As a 90s Nigerian kid and avid English Premier League fan, I often remember with fondness the days of Kanu Nwankwo and Jay Jay Okocha strutting their stuff. Jay Jay (so good they named him twice) is possibly the most exciting player I have ever seen in the Premier League – the ease with which he played the game, the smile he always had on his face as he dazzled defenders. To watch Okocha in his prime for Bolton Wanderers was to watch a master performing artist; his teammates and opposition defenders had front row seats. Kanu Nwankwo is possibly the most successful Nigerian footballing export of all time; his resume speaks for itself – Ajax, Inter Milan, Arsenal and two-time African footballer of the year.
Kanu and Okocha were two of my favorite players growing up not only because of what they did in the Premier League but also because of the pride with which they wore the green and white of the Super Eagles. These were two players who were as excited about playing for Nigeria as they were about earning the big bucks in England. Similarly, we once also had Yakubu Aiyebeni (forget THAT miss), Celestine Babayaro, Obafemi Martins and Joseph Yobo playing for various clubs in England but also proud members of the Super Eagles squad.
Unsurprisingly, in the mid 2000s when there were a host of Nigerian players playing prominent roles for English Premier League teams, Nigerian football flourished. We were ranked as high as 9th in the world in 2006; we have now fallen to 64th. This decline in Nigeria’s prominence as a footballing powerhouse mirrors the decline in the number of Nigerian players playing prominent roles for teams in the English Premier League. Case in point is Victor Moses. Since bursting onto the scene at Crystal Palace and subsequently Wigan Athletic, he struggled to develop into an influential premier league player.
At the Fifa U20 Championship in 2005, two players stood out; one plays for Argentina/Barcelona and is arguably the greatest player of his generation, the other is Mikel Obi, who is now a big-part player at Chelsea. What could have been? We have also had players like Peter Odemwingie and Victor Anichebe accused of not applying themselves while playing for the Super Eagles as well as players like Ross Barkley, Bamidele Alli and Gabriel Agbonlahor who have opted to play for England instead of Nigeria.
This season, the spark is back! The fondness and excitement with which I watched Kanu and Okocha terrorize defenders for years is back. Since making his debut for Manchester City last season, Kelechi Iheanacho has proven to be an able deputy to the injury-prone Sergio Aguero. With his goal in the Manchester Derby in September, Iheanacho brought his goal tally up to 9 goals in 821 minutes of football since the start of the 2015/2016 season – a rate of one goal every 91 minutes. The boy is a natural born finisher, his hold-up play is phenomenal and he shows an intelligence on the pitch that belies his age.
Over at Arsenal, Alex Iwobi is making a name for himself, tying down a starting position alongside Ozil, Walcott and Sanchez in what is a very fluid front four. Iwobi’s quick feet, vision and confidence on the ball have been a joy to watch. At Chelsea, Antonio Conte’s switch to a 3-4-3 is bringing the best out of Victor Moses in his new wing back role. Against Leicester, he won “Man of the Match” honors. He showed the quality that makes him such a promising player. This could be Victor Moses’ year! Odion Ighalo, Isaac Success and Ahmed Musa have not had the best starts to the season for Watford and Leicester.
Ighalo shone for Watford last season and Success and Musa have not had time to settle into the league yet but I am sure with time, they will all have successful seasons. In addition to the aforementioned players, there are a number of Nigerian players making waves at various Premier League youth teams and on the verge of breaking into the first team. 19-year-old winger Seyi Ojo made a handful of appearances for Liverpool last season, while Ola Aina at Chelsea recently made his first team debut and Dominic Solanke impressed on loan at Vitesse, scoring seven league goals. Arsenal’s Chuba Akpom impressed while on loan at Hull City in 2015/2016, helping them secure promotion from the Championship to the Premier League. Although these youngsters have represented England at youth level, just like Iwobi did, it is possible to see them opting to play for Nigeria when the time comes. Compared to other African countries, Nigeria is well represented in the Premier League.
This season, 7 Nigerian players have featured for English teams compared to 6 from Senegal, 5 from Cote D’Ivoire, 4 from Algeria and 3 from Ghana, Egypt and DR Congo.
Nigerian’s In the Premiership
Best of all, this new wave of Nigerian players in the English Premier League look like they genuinely enjoy playing for Nigeria. There is already camaraderie between Iwobi and Iheneacho. The joy on Iwobi’s face after he netted his first goal for Nigeria in a 2 – 1 win over Zambia was clear. Iheanacho already has 4 goals in 6 games for the national team. Musa, who is currently building a sports center in Kano state, has often spoken of his pride in playing for the Super Eagles.
In an interview with Stuart James of the Guardian in September, he said “the people back home have been so nice to me, so I want to give something back to them.” Musa’s passion for Nigeria is clear. Similarly, speaking to BBC Sport recently, Moses reiterated his passion for the green and white shirt saying, “I want to play every single game for my country and I need to keep doing well at Chelsea to enjoy that.”
Long may it continue. Russia 2018, we go!
Nkem also hosts a weekly podcast looking back at all the weekend’s Premier League action. You can listen to the latest episode here https://soundcloud.com/