By Oyediji Oluwaseun Babatunde
Sports Writer, kick442.com Nigeria
It’s getting closer to the Greatest Green/Super Eagles player of all time since 1945 as compiled by Soccernittygritty. At number three spot is Finidi George.
3. Finidi George
“Finidi was a graceful winger with speed, technique, insight, and scoring ability. In addition, he also had a lot of football sense. He was very good at timing the game. When he was alone, he held the ball to make the team join. As a result, Finidi hardly lost any ball”.- Netherlands and Ajax icon, Peter van Vossen.
The above succinctly sums up George Finidi’s play. Nicknamed “The Gazelle” for his graceful style and light-footedness, Finidi, like Robert Pires was one whose play looked harmless on the outside but in reality, has all the trappings of a game-wrecker. The Port Harcourt born natural winger started out with Calabar Rovers and Iwuanyanwu Nationale, unknown to many, he won the Nigerian league with the Owerri side in 1990 before joining his town club, Sharks in a successful 2-year spell which included gaining the attention of Clemens Westerhof as the Dutchman purged the National team of blandness with a view to triggering a project which later turned out the most successful era in Nigerian football.
Finidi was an integral component of the project. There was a dearth of a natural right winger following Dimeji Lawal’s failure to live up to anticipated high standards. Hence, Finidi couldn’t have ‘chosen’ a better time to emerge.
As one of the shining lights in the local league, Finito as he was fondly called made his debut in 1991 in an African Cup of Nations (AFCON) qualifier against Burkina Faso. It was a glorious one, a debut to remember. He created a hat-trick of assists for the goal-hungry vampire, Rasheed Yekini, and also opened his own Super Eagles goals diary in a 7-1 demolition of Burkina Faso. Such score lines are often misconstrued by many who erroneously assume Nigeria probably found it too easy at the time, forgetting only five years prior, same Nigeria found AFCON qualification unattainable. Opposition never got easier on the continent, the Super Eagles only benefitted from fate’s generosity in producing a golden generation through the sheer vision of a focused technical crew readily backed by the government of the day. The combination of these factors seamlessly propelled the Super Eagles above all adversaries regardless of their quality.
From traditional heavyweights as Cote Divoire, Cameroon, Algeria to the noisy South Africans to perennial spoilers like Congo, Burkina Faso, Nigeria squashed all adversaries, save for Ghana who somehow managed to ‘hide’ from the Nigerian wrath for the most part of the 1990s since the Senegal 1992 triumph. Finidi masterminded several defeats as Nigeria slowly ascended great heights which culminated in an esteemed 5th position in the world months leading to the USA 1994.
Nigeria arrived Tunisia for AFCON only a few months after Finidi joined Ajax from Sharks following successful trials for a fee so low it was reportedly paid straight out of the pocket of manager, Luis Van Gaal (LVG). Finidi hit the ground running immediately and provided 2 assists. The first one vs Zaire sent Yekini in flight face to face with Tambwa Bilolo before the goalie brought the goal-king down for a penalty and received his marching orders. The second was in the intense semis game against the dreaded Ivorians led by a Michel Bassole and Joel Tiehi lethal attack. Finidi was at his elegant best on the flank before delivering a pass on the platter for Yekini which brought the Super Eagles back into the game after Bassole had shot the Ivorians ahead with a second goal. In the end, Nigeria emerged champions and ready to take on the World in the summer.
The Eagles landed in America amid high expectations which they lived up to via a 3-0 defeat of a Hristo Stoichkov inspired Bulgarian side that deprived France of appearing at the Mundial courtesy Emil Kostadiniv’s away brace. Finidi resumed action again early in the game when he deployed intelligence in beating the offside trap to receive a visionary pass from Amokachi. The Ajax winger drove into the box and served Yekini a most sumptuous meal in a gold plate which resulted in Nigeria’s first-ever World Cup goal. Finito was back again on the dot of 54:15s when he floated a graceful ball met by a vicious flying header by Amunike which completed a shocking annihilation of the Bulgarians. He finally got on the scoresheet in the final group game vs Greece.
Again, when Nigeria needed to take the game to the Italians in the fierce Round of 16 games, it was Finidi who floated in a gorgeous corner kick which Paolo Maldini failed to clear, the AC Milan legend’s wayward clearance found Amunike who diligently improvised with a left-foot flick which evaded on-rushing Luca Marchegiani as the Super Eagles stunned the Italian dugout. Long story short, Nigeria were eliminated, albeit gallantly, with Finidi playing a major role in a heroic Nigerian squad.
The smooth operating winger returned to Ajax and created history in an unbeaten spell at home and continent which spanned 45 games and culminated in a UEFA Champions League (UCL) triumph in the 1994/95 season, all of these records are unequalled till date with Finidi again playing a major role.
The following season, Ajax and Bayern Munich had played out a drab 0-0 UCL first leg semifinal game in Munich, the second leg was decisive and Finidi was at his instrumental best garnished with a goal which till today is still regarded as one of the best UCL goals of all time. The Nigerian received a pass from Overmars after drifting inward from the flank and released a missile showing great technique with the outside of his right foot. In the end, Ajax lost the final and it triggered Finidi’s penchant for an exit.
He was unhappy with LVG’s mechanical approach to games which deprived his wingers of being expressive. All LVG wanted was for his widemen to get the ball, create width on the flank, and send in crosses. Finidi overstepped this philosophy, otherwise, we would have been deprived 1 of the greatest goals in world football vs Bayern. He found LVG’s philosophy monotonous and sought a move away. In the end, he had a stupendously successful spell in Holland scoring 18 in 85 games from the wings in a trophy-laden 3-year spell of 8 major titles including 3 league titles, 1 UCL,
UEFA Super Cup, 2 Dutch Super Cup, and 1 Intercontinental Cup.
The next stop was the La Liga with Real Betis in a last gasp move following Real Madrid’s failure to seal a deal.
Finito was a hit again in La Liga and also reminded Real Madrid how much they goofed in the transfer window that could have landed him at the Bernabeau. October 1998, the Nigerian chose Bernabeau as a medium of reminder with the last gasp winner for Real Betis which immersed the entire ground in shock. ‘The Gazelle’ was extremely instrumental in propelling Betis from a previous 8th finish to 4th in the 1996/97 season. His inspiring form also facilitated the Andalusian club to a runner’s up finish in the Copa del Rey in a painful 2-3 extra-time loss to Barcelona, a game Finito netted a goal. He wasn’t just a goal provider, he consistently netted double digits in almost every season in Spain. He was the first Betis player in history to score a hattrick at home on 7th December 1997 in a victory over Tenerife. In the end, he scored a remarkable 38 goals in 130 games.
The Super Eagles winger was widely agreed by pundits and veteran commentators across the globe to be the best right winger in world football while David Beckham was still apprenticing at Preston Northend on loan from Manchester United. His dip in form coincided with Beckham ’s attainment of superstardom towards the tail end of the Nigerian’s spell at Betis in 2000. Finidi was also named in Ajax greatest 11 of all time with his photo firmly secured in their museum.
“His performance as a right-winger was one of the best I’ve seen since I started watching football. And some of our attacking play was the best I’ve seen since I’ve been at Portman Road. George is world-class. It was only his second game, just wait until he gets fit”.
– Ipswich Manager, George Burley, following Finidi’s brace in a derby game vs a Fabrizio Ravanelli-inspired- Derby County. After a bright start to life in the Premier League, a chin bone injury triggered an inevitable regression in the game for the Nigerian. Nonetheless, he managed to score 8 times in 46 games.
Finidi quit international football in 2002 after 11 successful years which saw him win all shades of medal in 1992 (bronze), 1994 (gold), 2000 (silver), and 2002 (bronze). He appeared at 2 World Cup, netted 6 times in 62 international games.
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