The fall of Nigeria’s football stars-
By Steve Alabi
In over twenty years, no Nigerian football star has won Africa’s top individual honours. This is quite worrisome. Even when the incomparable Stephen Keshi led the Super Eagles to an unexpected African Cup triumph at South Africa 2010, none of our gold winners was found worthy to win the title or the second or third positions. It is as if quality talent has taken flight from our shores.
The podium of the African Footballer of the Year Award is reserved for top quality players who have performed exceptionally in a given season. For a player to win it, he has to have put in more than a day’s shift, not just a routine delivery. It is not meant for the occasional delivery or flash in the pan. To be considered, a player must ply his trade in a top club in one of the world’s best leagues. You can ply your trade in a back street club in Europe and expect to make the list of contenders, let alone to win it.
Time there was when Nigeria could boast of multiple superstars, not only in the front rows of African football, but also on the global stage. The Nigerian superstar competed effectively with superstars from the best footballing nations of the world. Hardly could you find any of the world’s great clubs without a Nigerian player on its books. And he would be a first teamer, and one of the main idols of the fans.
The nineties were really the defining moments of the Nigerian players’ rise in international football. The period coincided with the rise of the Super Eagles in world rankings. Of the old stock, despite the mighty public adulation they enjoyed at home, only one of them competed with Africa’s best even when the award was still largely restricted to players within the continent. The players of the early days were not in contention for the award from its institution in 1970 by France Football magazine until 1977 when the highly gifted Segun Odegbami of IICC Shooting Stars of Ibadan came second behind Tarak Dhiab of Espérance of Tunis. Odegbami improved to the second position three years later behind Jean Manga-Onguéné of Canon Sportif of Yaoundé.
The second generation of Nigeria’s international greats fared better than their illustrious seniors. Starting with Rashidi Yekini of Vitória de Setúbal who trailed Ghana’s Abedi Pele and Tony Yeboah in 1993, this generation included Emmanuel Amunike, Daniel Amokachi, Nwankwo Kanu, Victor Ikpeba, Taribo West, Austin Okocha and Sunday Oliseh. The then Green Eagles, under the tutelage of Clemens Westerhof, had finally fulfilled their huge potentials by winning the AFCON title on away soil and making the World Cup finals for the first time in 1994. The key star in both exploits was Amunike who was duly rewarded with a sumptuous move to Sporting Lisbon and second position behind the imperial George Weah of Paris Saint-Germain in the 1994 award. His mate in the Eagles’s attack, Daniel Amokachi of Everton came third.
When the Confederation of African Football, CAF introduced its own award in 1992, it took only one year for a Nigerian name to be inscribed on it, a feat that was not achieved throughout the long period that France Football magazine organized the honour. Rashidi Yekini blazed the trail as the first Nigerian player to win the award in 1993, the maiden edition having been hauled by Abedi Pele of Ghana. In 1994, Amunike scooped the honour ahead of George Weah and Rashidi Yekini. The following year, two Nigerians again featured on the podium. Amunike and Amokachi trailed the winner, George Weah.
Three years after leading Nigeria to triumph in the World U-17 Cup in Japan, Nwankwo Kanu announced his presence powerfully, beating George Weah and Amokachi to second and third positions. The Prince of Monaco, Victor Ikpeba won in 1997 with team mate, Taribo West of Inter Milan in third position behind Japhet N’Doram, also of Monaco. Austin Okocha, while with Paris Saint-Germain, and Sunday Oliseh of Ajax were beaten to the title by Mustapha Hadji of Deportivo La Coruña in 1998. Kanu moved to Arsenal and bounced back to the top in 1999 ahead of Samuel Kuffour of Bayern Munich and Ibrahima Bakayoko of Marseille. That is the last time Nigeria has won. We have since been reduced to mere spectators. Even when Glo sponsored the honour, no Nigerian was found worthy to stand on the podium. The nearest has been John Mikel Obi who came second behind Yaya Touré of Manchester City in 2013.
It has been 19 years of watching on the sidelines. And it does not seem to be ending soon. Who among the current squad of the national standard can genuinely contest for the honour? Who has any real chance of winning? The captain of our troops, John Mikel Obi floundered in lowly China and is back to England in the lower Championship league. Of the rest, only Alex Iwobi is with a big club but is not guaranteed starting games. The other stars you can think of, William Ekong of Udinese FC, Leon Balogun of Brighton & Hove Albion, Kenneth Omeruo of CD Leganes, Wilfred Ndidi of Leicester City, Oghenekaro Etebo of Stoke City, Ahmed Musa of Al Nassar FC, Saudi Arabia and Odion Ighalo of Shanghai Shenhua, China are all struggling with small clubs. How can they ever compete with Mohammed Sala who is on the brink of winning the Premiership with Liverpool unless overhauled by Manchester City? Or his team mate, Sadio Mane? Or Riyad Mahrez of Manchester City? Or even Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang of Arsenal?
The mighty have fallen. But we must rise again. Those who won for Nigeria in those days all came from the local league before finding success in the big leagues. But their exposure was ignited by Super Eagles winning cups. That is why the current squad must strive to win championships at the earliest possible times. We ruined it in 2010 after we mismanaged the AFCON victory in South Africa. We must strive not to make mistakes again.
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