Since playing its first official football game in October 1949, the Nigerian national team has given us some of the most memorable, iconic moments the game has ever seen, particularly in the World Cup and the African Cup of Nations. Nigeria’s three wins in the African Cup of Nations sit proudly alongside an Olympic win and last 16 finishes in the World Cup in 1994, 1998 and, most recently, in 2014. Yet, for all these great team performances, it has often been individuals who have caught the public’s attention. Flair, athleticism, confidence – the best Nigerian players have showcased these qualities in abundance. This prompts the question: who is the greatest Nigerian footballer of all-time?
Kanu graced the English Premier League for the majority of his glittering 20-year career but, like so many great exports to the world’s most popular league, it was at Ajax where he developed his skills. 25 goals in 54 appearances meant he was sold to Inter Milan at a huge profit for the Dutch club immediately after leading Nigeria to a gold medal at the 1996 Olympic Games. However, a medical later revealed a heart defect that would disrupt his time in Milan and lead to a sale to Arsenal having made just 12 Seria A appearances in three seasons. The two-time African Player of the Year would re-invigorate his career in the Premier League firstly under Arsene Wenger and then at West Brom and Portsmouth. A winner of the UEFA Champions League, the Premier League, UEFA Cup, an Olympic Gold Medal and three FA Cups, Kanu is one of Nigeria’s most successful exports. He was also twice voted African Player of the Year in a glittering career.
Few players have brought more joy to the game than Jay-Jay Okocha, a player so good they named him twice. Okacha’s career spanned several big European clubs but it was at Fenerbahce were he first became well-known with his trademark free-kicks catching the eye of the biggest clubs on the continent. After 30 goals in 62 appearances – an incredible return for an attacking midfielder – he was sold for £14m to PSG in a deal that made him the most expensive African player of all time. It was in Paris that he serves as a mentor to a young Ronaldinho – a player who’s style and flair would go on to make him an all-time great. At Bolton in the English Premier League, Okacha became a fan favourite with his tricks and long-distance goals saving the club from relegation. He is widely regarded as the best player to never win the African Player of the Year award but in 2014 he was names as one of the top 125 living footballers by Pele.
There are few footballers as revered as Rashidi Yekini in Nigeria. Yekini made history in 1994 at the World Cup in the USA when he scored Nigeria’s first ever goal in the tournament. His celebration – crying while the holding the goal’s net – became one of the iconic sporting images of the decade. A pacey striker with an unerring eye for goal, Yekini scored 37 goals for his county and remains Nigeria’s all-time leading scorer. He represented Nigeria in five major tournaments and was named the African Footballer of the Year in 1993.
If the 1990s were the golden age of Nigerian football then Finidi George was at the heart of most that was good. An electric right winger, George made his breakthrough in the legendary Ajax team under Louis van Gaal and would lift Europe’s biggest club trophy, the UEFA Champions League, in 1995. The following year he was sold to Real Betis where he became known as a prolific winger as well as one blessed with great speed as he averaged over ten goals in almost every season there. Talk of a move to Real Madrid never materialised but, no matter, his career spanned 15 years and included an African Cup of Nations trophy, a goal in the World Cup and too many traumatized fullbacks to mention. At his best, George was unplayable.
A powerful, commanding defender; Taribo West is synonymous with the great Nigerian teams. He was often seen as the leader of a group of supremely talented individuals, including Jay-Jay Okocha and Nwankwo Kano. And while his colourful hair and larger-than-life persona may have caught the attention of the millions watching World Cups on television, it was his robust defending that caught the eye of Europe’s biggest clubs. West made a big impact at Auxerre where he helped them win their first league title playing alongside Laurent Blanc, as well as the national cup. He would later join Inter Milan, winning the Europa Cup before his career tailed off, largely due to recurring injuries. But West will best be remember for the way he led Nigeria’s most successful national team, as well as his brilliant hairstyles. Obviously.