Uche Okechukwu in action for Nigeria during Atlanta 1996 Olympics

By Oyediji Oluwaseun Babatunde
Sports Writer, kick442.com Nigeria

On this edition of Soccernittygritty Green/Super Eagles Greatest of all Time (GOAT) Countdown, kick442.com examines Number 13-14 on the list.

18. PETER Rufai
17. TARIBO West

14. UCHE OKECHUKWU (Super Eagles, 1990-1998)
There has hardly been a calmer defender in Nigeria’s history than Okechukwu Uche aka “Gentle Giant”. His calmness gave rise to such exaggerations that he never bagged a yellow card throughout his playing career. Though grossly false, as Soccernittygritty can sight at least 3: he was cautioned against South Africa in a World Cup qualifier in 1993, also, earned 2 consecutive yellow cards in the group stage of
France 1998 against s
spain and Bulgaria which led to his suspension in the final game against
Paraguay. And that’s as much as we can remember for a centre-back with 47 international caps, it is indeed an incredible statistics.
Okechukwu, 1 of a set of twins, was discovered early in his primary school days, Eziama Primary School, alongside his other half, Emeka Uche. Okechukwu, like many great players, endured a crooked pathway to stardom which saw him play
grassroots football in the 1980s with local side- Greater Tomorrow, then he moved to Division 3 side in Aba – Falcon FC, later Flash Flamingos in
Benin . However, he had to wait till the tail end of the 1980s to see a glimmer of hope in his professional career when he finally joined
Iwuanyanwu Nationale (now Heartland FC) in 1988. He remained at the Owerri club a couple more seasons before he finally moved to Europe with Danish side, Brøndby and never looked back afterwards.
Okechukwu was a free-scoring defender and never failed to show that side of his game as he netted 37 goals in 327 games across a professional career spanning 2 decades including 13 years in Turkey alone, making him the longest-serving foreigner in the Turkish league at the time, may be till date, a feat which earned him Turkish citizenship and the name Deniz Uygar. He’s a legit legend in Turkey, held in high esteem. He won 2 league titles with Fenerbahçe in 1996 following a couple of league titles earlier with
Brøndby in 1990 and 1991.
Okechukwu succeeded late Keshi as Captain of
Super Eagles after USA 1994 and kept the armband another 4 years into his second World Cup appearance in France 98. He made his debut in the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) game against Algeria in 1990 abd was 1 of few Nigerian players who retired when ovation was loudest following an
Olympic gold medal and
AFCON title.

13. JOSEPH YOBO (Super Eagles, 2001-2014)
“Yobo is a very good player, probably the best from Nigeria. I have no doubt he’s a future captain for his country. He’s young and will improve. He caught my eyes during the World Cup finals with his ability to play anywhere in defence and midfield. He impressed me in the Nigeria/England game, particularly against Micheal Owen …it’s that simple. If a guy like that could put a 100% fit Owen under check, then why not set a new club transfer record to get him!” – David Moyes after landing Joseph Yobo in 2002.
Moyes, amid 5 fierce suitors had to break everything in his way including breaking the bank and breaking the club transfer record to force the 21 year old’s attention his way. Moyes, in a desperate bid to overwhelming his competitors also tabled a mouthwatering sign-on fee of £500,000 to Yobo, perhaps, the game-changer which doused the aspirations of #
Wenger’s Arsenal, Hoddle’s
Tottenham, Colin Todd’s Bolton Wanderers, Jean Tigana’s
Fulham and a very livid Lippi, Yes! Marcelo Lippi who had high hopes of replacing a
Manchester yunited -bound Lilian Thuram of
Juventus with a promising Yobo who showed so much versatility to his game in Korea Japan 2002, including a sublime assist for Julius Agahowa which led to his country’s only goal of the tournament. This 13-year Super Eagles servant had long been robbed of the required respect deserving of his servitude and Soccernittygritty is about to put the records straight.
Yobo, following his debut for the Super Eagles against Zambia in 2001 made another 100 appearances to emerge Nigeria’s most capped International in history alongside legendary goalie, Vincent Enyeama. He also contributed his fair share of goals, 7 from his centre back position, mostly very important goals in crucial games.
Joseph Michael Yobo kick started his career at the age of 16 when he played for local side, Michellin-Harcourt after barely scraping through High School. It wasn’t long before he broke into
Europe which saw him land his first professional contract with Belgian side, Standard Liege in 19/97. However, it took him another few years to earn first team debut in 2000. He played 46 times, netting twice before moving to Olympique Marseille in 2001.
Yobo had a decent couple of seasons with French giants Olympique Marseille notching 23 games before finally moving to the Premier League after a brief stop at the La Liga with Tenerife on loan.
Yobo was a fixture in the Premier League for Everton such that in 2007, he was named the most capped overseas player in the history of the club and retained the record another half a decade. In addition, he clocked another rare milestone as one of a handful of players to play every
Premier League game from start to finish for the entire season. He marshalled the Everton defence with aplomb alongside Joleon Lescott, and the pair guaranteed Everton hardly plummeted beyond a top 8 finish in 13 seasons, the kind of consistency that saw Everton make top 4 in 2004/2005 season while barely missing out on
champions League football twice when they finished 5th in 2 consecutive seasons: 2007-2009. It was only a matter of time before the former Nigerian captain captained his club and he duly earned that in 2007 in the UEFA Cup game against Greek side, Larissa.
All the time, Arsène Wenger was a big fan and consistently registered his interest in summer windows, a move which was always met with cold shoulders by David Moyes. The Scottish manager knew he had to fend off Arsenal ’s potential threat and finally got Yobo to commit his future to the Goodison Park outfit on a long term. He left
Everton in 2010, aged 30, joined Turkish giants,
Fenerbahçe, tied down regular spot which saw him make 69 caps and 2 goals in only 2 seasons.
Yobo, guilty of loss of concentration occasionally, however, he makes up for it with his muscular strength, great pace, bullish marking which is a stark contrast to his calm outward demeanour! He was one of the best 1-on-1 man-markers in Nigeria’s history, a beast of a defender with an impressive scoring record- 20 goals for club and country. A very generous player with several charities to underprivileged kids, He’s Nigeria’s record cap holder with 101 games over 13 illustrious years, 6 AFCON and 3 FIFA World Cup appearances and an AFCON title, thus, a worthy mention and position in the G.O.A.T20.

13. YAKUBU AIYEGBENI (Super Eagles, 2000-2012)
‘If you’ve got a chance, hop in your car and get him now, Harry. He’s electric’.
– Sir Alex Ferguson advised Harry Redknapp on Yakubu acquisition.
Yakubu Ayegbeni ties with Joseph Yobo on the
#NAIJAGOAT20 countdown. Grossly underappreciated, the fiercely potent Nigerian striker dared to attain legendary status in the Premier League and with the Super Eagles with his seamless knack for sticking the ball in the back of the net.
Godwin Izilien unearthed 16 year old Yakubu from the dirtiest of slums in Benin City while playing for local side, Okomo. His ingenuity in front of goal earned him the attention of Lagos club and one of Nigeria’s finest clubs, Julius Berger. That triggered a fateful meeting with Late Shaibu Amodu in a union which later proved to stand the test of time. Amodu literally took it upon himself to announce Yakubu to the world when he personally took Yakubu to Isreal for trials with
Maccabi Haifa. The Isreali outfit loved what they saw and signed him up for £350,000- that kick started a most astonishing journey to superstardom.
His break finally came after arriving at England Division 1 side, Portsmouth on loan following eye-catching performances in the Israeli league and Champions League: 24 goals in 50 league games and 11 Champions League goals including a goal against Ferguson’s Manchester United plus a hatrick against Olympiakos. “The Yak”, as he was fondly called got to work quickly, unfazed by a mid-season arrival in England , he scored a goal every other game, 7 in 14, a contribution which guaranteed Portsmouth’s promotion to the Premier League. He had done enough to earn a permanent move and Pompey quickly wrapped up a £4m permanent deal. The scoring machine repaid Pompey’s faith in him and announced himself to the Premier League in his debut season after netting 16 goals and another 12 the following season. With 28 goals in only 2 seasons including 4 goals in a
Middlesbrough 5-1 annihilation. The Yak had outgrown Portsmouth and it was time to move to bigger things.
The 2005/2006 summer window approached and Yakubu’s stock had risen astronomically.
Clubs came calling in the summer including a halfhearted interest by Sir Alex Ferguson. It was halfhearted because he didn’t “need” Yakubu at the time. Fergie had several options in an in-form duo of Wayne Rooney and Ruud Van Nistelrooy, so he didn’t press too hard. Not so Steve Mclaren. If anything, the scar in his heart caused by Yakubu’s 4 goals the previous season was far from healing. Yakubu landed at Tyneside with the burden of a £7.5m tag, one of the highest paid for any Nigerian in the Premier League. The Yak repaid every penny until
Middlesbrough appeared indebted to him. The Yak scored 25 league goals and 30+ in all competitions in his 2 seasons including inflicting
Mourinho with his first ever heaviest defeat in chelsea ’s 3-0 defeat which saw him register an assist and a delightful goal in which he took j
John Terry and Petr Cech to the cleaners.. a top drawer.
Next came David Moyes who wouldn’t hesitate splashing £11.3m landing the Nigerian who had attained a predatory reputation worthy of reverence and fear by every single Premier League manager. Also, Yakubu desperately craved European football without compromising regular game-time. With the top 4 teams loaded with equally good strikers while Everton had qualified for Europe on the back of a 6th placed finish the previous season, the choice of Goodisonpark was a no brainer- a logical move.
Yakubu wasn’t one given to cowardice, an attribute often misinterpreted for arrogance, he opted for the No.22 jersey, thus, raising the bar with a view to accomplishing a 22-goal target. He came agonizingly close finishing the season with 21 in all competitions including 15 in the
premier League alone. Save for his unavailability for a whole month as a result of his AFCON participation, he could have easily surpassed his goal target. Nonetheless, he managed to break a record that had stood in Everton for almost 2 decades- Peter Beardsley’s 20-goal heroics set in 1992. An injury at tottenham the following season meant Yakubu’s inactivity for almost a year and effectively triggered an inevitable regression.
Nigerians will not forget his gilt edge miss at South Africa 2010 FIFA World Cup against South Korea. But the Yak remains one of the best to have played for Super Eagles.

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