Daniel Amokachi scored the FIRST EVER UEFA Champions League goal but Finidi George and Nwankwo Kanu are the first Nigerians to win the trophy….
By Olawale Agbede
Nigeria’s football heritage goes beyond just continental success. Beyond the shores of Africa, Nigerian players from the nooks and crannies of the country have written their names in shining light in world football and as far the UEFA Champions League is concerned, some prominent Nigerian players didn’t just make up the numbers neither were they mere participants in the competition. Some notable players have gone ahead to make tremendous impact in the UEFA Champions league and they make up the country’s success stories in the competition till date.
Nigeria among few other countries have had the opportunity to carve out a niche for herself in the history of the UEFA Champions League and this is due to talents such as Daniel Amokachi, Finidi George, Celestine Babayaro, Kanu Nwankwo among others that made it into European Clubs early in their careers, thus helping the European competitions gain popularity and acceptance amongst Nigerian football fans.
Former Super Eagles captain and coach, Stephen Okechukwu Keshi became the first Nigerian player to feature in a European Cup final but his club side, Anderlecht lost to eventual winners Sampdoria 2-0 in 1990. Keshi joined the Belgian side in 1987 and played until 1991, scoring eighteen (18) league goals in ninety-nine (99) league appearances. Another defensive stalwart, Taribo West, is the only Nigerian to have played for more than two teams in the competition as he featured for AJ Auxerre (1993-1987), Inter Milan (1997-1999) and Partizan
In the 1992/1993 season, when the European Cup was renamed as the UEFA Champions League, Daniel Amokachi wrote his name in gold as he became the first ever player to score in the new format of the competition as he scored the only goal in Club Brugge’s win over CSKA Moscow in the 17th minute of the match. Although Club Brugge didn’t progress beyond the group stage, Amokachi’s name remains archived as the first player to score a goal in the history of the UEFA Champions League.
Finidi George and Nwankwo Kanu, two of Nigeria’s biggest exports to European football, were part of the brilliant Ajax team of 1994/1995 that won the UEFA Champions League under Louis van Gaal. Consequently, the duo became the first Nigerians to win the competition. Before the final, Kanu scored his debut Champions League goal against Croatian side Hajduk Split in the quarter-final and he is the Nigerian with the highest number of appearances in the UEFA Champions League, sixty (60).
In the season that saw the great success of Kanu and George, Celestine Babayaro,arguably one the best left backs Nigeria has ever produced, became the youngest player till date to have played in the UEFA Champions League as he made his debut for Anderlecht in a match against Steaua Bucharest at the age of 16 years and eighty-seven (87) days. It was a bitter-sweet experience for the young player as he also became the youngest player to be given a red card. He got sent off on the 37th minute.
Nigerian players continued to find the back of the net as the UEFA Champions League progressed over the years. Yakubu Aiyegbeni is the first and only Nigerian to have scored a hattrick in the history of the competition. He got his hat trick against Olympiakos in a 3-0 win for his club, Maccabi Haifa in 2002.
Obafemi Martins leads the UEFA Champions League Nigerian scorers’ chart with ten (10) goals. The likes of Julius Aghahowa, Yakubu Aiyegb
Following in the footsteps of Finidi and Kanu, Mikel Obi is the most recent Nigerian player to win the UEFA Champions League title with Chelsea in 2012.
One thing Nigeria can be proud of is that its conduit of talents has produced players who have etched their names in the prestigious UEFA Champions League and whose legacies remain an integral part of the history, development and progression of the competition.