IKENWA NNABUOGOR profiles some greats who bestrode Africa after leaving the shores of Nigeria for greater things and international recognition…
In the beginning playing professional football in Europe was very tough and almost non-existent as Nigerian players remained and retired in the local league.
Such was not the case with some of the west coast countries like Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal and Cameroon that enjoyed the good trappings their French colonial masters had to offer.
Opportunities were few and far between among Nigerian players as the only significant few who plied their trade in Europe were those born in Europe, especially England.
For most of the Nigerian players who sought more fame and money outside the country, it was worth the adventure and long overdue. Many had exhausted all they had in their tanks in Nigeria and needed to take wares overseas.
Interestingly, it was a route to Europe to some who went ahead to gain more recognition internationally.
The case of late Stephen Keshi was more of accident than design and the aftermath of his adventure returned lots of positives on a personal level and for his country.
Keshi had led a mutiny at the defunct New Nigerian Bank FC (NNB), Benin and was suspended alongside some other conspirators, but the NNB’s loss turned out to be Stade Abidjan’s gain first and later Africa Sport as Keshi went in to become a national hero in Cote d’Ivoire, winning the league title and FA Cup titles with both clubs upsetting traditional rivals ASEC Mimosas.
The gates to Belgium were then flung wide open for the former Super Eagles’ captain, nicknamed “Big Boss” as he blazed the trail for the large influx of Nigerian and later African players into the Belgian Jupiler League.
Keshi would go on to captain Super Eagles and win several honours in Belgium and France.
Former Super Eagles goal keeper Peter Rufai left Stationery Stores to venture into neighbouring Benin Republic to continue his career with Dragons de l’ouome in 1986.
He won the double in his brief sojourn there before transferring to Belgium to team up with Keshi at Lokeren at the end of the 1986 season.
Rufai would go on to become one of the greatest ‘keepers for Nigeria, playing in two World Cups and capping 65 times with a goal.
Late Rashidi Yekini saw little challenge in the local league after winning everything for Abiola Babes and headed to Cote d’Ivoire in 1987 to swell the growing number of Nigerians there.
Yekini spent just one season at Africa Sport, but had done well enough to emerge the season’s top scorer as well as win the league title before leaving for Portugal.
Yekini would go on to become Nigeria’s most prolific striker of all-time with the 37-goal record which still stands today.
Henry Nwosu had offers in Europe quite alright, but the little midfield battle ship turned down the offers on account of the harsh cold weather in Europe to remain in Africa.
Ivorian club ASEC Mimosas famed to produce top Ivorien greats like the Toure brothers opened its arms for the former Eagles captain in 1988.
Nwosu continued his African adventure at Racing Club Baffousam in neighbouring Cameroon as his club career was reaching the home stretch.
Despite not taking his game to Europe, Nwosu helped him with eight goals in 68 appearances for his country.
Friday Ekpo’s biggest highlights in his Gabon adventure was punishing Stationary Stores in the African Cup Winners Cup first round game in 1991.
Ekpo’s record in Gabon is still well documented. He also opened more doors for Nigerian players to make some petro cash in the tiny oil-rich Central African country.
South Africa had barely settled to enjoy their freedom from Apartheid when goalkeeper Willy Okpara left Lagos ACB to try his luck with Orlando Pirates.
Okpara would go on to become one of the greatest imports to grace the ever growing South Africa’s Professional Soccer League (PSL) and still holds the record of the most league appearances with 375 outings.
Okpara would also go to share a club record with Oupa Manyisa and Senzo Meyiwa for Pirates’ most league appearances with 51 outings in a season.
Okpara was in goal for his country at senior level five times after distinguishing himself at junior level. He’s currently Pirates’ goalkeeper’s trainer.
Continuing the lively the Nigerian connection at Pirates were Super Eagles players Sam Pam Junior and Onyekachi Okonkwo. Both players though donned Pirates’ colours at different times left good memories at the multiple league champions before Okonkwo took his game to Switzerland and Pam retired and became a coach in South Africa.
Mamelodi Sundowns were sleeping giants until Chukwu Raphael Ndukwe left Udoji United to team up with them.
Sundowns never had a striker so good until Ndukwe arrived to burst the scorer’s charts winning the top scorer’s award twice before he left for Europe to feature for Caykur Rizespor.
Sundowns’ fans lured him back to Loftus Versfield Stadium after an unsettled stint in Turkey.
He would be remembered for his goal against Cameroon in the AFCON 2000 final after a 2-2 stalemate that a lottery of penalty was used to settle with Cameroon nicking the title for the third time.
John Utaka remains Ismaily’s biggest import till date despite spending a season there. Before he arrived at Ismaily, he had begun his adventure out the Nigerian shores at Arab Contractors.
Utaka was to Ismaily what Emmanuel Amuneke was to Zamalek, but his greatest moments were in the defunct CAF Cup where he fired home seven goals to emerge the top scorer in 2001.
What many do not know about Utaka’s sweet romance at Ismaily was the deliberate cutting of the TV scenes where he celebrated his goals by performing the signs of the cross.
Qatar was his next port of call before storming Europe to become of the best African strikers in his time.
Zamalek fans would never forget Emmanuel Amuneke in a hurry for the great things he did there before raising his bar to Portugal.
Amuneke would equally go on to become one of the best wingers to ever grace the colours of his country.
Adding to the ever growing legion in Cote d’Ivoire in the early 90s were Gabriel Okolosi and Thompson Oliha.
Both players were phenomenal at ASEC Mimosas as Oliha conducted the orchestra from the midfield, Okolosi returned the favour with a basket full of goals.
Oliha left for Israel, while Okolosi continued his act in Switzerland.
Ben Iroha would never forget his ASEC Mimosas sojourn in a hurry as he turned to be one of the best foreign players in the Ivorien top flight in 1992.
Together with his compatriot Friday Elaho, Iroha won the league title and moved on to Holland to sign for Vitese Arnhem. He also made the Eagles’ left back shirt his personal property before he gave it up to Celestine Babayaro and Garba Lawal.
Michael Eneramo of Esperance Tunis was so good in Tunisia that even the President of Tunisia signed his citizenship papers to have the former Lobi Stars’ giant striker to star for the Carthage Eagles ahead of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, but Nigeria were quicker to grab the deadly marksman.
Coach Shuaibu Amodu capped the two-time Tunisian league top scorer, but his Eagles’ stay was short to justify his relevance.
Till date Eneramo remains one of the biggest foreign stars to have plied his trade in the Tunisian league.
Julius Aghahowa is probably the most successful Eagles player to go through Tunisia.
“Agha Wonder” known for his incredible cartwheel celebrations struck appreciable number of goals for Esperance before he switched to Ukraine to continue his outstanding performance for club and country.
Today, there are few Nigeria players doing great things in Africa and wait for the right fees to hit Europe.
Junior Ajayi got little or nothing to prove again at Egypt’s Al Ahly, while Babatunde Michael is still finding the back of the net admirably for Wydad Casablanca in Morocco.
Down south in Angola, the duo of Kehinde Yisa Anifowoshe and Akinfenwa Ibukun, formerly of Portuguese club, Farense, have shown great promise especially in the CAF Champions League for top side Primeiro de Agusto.
There are still many more waiting to get on board to Africa and hopefully move on from there.
Lord of Africa’s Manor best XI
Goalkeeper: Peter Rufai Right back: Taofeek Malik Left back: Ben Iroha Central defence: Stephen Keshi, Obinna Nwaneri Midfielders: Sam Pam Jnr, Henry Nwosu, Thompson Oliha, Friday Ekpo Attack: Rashidi Yekini, Michael Eneramo
Substitutes: Willy Okpara, Austin Ejide, John Utaka, Ogochukwu Obiakor, Gabriel Okolosi, Garba Lawal, Julius Aghahowa, Junior Ajayi, John Zaki, Onyekachi Okonkwo, Chukwu Ndukwe, Emeka Opara
Coach: Shuaibu Amodu.