COMMENT By Solace Chukwu Follow on Twitter
The Golden Age of Nigerian football had a couple of distinct features: Sunday Oliseh’s vision, Rashidi Yekini’s finishing, Jay-Jay Okocha’s trickery.
Arguably though, Finidi George’s deliveries from wide areas came to be considered as much a calling card as any of the above; to this day, the former Ajax winger is revered as the gold standard for Nigerian widemen.
In this week’s Goal Legend of the Week feature, we look back on the career of Finidi, he of the most unique of goal celebrations.
Finidi made his name as a dashing winger in the 1990s, catching the eye as Nigeria qualified for a first-ever World Cup in 1994. There, as the Super Eagles dazzled the world, the Port Harcourt-born 23-year-old was in his element, forming a flying tag team on the wings with Emmanuel Amuneke.
It may have all turned out quite differently though. Called up to the national team by erstwhile coach Clemens Westerhof as a central midfielder with Sharks FC, Finidi arrived to fierce competition in that zone. Senior team mate Friday Ekpo had an epiphany then, directing the newbie to own a vacant position.
“You won’t find space,” Ekpo recollects telling a young Finidi. “There is no one at outside right, and you have speed. I will supply you balls, use your pace.”
It proved an inspired suggestion, and Finidi never looked back.
Though he would go on to acclaim with Dutch giants Ajax, Finidi caught the eye on home soil, being a part of the Heartland side (then known as Iwuanyanwu Nationale) that won the league title in 1990, thereby completing a three-peat.
By 1993, buoyed in no small part by his exploits with the national team, his star had risen sufficiently that Louis Van Gaal came calling. Ajax had fallen on hard times, and were looking in unfancied territory for budget gems. Van Gaal would later reveal he paid Finidi’s £3,000 fee out of his own pocket.
Safe to say the rewards were bountiful. Ajax’s young team subjugated Europe in 1995, beating holders AC Milan in the final to claim the Uefa Champions League crown, and got to the final the following year. Finidi made well over 80 appearances for the Amsterdam side, and is to this day one of only three Nigerians to have a Champions League winners’ medal.
With Ajax, he also won three consecutive Eredivisie titles and two Dutch Super Cups.
Having debuted in 1991, it did not take long for Finidi to make himself a part of the furniture with the national team. In any case, scoring and laying on three assists for the team’s main striker on his first appearance did not hurt.
But 1994, the Super Eagles had secured a place at the World Cup, and were being heralded as an emerging power. In order to cement that reputation though, they first had to conquer the continent. Charity begins at home, as they say.
Westerhof’s side rose to the challenge admirably, beating Zambia in a tense final in Tunis to secure only a second title. Finidi started in every game from the quarter final on.
He would go on to have a wonderful summer, as Nigeria captured the imagination at the World Cup. He assisted twice and scored once, against Greece, and rolled out his famous peeing dog celebration.
There is perhaps no purer distillation of the player Finidi was than in Nigeria’s very first game at a World Cup in 1994. The opposition: Bulgaria. After weathering an initial storm of pressure, the Super Eagles slowly began to exercise control on the game, before taking the lead through Rashidi Yekini.
The legendary forward roaring into the net has become an iconic image in world football, but it was Finidi’s low centre, after a quick dash behind the Bulgarian defence, that laid it on a plate for the Kaduna Bull.
The second half saw an even better ball, a booming cross from the right wing to the far post for Emmanuel Amuneke’s diving header. The arc on the delivery, the pace on it, and the vision to see the movement on the opposing flank; it is no wonder Finidi is the Nigerian standard for wing play to this day.
For a player of his ability and pedigree, it will come as something of a surprise that, post-Ajax, Finidi’s club career was a lot less remarkable. He turned out for Real Betis, Real Mallorca and Ipswich Town in the English top flight, but before heading to Andalusia, a move to giants Real Madrid was on in 1996.
The transfer never went through though, even after a verbal agreement was reached between both parties, and Finidi joined the Verdiblancos instead. He would have his revenge two years later though, scoring at the Santiago Bernabeu as Betis ran out 1-0 winners – the last time, to this day, that Betis have beaten Real Madrid away from home.
“Kanu had so much quality and it was the same with Finidi George. They had something that we didn’t have. We had all learned how to play football on the streets, but their football upbringing was much more raw, and you can see how they benefitted from that.”
- Marc Overmars, Arsenal Magazine
“We also bought Finidi George. He was a Nigerian international. He was £3,000. I paid it by myself! And then, we bought Marc Overmars.”
- Louis Van Gaal, Daily Telegraph
My philosophy is to work hard at every given job or project. Even as a player, I realized that there is no short cut to success other than hard work and that is what I preach to my boys now.
- Finidi George, The Nation