By Ed Dove
Up and down the Spanish pyramid, Nigerian players have been influential in the fates and fortunes of their teams. From the illustrious Liga BBVA right down to the forgotten corners of Spanish football, Super Eagles are writing their own histories and building their futures on European soil.
At the top of the tree, Nosa Igiebor’s Real Betis have muscled their way into the Europa League play-off places. Since moving to Seville in the summer of 2012, it’s been a fairly stop-start season for the creative midfielder. Early on, he struggled to find a spot in the side—particularly disappointing after his €1.2million switch from Hapoel Tel Aviv.
The Africa Cup of Nations failed to bring the personal glory that it had long promised to for the playmaker, and after slipping out of the team, he is threatening to become Nigeria’s forgotten man. Things have improved slightly at club level, where he has begun to compensate for his post-Afcon absence with some improved performances and a glorious late equaliser in the derby with Sevilla, but his absence from Nigeria’s squad for this summer does not bode well for his Super Eagle future.
Despite being another who endured a torrid Afcon, Ike Uche has maintained his high levels of performance at club level. The striker stuck with Villarreal following their relegation, and the show of loyalty has proved well-placed. At the time of writing, the Yellow Submarine look at good bet for a swift return to the top flght, with Uche instrumental in their success this term.
With 13 goals in 21 starts in the Liga Adelante, he has maintained the goal-scoring form which deserted him in South Africa. He may have fallen down in Stephen Keshi’s estimations, but Uche has once again demonstrated his nous and consistency in front of the opposition goal.
Beyond these two internationals, elsewhere in the Spanish league pyramid, there are a number of young Nigerian players at varying stages of their development.
Ikechukwu Uche of Villareal
Once upon a time Macauley Chrisantus was likened to a young Rashidi Yekini, and heralded along with the likes of Fernando Torres and Alberto Aquilani. A combination of injuries, managerial changes and a lack of confidence had, for a time, appeared to put an end to his meteoric rise, but slowly and surely the young forward has rediscovered his form.
Leaving Germany behind for Las Palmas of the Gran Canaria, the Nigerian has gently begun to realise some of his immense potential. Chrisantus has hit double figures in the goal-scoring charts this season, and the form of he and local star Vitolo has pushed the Yellows firmly into contention for a play-off spot.
Granada is one of three clubs—along with Udinese and Watford—that form the tryptic of teams owned by the Pozzo family. The exchange of players between the three clubs has been mutually beneficial, and despite hovering in the bottom half of La Liga, Granada have a squad imbued with talent from their parent club.
Perhaps one of the most talented young players among their ranks is Nigerian frontman Odion Ighalo. The towering striker struggled to force his way into the first team in Udine, but has flourished in Spain after several seasons on loan with El 5001.
After being the team’s top scorer last term, a return of 5 goals may appear to be slightly disappointing. Nonetheless, a crucial winner against Malaga was invaluable, and may have been enough to secure Granada’s continuing presence in the top flight. Wigan and Swansea have been linked with the forward over the summer, but Udinese may well prefer a loan move to Watford—should the Hornets win in the Championship play-off final.
In the Spanish third division Group IV, Almeria’s B team achieved a respectable 5th place finish. The squad contains two young Nigerians, Stanley Okoro and Ramon Azeez—impressive performances this term may well see the pair in contention for a berth in the senior team next season.
Not so impressive has been striker Bartholomew Ogbeche, and his side Xerez. With one goal in six appearances this season, it is a sad fall from grace for the forward who looked like such an exciting prospect back at the 2002 World Cup.
A 22nd place finish in the Liga Adelante means a drop down into the nether regions of Spanish football.
Another player from whom so much was expected is Numancia’s defensive midfielder Sunny. The one time Nigeria international, and former Spain youth star currently resides in the Liga Adelante, and despite being a regular feature in the Reds’ midfield, has been thus far unable to push the team beyond mid-table.
Also, mention ought to go to Malaga’s on-loan defender Oguchi Onyewu. Unfortunately, it has been another season ravaged by injury for the U.S. international, and the former Milan man will surely return to parent club Sporting Lisbon with regret over another opportunity lost.
Over in Portugal, one member of Nigeria’s victorious Afcon squad has gone from strength to strength as the season has progressed. Elderson Echiejile has proved himself to be one of Africa’s finest fullbacks, he can confidently contribute to the attack, can offer defensive solidarity, and is tactically proficient. His stooping header against Mali in the Cup of Nations semifinal was one of this writer’s favourite moments of the season.
Domestically, Braga will be disappointed to have been pipped to the Champions League by minnows Pacos de Ferreira. Happily, failings in the league were offset by the club winning the Portuguese cup—their first major trophy for 47 years. They and their star Nigerian can look forward to another European campaign next term.
Another Portugal-based player set to star for the Super Eagles this summer is midfielder John Ugochukwu Ogu. The Lagos-born talent guided Academica to another mid-table finish this season, and will surely be relishing the chance to integrate himself into Stephen Keshi’s set-up this summer.
Madeira-based side Maritimo finished one place higher than Academica, and also deserve a mention due to the multiple Nigerian youngsters furnishing their squad. Perhaps the club will enjoy an increased status in West Africa moving forward.