IKENWA NNABUOGOR profiles Nigeria’s two biggest exports to Israel and task the fans to choose who was the greatest..
Not until Yakubu Aiyegbeni arrived at Maccabi Haifa with golden boots filled with goals in 2002 than the Israeli Ligat Al (Premier League) began to enjoy the powerful impact of Nigerian players.
Though Aiyegbeni’s stay in Haifa, Israel’s second biggest city after Tel Aviv, was very short, Nigerian players before then managed some memorable sojourns.
“The Yak” punished Manchester United with a hat-trick in the UEFA Champions League tie and that singular feat heralded his shock and sudden switch to England as Portsmouth beat off other competitors to grab one of their most prized jewels till date.
But the impact made by Ibezito Ogbonna from 2003 till he left for Romania and later former Super Eagles’ record goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama conspired to take the huge shine off whatever “Yak” achieved.
Funny enough, not many soccer followers knew Ibezito Ogbonna, let alone his impressive exploits in the Israeli Ligat Al for Hapoel Tel Aviv, but the Sokoto-born superstar striker was really on top of his game so much that his name opened doors for many Nigerian in Israel.
It was even reported that the Israeli security forces freed Nigerian minor offenders of crimes once Zito’s name was mentioned.
He arrived Israel to pen a four-year contract at the Tel Aviv side, but refused to waste time to start sending goalkeepers to retrieve the balls from the back of the net. He was on fire for the entire duration of his contract to become one of the few Nigerians to see off his contract and leave on a free.
To the Hapoel Tel Aviv faithful, Zito remains their biggest player and the best foreign player to have a feel of their turf. He may well be the Nigeria’s Israel best to the Hapoel fans.
It’s indeed debatable to label the former Kaizer Chiefs striker as the all-time Nigeria best player as the likes of Enyeama and to some extent Yakubu Aiyegbeni left some great memories. This is where the crux of the matter lies.
For Zito, it was an easy stroll in the park for the previously unknown who had just arrived from Nigeria.
Hard work saw him through enduring a frustrating early super-sub role to a regular starting role, Zito remained the biggest livewire in the attacking line of the Tel Aviv side and averaged double figures every season to remain Hapoel Tel Aviv most celebrated striker till date.
One of the most remarkable highlights of his Hapoel Tel Aviv career was the extra time lone strike that shot down Enyeama and his side Bnei Yehuda to win the Israeli State Cup in 2005.
That feat was also a landmark victory because Hapoel beat Bnei Yehuda in the Cup Final for the first time in 49 years.
Zito became a national hero afterwards with a local pop star releasing a song in his name to celebrate this feat.
Enyeama’s journey in Israel was always destined to be impressive after he arrived from Nigeria with all the honours in the bag,
Enyeama wasted no time in showing the super stuff he was made of.
Bnei Yehuda welcomed him to Israel, but it was at Hapoel Tel Aviv where Zito was a cult figure that the former Lille goalie produced performances that would take a long time to forget in the minds of the football faithful in Israel not only Bnei Yehuda and Hapoel Tel Aviv fans.
Enyeama scored a couple of firsts and those feats were records in Israel and no player has come near equaling or breaking them.
Enyeama became the first-ever goalkeeper in the history of Israeli Premier League to win the Player of the Year award.
Having been handed Hapoel Tel Aviv’s official penalty kicker, Enyeama entered into Israeli football record as the first keeper to score in the UEFA Champions League and capped his stint there with two league titles as well as an FA Cup despite enduring a poor start when he arrived from Bnei Yehuda.
Enyeama didn’t have anything to prove again and his eventual exit to Lille was inevitable.
One important thing to note in Zito’s Hapeol stay was a rare feat of being one of the few players to see off his contract.
His four year contract was seen out with a aplomb and off he went to Romania’s Cluj Napoca.
His post-Hapoel Tel Aviv career was never the same as wicked injury slowed down his career until he finally hung up his boots in 2013.
He has since returned to Israel working on his coaching badges and trying his hands in player’s management and may well be the first African coach to handle a side in Israel and that would be yet another feat.
Both players deserve all the accolades they enjoyed in Israel, but whose nose would be in front as the greatest Nigerian player in Israel will be an interesting headache for their fans.