COMMENT By Solace Chukwu Follow on Twitter
It seems somewhat preposterous these days to suggest that a Nigerian footballer could have a claim to being one of the absolute best in his position in world football. Yet, just two decades ago, that fact was demonstrably true of Finidi George.
No team quote 'defined European football in the 90s' like Ajax did under Louis Van Gaal. AC Milan and Juventus played in more Champions League finals – three apiece, compared to Ajax's two – but the baroque stylings of the Dutch side most captured the imagination.
It was within this whirring machine of passing and movement that Finidi rose to prominence. Three Dutch league titles, two Dutch Super Cups, a Champions League triumph and one Uefa Super Cup later, and the former Sharks man was off to Spain, rocking up in Andalusia with Real Betis.
It may have been so different, however, not least of all the destination.
In his final season with Ajax, Finidi produced one of the most tremendous individual performances of his time in the Netherlands. The setting was the Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid, and the opposition was the mighty Real Madrid.
The visitors, then reigning champions, would run out 2-0 winners, with goals from Patrick Kluivert and Jari Litmanen. It was, however, the unseen hand (or right foot, for that matter) of their right winger that made the difference.
Real Madrid's left-back on the night was former Watford and Espanyol manager Quique Sanchez Flores.
His lasting impression of that game is one of awe: "We saw Kluivert and Finidi, with those long ebony legs that seemed to leave us behind. Jeez, this is something else...It was a slap."
Finidi tormented Los Blancos all night long, and Quique in particular.
The Nigerian's lofted pass from deep for Kluivert in the first half saw the striker score, only to see the goal disallowed for an unclear, contentious infringement. His corner in the 22nd minute then led to Marc Overmars smacking a shot off the frame of the goal, with Francisco Buyo beaten all ends up.
By this point, it had become necessary to pull back Jose Amavisca to help. Not that it did much good: just before half-time, Finidi was again at his bewitching best, dribbling in off the flank, turning Quique inside and out, before dinking in a cross which was scrambled away with Kluivert lurking.
In the 64th minute, just when it had begun to appear as though there would be no pay-off for all of Ajax's dominance, Finidi provided the pass of the game. Edgar Davids beat a path through the middle of the park, carrying the ball a full 30-odd yards before laying it off to the flank.
Finidi received the ball, paused for the briefest second, then accelerated and dribbled infield, a decision that caught Quique by surprise. That movement tempted Manuel Sanchis out of the backline, opening up the space for Litmanen's run from deep. The Nigeria international then picked out the run with a delightful reverse pass with the outside of his right foot, an almost nonchalant flick befitting his mastery, leaving Litmanen with a simple finish.
Four minutes later, the same combination almost led to a second, but the Finn was just unable to steer in a right-wing cross at the back post, under pressure from the advancing Buyo.
He played a huge part in the second goal as well, casually blowing past his marker on the flank to transition the team from defence to attack, before playing it infield for Overmars and Kluivert to play a one-two and put the result beyond doubt.
As an audition, it made quite the impression: Real promptly came in for his services the following summer, and he might well have donned the all-white.
"My agent even reached a verbal agreement with Madrid, but things broke down at the last moment so I moved to Betis instead," he told Supersport in 2012. He would later reveal that Madrid had been unable to complete the transfer within a set timeframe.
As it turns out, he would make his mark again on the historic Bernabeu ground, scoring the winner there for Betis in 1998 and celebrating with a hat.
He may never have got the chance to play for Los Blancos, but he seemed to always know how to put on a show for the Madrid crowd.
Like the very best do.