Tuesday, January 19, 2010

SUPER EAGLES PLAYERS STRUGGLE FOR CLASS IN EUROPE



Argentine football genius, Lionel Messi succeeds Cristiano Ronaldo as FIFA World Player of the Year and European Footballer of the Year 2009. But, notably absent from the coveted list of best footballers in Europe are Nigerian players.

Nigerian footballers were once again absent in the list for the prestigious European Footballer of the Year award, otherwise known as the ‘Ballon d’Or’ and the FIFA World Player of the Year. The 2009 editions were won by Argentine and Barcelona whiz kid Lionel Messi, once an unknown player who mesmerized the FIFA Under-20 world cup stage in 2005 and then the football world with his artistry on the ball.

However, there was also one John Mikel Obi in the Nigerian Under-20 side that lost gallantly to Messi’s Argentina. Following his heroics with the Flying Eagles at the tournament, both Chelsea and Manchester United had a protracted battle to sign him on, until Chelsea won him over. Both Mikel and Messi were touted by most football fans to go on to perform excellently in the senior level. However, while both have developed into world-class players, it is the little Argentine football maestro that has stolen the global headlines.

So, what seems to go wrong with Nigerian footballers, who despite their potentials, natural flair and skill, have in recent times, been absent from the prestigious list of being among the very best in Europe and the world?

For ex-Super Eagles player and now football administrator Mutiu Adepoju, the reasons are not far-fetched. “None of our players are playing in top European clubs (except Mikel and Martins), our national team have not really done much in the past few years, coupled with the fact that European clubsides with some Nigerian players don’t get to feature in the major (stages of) championships like the European Champions League,” he said.

In 1989, the great Pele, mesmerized by the quality and depth of talent in the Golden Eaglets team to the FIFA Under-17 World Cup, had famously tipped most of them to go on to win the FIFA senior World Cup for Nigeria. Unfortunately, that never happened, since most of these players never featured for major European club sides or graduated to play consistently for the Super Eagles.

Despite the fact that thousands of Nigerian players are scattered across Europe and South America, only a handful are currently notable names on the world football scene; Mikel Obi (Chelsea), Obafemi Martins (Wolfsburg, Germany), Joseph Yobo and Yakubu Aiyegbeni (both of Everton FC, England). At the height of the Super Eagles dominance of African football in the middle nineties, when they won the African Nations’ Cup and got to the second round of the FIFA World Cup in 1994, players such as Rashid Yekini, Daniel Amokachie, Finidi George, Tijani Babangida, Victor Ikpeba, Kanu Nwankwo, Jay Jay Okocha were plying their trade with notable European club sides.

But, it wasn’t until 1994, that Nigeria football became a constant on the world map when the Super Eagles won the African Nations’ Cup and got to the second round of the FIFA senior World Cup; with the likes of players such as Rashid Yekini, Daniel Amokachie, Finidi George, Tijani Babangida, Victor Ikpeba, Kanu Nwankwo, Jay Jay Okocha, who were then plying their trade with notable European club sides.

While Nigeria football fortunes took a down turn after some of the players were part of the Dream team that won Nigeria the 1996 Olympic gold medal, the rest of Africa saw a vacuum to fill. In 1995, George Opong Weah of Liberia became the only African to won the World, European and African Footballer of the Year. Samuel Eto’O of Cameroon thrice won the CAF African footballer of the year consecutively, while the likes of Didier Drogba of Cote’D’voire, Michael Essein of Ghana, Mahamadou Diarra of Mali, Emmanuel Adebayor of Togo, and lately Seydou Keita of Mali and Yaya Toure of Cote’D’Ivoire announced themselves on the world stage. They have also received worthy mention either in the list of World or European Footballer of the Year category. Great footballers always take out time to develop themselves individually. Maybe some of the players are not doing enough to enhance their skills development and winning mentality?

Nigerian players to have made either the World Player of the Year or European Player of the Year shortlist between 1995 and 2005 include Finidi George, Jay Jay Okocha and Kanu Nwankwo. In 2004, Okocha was also listed in football legend Pelé's FIFA 100 (a list of the greatest 125 living players of all time). In 2007 he was voted number 12 on the greatest African footballers of the past 50 years list, on a poll conducted by CAF to coincide with their 50th anniversary. Kanu was the last Nigerian to win the CAF African Footballer of the Year Award in 2000.

For Nigerian players, that is as good as it gets. Barring a good performance for both club and country in 2010, a world cup year, maybe some other Nigerian footballer would follow in the footsteps of Kanu and Okocha. “I hope so,” Adepoju said.

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