Back in the 90s and into the early years of the 21st century, Nigerian players were a regular sight, not just in the top European leagues but actually playing for the sides winning those leagues. The likes of Sunday Oliseh, for example, who plied his trade at Juventus, Ajax, and Borussia Dortmund, winning league titles in both Germany and Holland. Nwankwo Kanu and FinidiGeorge went one better. Kanu, our most decorated player in history, won the Champions League with Ajax, the UEFA Cup with Inter Milan, and two Premier League titles and FA Cups in England with Arsenal. Finidi George was also considered to be one of the best players in Europe at that time, and alongside Kanu featured in Ajax’s victorious Champions League side.
Others making their mark around that time were Uche Okechukwu and, of course, Jay-Jay Okocha. Look at any list of the best Nigerian players, and most, if not all, will fail to mention anyone since the likes of Kanu and Okocha hung up their boots. Why is that, and is it likely to change in the near future? When will there be another Nigerian-born player featured for one of the sides favorite to win the Champions League?
Evidence would suggest that as a nation we are producing just as many good players, the national team’s record has been as consistent as it was when we had world-class stars such as Kanu and Finidi George. One thing that has changed, though, is football itself where the money at the top-level has increased immeasurably in the last decade. The teams in and around the Champions League have the wealth and ability to shop from anywhere in the world, including South America. The number of South American players in the EPL, for instance, has increased dramatically over the last decade. In the past, however, clubs would have taken a rough diamond from the likes of Nigeria; they no longer need to as they can go out and get players from elsewhere.
The result is that many of the players who would have been snapped up by Europe’s elite clubs and then made into the world stars of the present and future are instead being bought by teams in the lower tiers such as the Championship in England. Even those of this world who are bought by Arsenal, Chelsea, and Manchester United are quickly loaned out to Championship sides. Chuba Akpom is a perfect example of this. When he joined Arsenal, he was seen as a star of the future, but in his loan spell with Brighton he has failed to impress, despite Brighton having a successful season, gaining promotion to the EPL, and doing it by playing exciting, free-flowing football, the type that should have been a proper setup for Akpom. The Championship is an incredibly tough league to learn your trade, with games coming thick and fast and players having no time on the ball. It is easy for players to struggle, lose confidence, and suddenly find themselves with nowhere to go. This doesn’t just apply to African or Nigerian players. Other promising young players are constantly going down this route as well, which presents a bigger problem.
On the bright side, there are young Nigerian players starting to make waves in and around Europe in addition to the likes of Victor Moses, who is currently playing a prominent role for title-winning Chelsea. Although the world has changed, all we can do is to keep producing talented players and hope and believe that they will be strong enough and good enough to once again shape football history.