On Sunday, all eyes would be on Estádio do Sport otherwise known as Estádio da Luz (Stadium of Light) for the 2020 UEFA Champions League(UCL) Final match between German champions Bayern Munich and French flagbearers Paris Saint Germain (PSG) but like in recent times, Nigeria’s international players would be missing in action, report correspondents and
The UEFA Champions League (UCL) is the World Cup of club football in Europe with the best players and coaches squaring up against each other with unbelievable statistics produced from matches.
Of course, the fans pay a premium to watch these games in some of the best stadiums in the world and its money spinal – with massive TV deals for clubs and endorsement packages for players, making it not just entertainment but a great business that changes the lives of everyone involved with it.
In the past, Nigerian players have enjoyed success with this competition.
Interestingly, former Nigeria international Daniel Amokachi became the first-ever player to score in the new format of the competition when the old European Cup was renamed the UEFA Champions League in the 1992/93 season.
Then with Belgian side Club Brugge, the former Super Eagles forward made history when he scored the only goal the 1-0 win over CSKA Moscow. Though the Blue-Black eventually didn’t progress beyond the group stage, Amokachi wrote his name in gold with the UCL.
Fast-forward, two seasons later, Nigeria produced Champions League winners in George Finidi and Kanu Nwankwo.
The Nigerian duo was a breath of fresh air and a delight to watch in a youthful Ajax side under the tutelage of Louis van Gaal, that overcame all odds to win the 1995 edition by beating favourites AC Milan 1-0.
Kanu who scored in his UEFA Champions League debut against Croatian side Hajduk Split, went on to become the Nigerian with the highest number of appearances in the UEFA Champions League with 60.
Also, Tijani Babangida who signed for the Dutch side Ajax in the 2006/07 season distinguished himself and his three goals helped them to the semifinal of the Champions League in his debut season before they were eliminated by eventual runners up, Juventus.
Next on the line was Celestine Babayaro, arguably the best left-back that ever played for Nigeria, who became one the youngest player to feature in the UEFA Champions League when he made his debut for Anderlecht in a match against Steaua Bucharest at the age of 16 years and eighty-seven (87) days.
Unfortunately, the match also saw him become the youngest player to be given a red card in a Champions League match. But he grew from that experience and became one of the best left-backs in the history of Anderlecht and earned a move to Chelsea. Babayaro suffered double heartaches with Chelsea when they were stopped in the last four for two consecutive seasons in 2004 and 2005 by AS Monaco and Liverpool respectively.
Since then, Nigerian players regularly produced quality and played for sides competing in Europe’s biggest competition. Yakubu Aiyegbeni is one of such prolific gems. Most people will not forget his miss at the 2010 FIFA World Cup but UEFA will remember him as the first Nigerian to score a hat-trick in the history of the competition. He single-handedly destroyed Olympiakos as Maccabi Haifa romped to a 3-0 victory in 2002.
However, Obafemi Martins remains Nigeria’s goal king in the UEFA Champions League with 10 goals. Vincent Enyeama is the first and only Nigerian goalkeeper to have scored in the competition while Mikel Obi is the last Nigerian to win the prestigious title after helping Chelsea overcome Bayern Munich 4-3 via penalties in 2012.
New era for Super Eagles
Interestingly, Emmanuel Bonaventure recently scored twice against Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu and celebrated like his idol, Cristiano Ronaldo. The match ended 2-2 between the Los Blancos and Club Brugge but a lot of fans would wish he was playing for the Spanish giants just like Emmanuel Amuneke and Gbenga Okunowo did for Barcelona in the past.
Since Mikel in 2012 – no Nigerian player has featured in the semifinals of the UEFA Champions League apart from Kelechi Iheanacho. The 23-year-old then with Manchester City became the last Nigerian to go that far in the lucrative club competition in 2016 but they were halted in the semis by Cristiano Ronaldo inspired Real Madrid who went ahead to emerge victorious against Atletico Madrid.
Is that a result of their choice of clubs or are they not just good enough for the top sides?
In a chat with a Dutch journalist, Arthur Reuben, who is following closely the progress of Nigerian players, he opined: “I think it goes in waves, sometimes you have suddenly a talented generation who do well, and then you have to wait sometimes as well.
“It’s the same with the Dutch team. We didn’t qualify for two major tournaments and if you look at the defenders, for example, we didn’t have players who were at top clubs. In the last two and half years, we (Netherlands) did qualify for the next euros and now we have Virgil van Dijk (Liverpool), Matthijs de Ligt (Juventus), Nathan Aké (Manchester City) and Stefan de Vrij (Inter) at big clubs. So it can change soon. Maybe someone like Victor Osimhen can be at that stage soon.”
Super Eagles forward Victor Osimhen moved to Napoli for a club-record fee of €70 million which could rise to €80 million after add-ons. The 21-year-old had a fantastic 2019/2020 season, scoring 18 goals with six assists in 38 matches for Lille in all competitions which included goals against Chelsea and Valencia in the UEFA Champions League. But he would have to inspire Napoli’s return to the Champions League after they failed to qualify for the competition at the end of the Serie A season, finishing seventh with 62 points.
Veterans’ wise word
Osimhen is still developing with huge potential to reach the height level like we’ve seen so far at Belgian club Charleroi, where his 20goals in all competitions which earned him a move to Lille for £11.7m.
But his time in France showed a lot about his game. He got just one away goal in the league but prolific in front of home fans. Something he must improve on in Naples if he wants to truly achieve greatness and that’s some pressure on a young shoulder.
“Very soon we will begin to have more players like Osimhen,” former Real Sociedad and Super Eagles midfielder, Mutiu Adepoju explained. “He has now signed for Napoli, which I believe it’s a very good team and hopes they do well next season.
“I want to see most of our young players sign for bigger clubs that will be able to feature in the finals stages of the UEFA Champions League. We have a lot of young players and I believe with time, we are going to see them represent bigger clubs in Europe.”
Ike Shorunmu, who is a member of FC Zurich Hall of Fame doesn’t share the same optimism with Mutiu but admitted that it’s not a problem peculiar to only Nigerian players as top quality players are rare to find these days.
“We are struggling at the moment, he told NationSports. “Not only Nigeria professional players with some other Africa players. It is very difficult now to get quality players in Europe. When I said Europe, I’m talking about Germany, France, Holland, Spain, Italy and England.”
Former Super Eagles midfielder, Edema Fuludu blamed Nigerian players’ inability to sign for top clubs as the main reason for the inability of their clubs to scale through to the crucial stages of the Champions League.
He offered that Nigerian players who are yet to play for too long in the domestic league before securing deals abroad have better prospects of playing for top clubs while at their peak in Europe and thus improve their chances of targeting the Champions League.
“It is about the quality of the clubs you are playing for. If Nigerian players who are of very high quality get signed by top European clubs, then the chances of Nigerian exports playing in the Champions League final will be there,” Fuludu told NationSport.
“For example when Ajax were on top Kanu Nwankwo and Finidi George were there. They were able to make it because they had a quality team. A player that is playing at a quality club will get to that level if the club is doing well.
“I know recently (this season) some Nigerians progressed to the group stages of the competition with their clubs. It is because their clubs were not strong enough to get to where other clubs are now. It is not about Nigerian players but about the clubs that they signed for. It is a slap on the back that Nigerian players are not at the topmost quality clubs as it is now in Europe.
“It is until they get there you can’t expect them to be playing in the Champions League semifinal or final right now. The truth is that there is always a generation gap. Currently, Osimhen is the only notable Nigerian player with a big transfer move to Napoli during the ongoing transfer window. Ighalo went to Manchester United because he has played in Europe especially the EPL before he moved to China.
“The move was made possible because they needed something temporary as a stop-gap. We need players whom we have groomed in Europe, not in the Nigerian league and he followed the trend and pattern to make it to a top club. Most Nigerian players you see today who didn’t grow up in Europe but started in the league sometimes age catches up with them on time.”
Fuludu also stated that for Nigerian players to continue to hug the headlines like it was some decades back, the Nigerian league must be rebranded and that clubs must be run more professionally to make it more profitable venture than the present arrangement where it is seen as a mere government propaganda tool.
He also averred that when the league becomes more viable the norm should be to raise the bars in the unearthing of truly young players who can steadily make their mark in Europe and on the long run become subject of a bidding war.
“We must first of all start from our home here where the standard of the league must be improved. When our league is improved and not about the Government’s social responsibility of just appointing people to manage a club, but about the fact that reforms must be made adequately such that we have a business orientation to running clubs,” Fuludu added.
“At that level, when you take 13, 14, and 15 years – you begin to groom them for four or five years knowing that you have a target. By the time they are 18 or 20 years old they are already good enough to play in Europe and when they enter Europe, then in another two years they are at peak level.
“Good clubs will come rushing for such players that you groomed deliberately for business. The business orientation of running clubs must begin at our level here and thereafter we can begin to catch them young at school.”
Former Ajax winger, Babangida said Nigerian players must improve on their performance for clubs to attract the patronage of topsides, adding most are currently in average teams and obscure leagues.
Babangida disclosed: “The boys have to continue to do very well for their clubs so that they can be pictured out by top clubs. It is not all players that are opportune to play in the Champions League. It is meant for top teams in each country.
“Knowing that in most of the leagues in Europe you may have only two or three teams rotating the league titles among themselves. With most of our players in average teams, we are not expecting to see such ones in the Champions League because their teams can never win the league or go far in the competition if they managed to make it there.
“Of course the fact that they are going to lowly rated leagues could also be a factor too because if you go there it becomes more difficult to compete with other top leagues. It is the reason we are always happy when we see our players signing for big teams because we know that this improves their chances of winning titles.”
One time cadet team goalkeeper, Emmanuel Babayaro faults administrative lapses for the inability of most Nigerian players to make it to the top despite the talents that abound in the country.
He argued that even though Nigeria ranks only second to Brazil in the export of players to Europe and other parts of the world, the talents discovered have not been properly harnessed and guided to make the steady trajectory to the top.
“Why are Nigerians not playing at top clubs? That enhances their chances of winning any tournament. The club you are in determines a lot,” Babayaro explained. “The truth is that we have not been producing talents like we used to. Kanu Nwankwo, Finidi George and Mikel Obi that you mentioned have won the Champions League were products of the Nigerian league. Celestine Babayaro, Taribo West, Yakubu Aiyegbeni and others were all exported to Europe from the Nigerian league. What we have now is hearing that a Nigerian player found his way into a funny country in Europe and then we are all hysterical about it and celebrating his move.
“At the end of the day, I think the way our administrators have been handling footballers have made it difficult for them to naturally assume certain status. I think we have some of the best footballing talents probably comparable to Brazil.
“How these talents are being harnessed is another thing. If they are properly harnessed, then they can be properly guided. It is how well a player is guided that determines how well he makes it. I have seen some not so exciting players that still managed to play for some of the best clubs because they had good tutelage, career guidance and direction.
Babayaro called for reforms of the Nigerian league which will ensure talents that are discovered are properly mentored and he also admonished Nigerian footballers to deemphasise avarice for cash ahead of their career.
George, who won the Champions League with Ajax Amsterdam in 1995, implored Nigerian players to continually seek improvement in their game.
“Nigerian players must play in top clubs in Europe to have the opportunities to participate in the Champions League. The players have to choose right the clubs they join while going to Europe and work themselves up to the top clubs,” Finidi told NationSport.
“It takes hard work and understanding the modern game techniques and nuances. For you to play for top clubs, you have to be better than what they already have. Ajax have a good scouting team that looks for players all around the world and they have a football culture that goes back to the seventies.
“Modern-day footballers should ask for what they deserve. Football is business but they have to back it up with good football and dedication. It doesn’t matter where you go as long as you’re good enough to play yourself out of those leagues. If they don’t make it out, it is because they’re not good enough,” Finidi concluded.
Former Barcelona and Super Eagles’ winger Emmanuel Amuneke advised Nigerian players to be patient and work hard for them to make it to the pinnacle of their career.
He said: “One thing is sure if our players should continue to work hard and believe in themselves the time will come for them to enjoy that success.”
Most appearances by Nigerians in UCL
60 – Nwankwo Kanu Ajax, Arsenal
59 – John Obi Mikel Chelsea
36 – Obafemi Martins Inter Milan, Wolfsburg, Rubin
35 – Taye Taiwo Marseille, AC Milan, Dynamo Kyiv
29 – Ahmed Musa CSKA Moskva, Leicester
28 – Efe Ambrose Celtic
26 – Julius Aghahowa Shakhtar Donetsk
26 – Atanda Ayila Yussuf Dynamo Kyiv
25 – Chidi Odiah Sheriff, CSKA Moskva
21 – Céléstine Babayaro Anderlecht, Chelsea
21 – Viktor Ikpeba Monaco, Borussia Dortmund
Top-scoring Nigerians in UCL
10 – Obafemi Martins Internazionale Milano, Wolfsburg, Rubin
7 – Julius Aghahowa Shakhtar Donetsk
7 – Emmanuel Emenike Spartak Moskva, Fenerbahce, Olympiacos
7 – Viktor Ikpeba Monaco, Borussia Dortmund
7 – Ayegbeni Yakubu Maccabi Haifa
6 – Ahmed Musa CSKA Moskva, Leicester
5 – Brown Ideye Dynamo Kyiv, Olympiacos
5 – Nwankwo Kanu Ajax, Arsenal
4 – Emmanuel Bonaventure Club Brugge
4 – Anthony Nwakaeme Hapoel Beer-Sheva
4 – Michael Obiku Feyenoord, Anorthosis Famagusta