While Nigerian players have starred at the highest echelons of the European game, few have made their mark at the pinnacle of Spanish football.
Emmanuel Amuneke belongs among a select few Nigerian players to have represented La Liga’s top two, having been signed by Barcelona in 1996 following a fine spell with Portuguese heavyweights Sporting Lisbon.
There’s little doubt, that come the mid-90s, Amuneke deserved to be considered among Africa’s finest players, and among the top widemen in the world.
He’d played a critical part in Nigeria’s African Cup of Nations success in 1994—netting twice against Zambia in the final—and it’s hard to pick any Super Eagles star who played a more decisive role in a trophy triumph.
The winger followed that up with a string of fine performances at the World Cup—Nigeria’s first outing on the world stage—and a goal in that famous opening 3-0 rout against Bulgaria.
Attacking quality out wide was a key element of Nigeria’s Golden Generation, and Amuneke and Finidi George were two key elements of Clemens Westerhof’s iconic side.
After moving from SC Zamalek to Sporting, and establishing himself in the European game, Amuneke was then a key man in Nigeria’s Olympic success in Atlanta 1996.
Again, proving his status as a big game player, it was Amuneke who netted the winner against Argentina in the final—a 90th-minute effort—to clinch a gold medal.
For context, only one other player—Samuel Eto’o, another ex-Barcelona star—has netted in winning efforts in both the Afcon and Olympic finals.
QUIZ: Only two African players have scored in winning performances in both an Olympic final & an African Cup of Nations final.— Ed Dove (@EddyDove) June 12, 2020
Samuel Eto'o and...
Between ’94 and ’96, Amuneke stood alongside George Weah, Daniel Amokachi, Nwankwo Kanu and Rashidi Yakini as the finest African players on the planet.
However, the winger’s status within a continental setting remains one rung or two behind the continent’s greatest of all time.
There are two reasons for this.
The first is the fate of the Super Eagles Golden Generation from 1996 onwards, as they were denied the chance to compete at both the ’96 Nations Cup in South Africa or the tournament in Burkina Faso two years later.
In ’96, Nigerian Head of State Sani Abacha encouraged the side to pull out of the tournament due to fears about the team’s security in South Africa, amidst rising tensions between the two nations.
To their credit, the squad appeared, ostensibly at least, to take the decision well—with the likes of Peter Rufai and skipper Augustine Eguavoen backing the commitment not to represent the country.
However, it came at a cost for the legacy of all those players involved in the Golden Generation, with the Eagles duly suspended from the ’98 edition.
Of course, while they didn’t test themselves in qualification for either the ’96 or ’98 Afcons, they did reach the World Cup in France, and advance to the knockout stages after ousting Spain and Bulgaria.
What could that generation—and Amuneke—have achieved if they’d been allowed to compete in South Africa or Burkina Faso?
Of course, we cannot claim they would have won the titles, but they’d have been contenders, surely, favourites, likely.
Imagine how the reputations of these Nigerian greats would have been embellished even further on a continental scale with one or even two more continental titles.
Instead, they have only the Olympic gold and a fourth-placed finish in the King Fahd Cup of 1995—Amuneke missed the decisive penalty against Mexico—to show for the four years between the ’94 and ’98 World Cups.
It’s a chasm in the legacy of these stars, with Amuneke missing the 1998 World Cup before making his international swansong with a final appearance at the 2000 Nations Cup—and that final defeat by Eto’o’s Cameroon—in Lagos.
The second reason why Amuneke’s legacy isn’t quite what it might have been is injury.
By the time knee problems kept him out of the World Cup in France, his time at Barcelona had already been undermined by fitness problems.
He also enjoyed some magic moments with Barca as well, winning the 1997 Copa del Rey after coming on as a substitute for Hristo Stoichkov.
#OnThisDay in 1996, @NGSuperEagles made football history 🇳🇬⚽️🙌— FIFA.com (@FIFAcom) August 3, 2019
Emmanuel Amuneke's last-minute goal secured a thrilling 3-2 win over Argentina for Nigeria's 'Dream Team', earning them gold medals at the Atlanta @Olympics 🥇 pic.twitter.com/mB3dIvPt95
However, his progress was stymied by a knee problem ahead of the following season, and he’d make only three more outings before leaving Barca in 2000.
As Solace Chukwu wrote about the injury back in 2016: “It would deprive him of a proper legacy in Catalonia, and bring his international career to a premature end.”
Later, Amuneke himself acknowledged the impact fitness issues had had on his career.
“It was very painful that the knee injury came at [that] time…especially after moving to one of the best clubs in the world,” he reflected. “It was a moment of despair having to watch my colleagues in the national team play in France 1998.”
Certainly, Amuneke deserves to be considered among Nigeria’s finest ever players, and as one of Africa’s top stars of the mid-90s.
However, Nigeria’s failure to build a dynasty in the late 90s, and the injury problems that overshadowed his stay at Barcelona, doubtless affect his standing among Africa’s greatest players ever.