most managers would take a chance on them irrespective of their limitations. A lot of managers questioned ages of Kanu and Taribo West but it didn’t deter them from signing both players.

To solve this conundrum, the NFF, Nigerian Premier League clubs and national team coaches have to invest heavily in scouting networks to discover quality players who are hungry for success on all fronts.

Football’s Life Lessons I

Football is the most popular sport, played and watched by millions of people world wide.

Football is more than a game because it teaches us a lot about life so let’s take a look at some of the lessons we can learn from following the game.

1. People don’t remember all the things you’ve done for them rather they will hold unto the one you didn’t do. Robin van Persie has scored a lot of important goals for Man United this season but took a lot of stick for missing a glorious chance late in the game against Chelsea.

2. Success breeds haters. Lionel Messi and his FC Barcelona team are hated by many because of the success they’ve recorded.

3. The media will make and mar you. David Beckham married spice girl, Victoria Adams in 1999 and the pair were dubbed “Posh & Becks” by the British media. A few years later, British tabloids offered Rebecca Loos a whooping ¬£5m to reveal all the details of her affair with the football star.

4. Competition is healthy and brings out the best in us. Javier Hernandez has really improved in his all round play this season because of the emergence of Danny Welbeck and signing of Robin van Persie.

5. Football enlightens us on geography and makes us conversant with some places we had never heard of. Eg Andorra, San Marino, Faroe Islands, Luxembourg, Catalunya, Lichtenstein, Basque country, Andalucia country, etc.

6. Football helps you become familiar with some names of the players/coaches and the countries associated with such names.

7. Nothing is permanent. Life is all about rise and fall. In 2002, Leeds United were in the semi finals of the UEFA Champions League; they play in the English second tier (Championship) today.

8. All is fair in love and war.
If you like complain and moan all day about some refereeing errors that cost your team the match, the match won’t be replayed.

9. Opportunity comes but once, take it! Kenneth Omeruo was relatively unknown prior to the start of AFCON. He was given the chance to play after Efe Ambrose was red carded in the first game, he did well and cemented his place in the team ousting the captain, Joseph Yobo from the starting line up.

10. Football educates one about history, only if you listen to the commentary and don’t make silly noise/arguments during a game. Did you know whenever Tottenham Hotspur plays at home, Arsenal (Highbury days) must play away to prevent traffic jam?

11. It is hard to replace or leave a team player out of the team. Pedro is the one of the most hard-working players I’ve seen, that’s why it’s hard to keep him out of the team at FC Barcelona and International level.

12. Footballers inspire you, you can be anything you want to be if you work hard.

13. Money will always come but what would you do with the money? A lot of footballers have gone from riches to rags because they failed to invest their money properly.

14. Nobody is indispensable. Manchester United won’t become extinct when Sir Alex Ferguson finally retires.

15. Humility is truly a virtue. Ryan Giggs is the most decorated player in the history of English football but he’s laid back and humble, a true example to everyone. See Kanu Nwankwo also.

To be continued