Seventeen years ago, when the Uefa Champions League was not as popular as it is today among African audiences, two young Nigerians went all the way to the final with their Dutch club Ajax and won the competition.
Now, the glamour competition has grown in leaps and bounds in the consciousness of fans across Africa’s most populated country.
Below, Goal.com looks back at the most memorable Nigerian performers from past Champions League tournaments.
|5. VINCENT ENYEAMA
Goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama wrote his story into Uefa Champions League folklore when he scored the opening goal via a penalty kick in Hapoel Tel Aviv’s 3-2 away victory over Red Bull Salzburg in August 2010. The Nigeria first-choice keeper, who has never been afraid to take spot-kick responsibilities, shot the visitors ahead in the third minute of the encounter.
Enyeama later netted in the group stage against French giants Lyon in a 3-1 defeat.
However, Hapoel were eliminated in the next game against Schalke, and Enyeama has since made the move to French champions Lille where he waits in the wings for an opportunity to claim the starting spot from local hero Mickael Landreau.
|4. AIYEGBENI YAKUBU
Nigeria striker Aiyegbeni Yakubu needed only one season in the Champions League to leave a lasting impression for compatriots who followed suit. In the 2002-03 season, Yakubu scored seven goals for Israeli side Maccabi Haifa to help them secure a place in the the knockout stage of the Uefa Cup. It is the highest number of goals ever scored by a Nigerian in the tournament. It began with a brace in the qualifying stage against Austrian side Sturm Graz. He increased his tally when he bagged a hat-trick in the group stage victory against Olympiacos, before scoring a penalty in a 3-0 defeat of Manchester United and another goal in the 3-3 draw in the reverse fixture against Olympiacos.
Even though Maccabi failed to progress to the knockout stage of the Champions League, they moved into the next phase of the Uefa Cup where they unfortunately lost 8-1 to AEK Athens without Yakubu, who had made a loan move to Portsmouth in January of 2003. He has not played in the competition since, but his goals is a testament to his prowess.
|3. JOHN OBI MIKEL
Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel is only the third Nigerian to have featured in the final of the Champions League, albeit in a non-playing substitute's role. Mikel was on the losing side in the 2008 final as Chelsea fell to Manchester United on penalties in a tense all-English final played in Moscow. Still wet behind the ears, Mikel was an understudy to France international Claude Makelele in the holding midfield position.
However, Mikel has since grown into a key first-team player and has consistently helped the Stamford Bridge outfit to compete in the knockout stages of the competition year after year. Chelsea are currently preparing for the final against Bayern Munich and could go on to win their first-ever Champions League title. The Nigerian could be presented with another opportunity to make history.
|2. FINIDI GEORGE
Once described as the best right winger in the world, Finidi George moved to Europe from Sharks of Port Harcourt in 1993. At Ajax, he became one of the best passers of the ball in Europe, where he earned plaudits for his impressive performances. He helped Ajax to win three straight Dutch league titles and propelled them to glory in the Champions League. His No. 7 jersey became synonymous with grace and elegance as he ran past defenders delivering passes that seemed to simplify the work of his strikers.
George won the Champions League with Ajax in 1995 when they edged past AC Milan 1-0. Alongside compatriot Nwankwo Kanu, he became the first Nigerian to win European club football’s most coveted accolade. An attempt to win it a second time was scuttled by Juventus a year later when Ajax lost via penalties in the final. He then left the Dutch giants to join Real Betis after turning down a bid from Real Madrid.
|1. NWANKWO KANU
Lanky Nwankwo Kanu shot to fame with his exploits in Nigeria’s victorious Under-17 national team in 1993. Soon after, he moved to Europe where he joined Dutch giants Ajax, who were building a team of exciting young players. After spending months in the youth set-up, Kanu slowly began to assert himself and the next year was promoted to the first squad where he played in the Champions League. He scored against Croatian side Hajduk Split in the quarter-finals.
The young player came on as a substitute in the final where Ajax defeated Milan 1-0 in Vienna to carve his name and that amazing Dutch team into Champions League folklore. A year later, now assured of a starting place in the Ajax squad, Kanu once again played in the final of the competition but was unlucky to lose to Juventus via penalties.
Kanu moved to Arsenal in 1999 but did not reach the heights of 1995 as the Gunners could only manage a quarter-final finish in the last year of his contract.Follow Lolade Adewuyi on