Over the years, there have always been debate about who the greatest Nigerian Player of all time is. Kanu Nwankwo launched Nigerians to the Internal scene by being one of the first Nigerians to play for major European big boys and winning the Champions League in 1995 with Ajax.
Firstly, the greatest of all time (GOAT) is always a controversial topic in any field. This is because people use different criteria in determining who the GOAT is, and that’s why it is subjective.
But it is important to note that there’s a difference between the greatest and best player ever. Best is about ability alone while the other encapsulates everything, and that’s why I believe Ronaldo is the greatest player of his generation.
Having explained what greatness is all about, I have decided to narrow down the players that can be considered as Nigeria’s greatest player ever to three.
No disrespect to the likes of Segun Odegbami, Felix Owolabi, and Christian Chukwu, but they don’t tick all boxes, and also, they only appeal to older generations.
So the players I have picked are John Mikel Obi, Nwankwo Kanu and Austin Jay-Jay Okocha. The criteria I used in picking out this three are honours, influence, popularity and then talent.
While the likes of Sunday Oliseh, Finidi George, Victor Ikpeba and Emmanuel Amuneke also have a shout, I decided to go for those three because they tick all boxes.
Before revealing my choice, I’ll take a look at their careers.
Mikel is the most successful player among the three following his success with Chelsea. The 32-year-old won two Premier League titles, three FA Cups, the Champions League and Europa League during his time with the Blues.
However, while titles are important in a player’s career, it is unfair to use it as the lone criterion in the ‘GOAT’ debate.
Titles won is a function of the team, and in fairness, Mikel won these titles because he played in a time Chelsea dominated English football.
Although he made over 300 appearances for the Blues, he was not really that important in the team. Chelsea would still have won those trophies without Mikel.
He did not have the same influence as Drogba, Lampard or Terry even though he featured regularly. On the international scene, Mikel won the Africa Cup of Nations in 2013, but his national team career mirrored that of his club career.
He had over 80 caps for Nigeria, but Mikel never imposed his authority in games. He was named captain following Enyeama’s retirement, but he was overshadowed by the likes of Victor Moses and Ahmed Musa in big games.
While his time as captain was commendable, his influence on the pitch was average at best.
The second name on my list is Kanu Nwankwo. Like Mikel, Kanu also had a successful club career first with Ajax and later with Arsenal.
The lanky forward won the Champions League, three Eredivisie titles, the UEFA Super Cup and Intercontinental Cup with Ajax.
After leaving Ajax, Kanu joined Inter Milan where he won the UEFA Cup. He left Inter to sign for Arsenal, and during his time with the Gunners, he won two Premier League titles and two FA Cups.
He also won the FA Cup with Portsmouth, scoring the winner in 2008. However, unlike Mikel, Kanu was a key player in some of the teams he played for.
At Arsenal, he is fondly remembered for the hat-trick he scored against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. At the same time, he also scored some great goals against Tottenham Hotspur, Middlesbrough and Deportivo La Coruna.
As stated earlier, he also scored the goal that won Portsmouth the FA Cup in 2008. He also won a lot of individual honours.
Kanu is a two time BBC and CAF African Player of the year, while he also finished 11th and 23rd in the 1996 and 1999 Ballon d’Or awards respectively.
But success eluded Kanu on the international stage, and that’s the only blemish in his illustrious career. His only glory moment for Nigeria came at the Atlanta 1996 Olympics where he played a major role in Nigeria’s gold medal victory.
Despite representing Nigeria at six AFCON editions, Kanu never scored a goal, while he also did not win a title. At the 2000 edition, he was one of the two players that missed their spot-kicks against Cameroon.
Nevertheless, despite his lack of trophy with the national team, Kanu appealed to a lot of Nigerians and was a role model for a lot of people, especially after coming back from heart surgery. His popularity, influence and individual honours give him the edge over Mikel.
The last person on my list is Austin Jay-Jay-Okocha. Okocha never had much success at club level, but he was the most talented and popular among the three.
Only a few players both present and past could attempt what Okocha do with the ball. He was a magician and also created a lot of unforgettable moments.
He is hugely popular with Nigerians for his trickery, creativity and ability to create something out of the ordinary. Okocha was part of the Super Eagles team that dominated the 90s, while he also played a leading role in the team in the early parts of the new Millenium.
Of the three players picked, It is Okocha that Nigerians connect with most. He carried the country so many times and was a great role model.
Ask any aspiring footballer which Nigerian player they admire most, and the answer will be Okocha. The Premier League is the popular league in the country, and Okocha is one of the reasons why it has a massive following.
Although Mikel’s move to Chelsea also contributed to Premier League’s popularity in Nigeria, Okocha’s impact was more significant.
His move to Bolton came at a time DSTV started showing the Premier League. And he never disappointed as he delivered brilliant performances which earned him legendary status at the Reebok stadium.
Jay-Jay was so good that he was named in Daily Telegraph’s Premier League best 100 players. He was the only Nigerian on that list which says a lot given he never won the Premier League.
He was also named in Pele’s top 125 living footballers. He was twice BBC African Footballer of the year and was a runner-up twice for the CAF award, and was once nominated for the Ballon d’Or.
So Who Among The Three Is Nigeria’s Greatest Player?
Kanu and Mikel achieved so much at club level, but they don’t have the same influence as Okocha. Kanu won a lot of teams and individual honours and should have been the obvious choice given he is also popular among Nigerians.
But as stated earlier, he never won anything for the National team, and that counts against him. Okocha may not have many titles as the two, but he is hugely popular among Nigerians and also the most talented.
It’s why he is racking up major endorsements even in retirement. Kanu and Mikel may have a lot of trophies, but Okocha remains Nigeria’s greatest player.