Considering the size of Monaco – the Principality has a population under 40,000 people – it is remarkable how much of an influence it has had on Nigerian football in the last quarter of a century.
On Monday, the football club AS Monaco announced the signing of Nigeria international Henry Onyekuru, but not before first teasing the reveal with a reference to former striker Victor Ikpeba.
Nicknamed the ‘Prince of Monaco’, the former Africa Footballer of the Year was a fearsome, streaking forward for Les Monegasques over a span of six years at the club, scoring just under a goal every three games over 170 appearances and leading an impressive run to the semi-final of the 1996/97 Uefa Cup.
He is the most obvious – and relevant – comparison, but is far from the only one. Former internationals Rabiu Afolabi and Haruna Lukman are others from Nigeria who have called Stade Louis II home, albeit with a lower degree of success and distinction than Ikpeba accrued in his time in the Principality.
He, then, is the one the management of the club expect Onyekuru to emulate in terms of impact.
Profile-wise, they are broadly similar types: low centres of gravity, plenty of pace, and a keenly-developed finishing ability. The younger forward of course has quite a ways to go before he can ascend to the consistency that earned Ikpeba the adulation of Monaco, but he carries on a trend of Nigerians making their home on the French Riviera.
In that regard, his arrival also fills a figurative vacuum, in that it coincides with the departure of former Sporting Director Michael Emenalo.
Himself a former international, Emenalo has seen his influence within the club sharply decline in the last two years; highly sought after following his departure from a similar role at Chelsea, where he was considered one of Roman Abramovich’s closest advisers, the 54-year-old left Monaco with his reputation and standing within the game having taken a big hit.
Much of that was to do with the gutting of the side following their unlikely Champions League success in 2016/17, and Emenalo’s inability to bring in quality replacements in their stead. Also, whereas erstwhile manager Leonardo Jardim enjoyed a good relationship with former Sporting Director Luis Campos, he reportedly never saw eye-to-eye with the former Blues Technical Director.
Furthermore, the club’s decision to sack Jardim and install the inexperienced Thierry Henry in his place following a poor start to the 2018/19 season proved catastrophic, as it only plunged the team into even greater peril of relegation.
Only with the return of Jardim, a tacit admission of poor judgment in itself, was the ship righted.
His re-appointment also saw Emenalo lose leverage and face within the club hierarchy, and owner Dmitri Rybolovlev was reportedly ready to dismiss the Nigerian, but the financial hit incurred in sacking Henry meant the club could not afford to let him go.
Instead, Monaco essentially demoted him to a scouting role.
In the wake of his decision to quit his position with the Principality club, coming when it did, it is interesting to observe that Onyekuru is perhaps ironically the profile of player Emenalo might have been looked past.
He seemed to oscillate wildly between overpriced older players – the likes of Nacer Chadli and Stevan Jovetic – and extremely inexperienced talent like Adama Diakhaby and Samuel Grandsir, whereas following their impressive Champions League showing, they needed to consolidate and target close-to-peak-age players with some pedigree.
Onyekuru’s signing then signals a return to the sort of grounded, rational decision-making that took the club to unprecedented heights both in the league and in Europe.
It would, of course, be a stretch to expect the club to bottle lightning in the same way once again, but it is a signing that ticks all the right boxes: the 22-year-old has been instrumental in a title victory (he was Galatasaray’s second highest scorer last term with 14 goals, all from open play, and five assists), is a full international and has played in two European leagues.
That there is once again a Nigerian in the Principality is just a neat bonus, and a nod to the intriguing history that both entities share.