IKENWA NNABUOGOR dares to go on a difficult path full of thorns a lot have shied away from as the debate as to who’s Nigeria’s GOAT, the greatest player ever, continues to rage…
The headline alone should ordinarily attract the attention of the older folks whose eyes would at least be itching to see the football player this seemingly young writer comes up with as the greatest.
Since organised football started in 1945 with the establishment of the country’s football apex body – the Nigeria Football Federation (though foremost soccer historian/statistician Kunle Solaja contests the date and argues it was a lot earlier than 1945), great footballers have donned the nation’s colours, made their mark, but the greatest of them is still a subject of debate.
The country’s national team didn’t start playing international games until October 1949, when the then Red Devils, as the Super Eagles were nicknamed then, led by country’s first-ever captain Etim Henshaw of Lagos Marines FC engaged some clubs in their famous 1949 UK tours.
It was not until 1963 that the national team engaged in their first international soccer competition, though international engagements with countries had begun as far back as the early 1950s, but the superiority of the Africa’s foremost football powerhouses – Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan – conspired to confirm their upstarts’ status with no significant result to show for their debut, neither did it produce any stand out player.
This debate of who should be considered the greatest ever Nigerian player has generated a lot of mixed reactions especially among the old and recent followers of the game.
Since their 1963 Africa Nations Cup debacle in Ghana, the country’s team were back to compete in their first major football competition in Ethiopia at the AFCON in 1976, though, Hungarian coach József Ember had earlier been turned back with his Olympic team after tearfully flying the nation’s flags at Tokyo 1968 Summer Olympics.
The Old Guard
The search for the greatest ever Nigeria Football player should indeed start from their second ever appearance at the 1976 AFCON, where Yugoslav coach “Father” Tiko Jelisavcic produced a bunch of players who shocked even themselves to win the bronze medal for Nigeria’s first ever international football honour.
Many a football enthusiast from the old school would effortlessly pick the late Muda Lawal as the greatest ever Nigerian footballer as the former Abiola Babes playmaker was generally believed to have held the magic wand that no other player ever came close to.
Still in very much-divided opinions even among the old school, the duo of “Chairman” Christian Chukwu, “Mathematical” Segun Odegbami would definitely grab lots of votes in the greatest ever Nigerian footballers’ polls.
It will be a straight fight among these amazing trio, but Lawal’s nose might slightly be in the front judging by breath-taking command of the ball in the midfield and spotless leadership qualities for club and country.
Lawal was synonymous with the best attributes any football player would imagine as his humility on and off the pitch capped a glorious career and endeared him to his teeming fans who believed he was an extraordinary human who conjured magic.
Believed to have played more than the 86 international caps, according to veteran statistician Solaja, due to poor records in the NFF, Lawal was a quintessential midfielder who exuded amazing confidence, intelligence, team play as well as uncommon leadership that’s still unmatched till date.
He would become the first Nigerian player to have played in five Nations Cup finals, beginning from his debut in 1976 to his signing off in 1984, playing in every single game of the finals, scoring five goals, until Joseph Yobo broke the record with six appearances in 2013.
At club level, Lawal was a monster for IICC (now 3SC) and the defunct Abiola Babes, playmaking, assisting and scoring as the local fans adored and worshiped whilst he wore their colours as captain.
Many believe he was a magician with the ease with which he was in charge of the proceedings for the teams he played as it’s wildly believed he was the greatest among his peers.
He was also Mr. Nice Guy, playing neat and hardly courted the men in black’s troubles which further endeared him to the fans for club and country.
His trademark smiles accompanied his perfect reading of the game as he cheered his teams on with ease, while he also pulled in the crowd.
He never got to play abroad, though, his time saw very few Africans export their talent overseas, Lawal was indeed never short of the requirements to play abroad suggesting he may have declined offers abroad for reasons best known to him.
“Mathematical” Odegbami was a wing wonder, scorer extraordinaire and opponents’ nightmare and great figure for a king’s mention on African soil.
Odegbami personally pocketed the number 7 jersey for himself for both club and country and his sweet runs on the wings that produced goals are still documented till date to make it very difficult for the beautiful game’s enthusiasts to name the country’s greatest ever.
The former IICC (now 3SC) wing playmaker became the first Nigerian player to emerge AFCON top scorer back-to-back and capped his AFCON glorious performances with being named in the AFCON Team of the Tournament back-to-back in 1978 in Ghana and on home soil in 1980.
He would end his Eagles career in 1981, netting 22 times in 47 appearances to maintain his place in the all-time Eagles Top 10 leading scorers for decades.
Like Lawal, he never ventured abroad.
Many still believe “Chairman” Chukwu is the greatest football player ever to come out of Nigeria.
“Chairman” was a leader on and off the pitch, he led his men with practical examples for both club and country, keeping things tight and well organised at the rear as well as finding time to venture up the field to help himself with goals, little wonder he popped up to score two goals in 22 appearances for his country.
Sitting back in the rear and taking charge for Enugu Rangers, “Chairman” led his side to win the national league title an unprecedented five times as well as adding four FA Cup titles to his trophy cabinet.
Just like Lawal and Odegbami, Chukwu did not get to play abroad not because he didn’t possess the requirements to compete with the game’s best, but for reasons not available to this writer.
As this debate continues to generate mixed reactions among the old and young, the golden generation who were not born or young enough to watch the Odegbamis, the Lawals, the Chukwus, they will always pitch their tents with the Eagles they saw.
Lawal handed the baton to young, up and coming midfielder, Henry Nwosu, who co-incidentally was his team mate when the Eagles lifted their first AFCON title on home soil in 1980, the prince who would later become a king produced one of the best and much-talked about Eagles’ performances before he hung his boots in 1991.
Nwosu was a huge bridge between the old guard and the new generation Eagles as he understudied the older generation, played with them in the twilight of their careers and nurtured the up and coming ones, some among whom played in their country’s first-ever World Cup finals in 1994 in the USA.
Nwosu was captain majestic, he was a complete midfielder, pint-sized, intelligent, clever, supremely skilled and knew his way to goal going by his famous efforts from dead ball situations.
Appreciatively slow but made up for his perfect reading of the game, ball distribution and mastery of set pieces, Nwosu’s Eagles days will never be forgotten by the fans.
Unlike his predecessors, he played abroad but in Africa, in Cote d’Ivoire and Cameroon, but declined to take his trade to Europe because he said he could not cope with the cold conditions there.
Nwosu led his men just like his mentor Lawal taught him, he was in charge of the team, dictated the pace of the game, took risks, inspired and decided games with important goals.
He won 60 caps and scored eight times for the Eagles to make this debate more interesting.
Late Rashidi Yekini was unknown, unsung, raw, unheralded playing for less fancied UNTL Kaduna until coach Adegboyega Onigbinde began a process that polished his rough edges enroute to making him one of Africa’s greatest strikers and Eagles undisputed all-time scorer till date.
Onigbinde saw raw gold in Yekini, who was later gloriously renamed “Yeking” by the local press, and defied all odds to include him in the 1984 AFCON in Cote d’Ivoire, where he returned without goals while he kept the lessons he learnt there.
“Yeking” was work in progress following his poor personal outing in Cote d’Ivoire until his hard work catapulted to become a menace to opponents both in Africa and beyond.
At club level in Portugal at Vitoria Setubal, where he spent the most part of his career in Europe, “Yeking” was a deadly finisher, whose record remains a talking point till date.
He emerged top scorer with 21 goals in the Portuguese Primera Liga in the 1993-94 season after netting 34 times previously to win promotion for his clubside.
The result of Yekini’s Eagles’ show was a record 37 goals in 62 appearances for his country which is yet to be equaled.
Late Stephen Stephen Keshi epitomized everything positive about the beautiful game and the Illah, Delta State-native is another player who could be regarded as the GOAT to come out of Nigeria.
He was completely in bed with a number of firsts in his career – arrived in Cote d’Ivoire earlier than any other Nigerian after a ban by the NFF forced him to defect there which turned out to be his massive career turning point – and ended up pioneering an exodus into the cocoa-rich West Coast country.
Ambitious Keshi was thinking again after winning the League and FA Cup titles for Stade Abidjan and Africa Sport, and this time it was Belgium that would be his next destination, but not without completing his big brotherly task of inspiring Nigerian player exodus to the West African neighbours.
Nicknamed “Big Boss”, Keshi flung open the Belgian gates for Nigerian players as well as a few Ghanaians with corresponding commanding presence in the heart of Anderlecht defence, making him one of their greatest ever foreign imports.
Having become an Eagle as an ex-St.Finbarrs’ College schoolboy in 1981, it was as good as it got for Keshi who was only waiting for Nwosu to exchange the baton as he commanded his battalion with so much dexterity fit for an Army general during his time.
The fans yearned for more of his commanding leadership with his “wicked” pointing fingers directing proceedings to his team mates as well as deceiving the opponents as where he would direct his long and short passes to the delight of the teeming fans.
He was also a delightful goal-scoring defender for both club and country and would majestically bow out for his country after netting nine times in 64 appearances.
(To be continued)