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Will Nigerian Players Rule Africa Again?

Seventeen years after Nwankwo Kanu was crowned CAF African Player of the Year, no other Nigerian footballer has ruled Africa again. Football stakeholders say the long wait may not be over yet, reports ’TANA AIYEJINA

Gabonese striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was on Thursday crowned the new king of African football, when he ended the four-year reign of Ivory Coast midfielder Yaya Toure at an elaborate ceremony held in Abuja.

The Borussia Dortmund star scored 143 points ahead of Toure, who scored 136 points to win a first CAF African Player of the Year Award for 2015. Ghanaian Andre Ayew recorded 112 points to place third.

But it was a case of different tales for Aubameyang and Nigerians. While the 26-year-old was all smiles on the podium as the continent’s best player, Nigerians had to endure another torrid year, watching helplessly as the top player’s award eluded a player from their country.

Indeed, the last time a Nigerian was named the African Player of the Year was in 1999, when Nwankwo Kanu won it for a second time.

Super Eagles’ all-time highest goal scorer the late Rashidi Yekini was the first Nigerian to win the award in 1993. Emmanuel Amuneke grabbed it the following year before Kanu and Victor Ikpeba also came out tops in 1996 and 1997.

It was an era that Nigerian players reigned supreme, winning the top prize five times between 1993 and 1999. But at the turn of the new millennium, the fortunes of Nigerian stars seemed to have dwindled, leaving no Nigerian footballer with the honour of being Africa’s best in the last 17 years.

Aside the Player of the Year award, the country’s players/teams also failed to win awards that they normally dominated. For instance the Super Falcons, who performed woefully at last year’s Women’s World Cup in Canada, were beaten by Cameroon, who reached the knockout stages of the event to win the Women’s Team of the Year award.

The Indomitable Lionesses’ Gaell Enganamouit was also named the Women’s Player of the Year, ahead of Falcons’ Ngozi Ebere while the U-17 World Cup winning Golden Eaglets and their coach Emmanuel Amuneke lost the Team of the Year and Coach of the Year to Ivory Coast and Herve Renard respectively.

No Nigerian was also in CAF’s XI. Only enterprising national U-23 team midfielder Oghenekaro Etebo (Most Promising Talent) and U-17 World Cup record goal scoer, Victor Osimhen (Youth Player of the Year) put smiles on the faces of football-crazy Nigerians at the event.

Close followers of the game in the country say they are disturbed with the negative trend in the last 17 years and fear that it might continue with the way the game is run in Nigeria.

“I can’t really see any Nigerian player winning the African Player of the Year in the next two years. We shouldn’t expect our exciting young players like Kelechi Iheanacho, Taiwo Awoniyi and Victor Osimhen to win it within this period,” 1997 CAF African Player of the Year winner, Victor Ikpeba, said.

The former AS Monaco striker turned sports pundit said Nigerian players have to start playing for top clubs before they can be considered for the award.

“If you look at the history of the awards since 1992, majority of the players who won it played for the best clubs in the top European leagues. But which of our present players is playing in the top clubs? Ahmed Musa is playing in Russia and it’s going to be difficult for a player in Eastern Europe to win it.

“Our players have to play for the right clubs. If we have players in clubs like Manchester City and Manchester United, then they can stand a chance of winning it.

“A player like Victor Moses is very good but he has his injuries worries. If Odion Ighalo moves to another club and he continues his goalscoring form, then he has the chance. If he plays in the Champions League or Europa Cup, it will boost his chances of winning it.”

Ikpeba was in outstanding form while at Monaco and he won the 1996 Olympics football event with Nigeria’s U-23 side. He scored 13 league goals to help Monaco win the league title, and then finished as the second top scorer in the UEFA Cup in the 1996/97 season, which he said earned him the African Footballer of the Year award in 1997 and a Ballon d’Or nomination.

He added, “I did well with the Olympic team in ’96 and I continued with that top performance in ’97. We won the Ligue One and I also played a major role as Monaco reached the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup, scoring goals.

“I was one of the highest goal scorers in France and I was doing well. My performance all year was fantastic and I was nominated for the Ballon d’Or. For 18 months between 1996 and 1997, I can tell you categorically that I was the best at that time.”

Football journalist Kayode Tijani lamented the poor state of Nigerian football, saying it has contributed to the poor output of the country’s footballers.

“Our football has gone down and there is no way our players or clubs can win the top prizes at the CAF Awards. It will take some years to produce an African Player of the Year again. At the moment, which Nigerian player can you point to? It’s only Watford’s Ighalo but he has to be consistent for some time before he can be considered for the award,” Tijani said.

“There is no competition anymore amongst our players. Under (Clemens) Westerhof, we had three players fighting for one spot but now, our best player, Mikel (Obi) sits on the Chelsea bench most times.”

Tijani, reputed for his rich history of Nigerian football, said the footballers were no longer eager to give their best to the country, after seeing how their older colleagues were poorly treated by officials.

He said, “Who is doing insurance for the players? It was only last year that late Sam Okwaraji, who died while playing for Nigeria, got a call from Amaju Pinnick. It was the first time a government official will call the family 26 years after Okwaraji died.

“I went to Muda Lawal’s graveyard, it is a dump site. Aloysius Atuegbu died and nobody cares and the young players see how their older colleagues are treated. So, what they want now is their money, there’s no more pride in representing their country.”

He added that inability of players to progress from age-grade levels to the senior national team may also mar the country’s chances of producing an African football king in the nearest future.

“The mistakes we make start from the U-17 and U-20 levels. Instead of making talents discovered at those levels play for the senior team, officials will say they are too young. But Michael Owen was less than 18 when he dazzled the world at France ’98,” Tijani added.

“Here, we have kept the likes of Success Isaac and Kelechi Iheanacho from the Super Eagles. If Victor Osimhen was not given a chance in the U-23 team, how would we have known that he could perform very well at that level.

“We also heard stories about Amuneke not having certain players from a tribe in his team. How can we produce players who will become Africa’s best if our best players are not given opportunities because of tribal sentiments?”

Ex-international Etim Esin argued that until youngsters are given a chance to showcase their potential, Nigeria would find it hard to produce the finest players in Africa once more.

“Most of the players we have these days tire out after a few games for the national team. In my time, I played for Nigeria at 18; Henry Nwosu was 18 and still in school when he played for the Green Eagles. So we must start using young players and not old men in the senior team.

“We are not grooming talents. Look at Andre Ayew, we saw his progression from Ghana’s U-20 team to where he is today. If he wins the award in future, I won’t be surprised because he started early. But we don’t give opportunities to young players in Nigeria,” Etim said.

The former Blegium-based player added that the organisation of the award was very poor, saying ex-footballers, who should have played major roles at the event in Abuja, were overlooked by the organisers.

“Is CAF telling us that past winners like Kanu and Ikpeba and a great player like Okocha don’t deserve to climb the podium and present the awards to the winners? Nothing was done to showcase Nigeria’s ex-internationals, it was only the entertainment stars that enjoyed the show,” Etim added.

Tijani also faulted the organisation of the 2015 Glo-CAF Awards.

He said, “Can you imagine a Nigerian company sponsoring such a big event and no Nigerian presenter is involved. When it comes to the CAF awards, we have to be frank, especially in the last four editions, there are a lot of anomalies.

“When you look at other awards, you see consistency. Here CAF boss Issa Hayatou spoke in French and the Nigerian audience didn’t understand him. At the Ballon d’Or for instance, your earpiece will translate the language.”

With the likes of Aubameyang, Toure, Sadio Mane, Aymen Abdennour (Valencia), Nicolas Nkoulo (Marseille), Clinton Njie (Lyon) and several others doing very well week-in-week-out in Europe, it remains to be seen how Nigerian players would beat them to Africa’s best player award in the nearest future.

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