By Oyediji Oluwaseun Babatunde
Sports Writer, kick442.com-Nigeria
As the world continue to battle with CoronaVirus (also known as COVID-19) which is disrupting football match world over, Soccernittygritty in collaboration with Eagles Tracker NG compiled a list of Super Eagles and Green Eagles combined Greatest Footballers of all time. Kick442 examined the Number 18-20 on the list.
20. THOMPSON USIYAN (Green Eagles 1976-1981)
He’s unarguably the “most complete” striker to ever adorn the national colors. The next question on your mind right now must be: “Hey! Slow down! What about Rasheed Yekini?” Some legends whose career pathways crossed with both of them either as players, managers or perhaps, predecessors have a most authoritative response to satiate your curious minds
Christian Chuwku: “There’s no comparison between Usiyan and Yekini. Usiyan is far ahead. He’s a more complete footballer!”
Adokiye Amaesimeka: “Usiyan was a more silky player. He was the kind of player who could create chances for himself. He could dribble the ball as effectively as any midfield player.”
Godwin Odiye: “The entire squad relied heavily on him. He was well guarded too. In fact, anyone who touched him with any harm would have to answer to me.”
Those were some feedback by ex-internationals who paid glowing tributes to this exceptional striker who unfortunately popped up in the wrong era. He was way ahead of his time. Usiyan could easily have been Nigeria ’s answer to Brazil ’s Ronaldo De Lima. They shared similar attributes ans he was that good.
A young feeble-limbed Usiyan, 19, was “accidentally” included in the Old Bendel State squad by a Manager who committed a rather unconventional error when he compiled an “incomplete list” of the Bendel State squad to compete in the 1975 Sports flFestival. As fate would have it, he couldn’t come up with a “trusted name” on time with a view to beating submission deadline. As a result, he “patched up” the list with the young Usiyan’s inclusion.
Bendel State proceeded seamlessly to the latter stages of the competition without Usiyan kicking a ball in anger. They didn’t even miss him. He was nowhere close to the indispensability bracket. The coach must be thinking his addition was unnecessary. Basically, his inclusion was both accidental and panic-triggered. All of those presumptive thoughts quickly vanished when suddenly, his top striker got injured in the semi final against the Western State. He was whisked away and had to be replaced.
19. CELESTINE BABAYARO (Super Eagles, 1995-2004, Defender)
Celestine Babayaro remains the most gifted “natural” Left Back in Nigeria’s history. Executing defensive and offensive duties was seamless to this nimble-footed, free-scoring player who appears to float in the air as he breathes down the neck of opponents.
After conquering the world at the U17 level in 1993, Babayaro was one of the privileged few that accessed professional football automatically when European giants, Anderlecht, quickly snapped him up. He was an instant hit and set different records, including the youngest player to feature in the Champions League in 1994. He was also the standout kid in the entire league as he was named Belgian Young Player Of The Year over 2 consecutive seasons: 94-96. Cele, as he was fondly called by his teeming fans was an important squad member and won 2 titles in 3 seasons with the club including the League title 1995 and Belgian Super Cup 1995. His job was done in Belgium, his pedigree had soared incredibly and an upgrade was inevitable.
A befitting upgrade it was when Chelsea popped up with a £2.2m transfer fee and a job description of dislodging veteran, Graeme Le Saux from Left Back position. Cele availed himself creditably and managed to notch up 139 English Premier League (EPL) games amid fierce competition from the veteran. He had a successful 8-year spell with the English giants and won 5 major titles including a treble in 1998: UEFA Super Cup, UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup and Football League Cup. He also shone like a million stars in Chelsea’s impressive UEFA Champions Leagus run in 2000 which was punctuated in the Quartee finals by FC Barcelona.
Cele’s international caps with the Super Eagles for some strange reasons isn’t reflective of his 9-year inteenational timeline given the 27 caps made over such a long period. However, he typified the saying; “less is more” as he managed to impact the minds of Nigerians with performances which emboldened his quality in ways that diminished the effect of quantity. His performances with the Atlanta 1996
Olympics Gold Medal winning team ensured a place in the tournament’s All-Star team. He followed it up with African Cup of Nations (AFCON) appearances which included a Silver medal in 2000 after losing the final on penalties to Indomitable Lions of Cameroon in Lagos. He featured at
France 1998 and captained the Olympic team in 2000.
18. PETER RUFAI (Green Eagles 1983-1988, Super Eagles 1988-1998, Goal Keeper)
“I was a midfielder in those days.”
– Peter Rufai aka Dodo Mayana explained how he stumbled upon goal keeping.
“I was in Sharks then. I was also schooling at Government Vocational Technical School (GVTS). There was a match and we conceded 3 goals, later 3-1, 3-2 and then 3-3. Suddenly! we conceded again and we leveled up at 4-4 and before long we went behind again and all the players, including myself scolded our goalie to buckle up. He became angry, pulled off his jersey and threw it away- he wasn’t going to keep again. I caught the jersey, put it on and went between the sticks. The game ended 5-5 and that was the beginning of my journey into goalkeeping”.
Indeed, greatness doesn’t necessarily have to be a product of perfection, rather, it is all about the end justifying the means (Niccolo Machiavelli). Rufai on his day, was as good as the best anywhere in the world. A crown prince through both his paternal and maternal lineage, turned down the opportunity to inherit the vacant throne following the demise of his Father in 1998, a King in Idimu, Lagos and also never fancied eyeing the throne through his mother, a daughter of respected ruler, King Jaja of Opobo. All of these was for the love of football. His heart had no room for any other thing outside the round leather game.
Rufai participated in 3 African Cup of Nations (AFCON) tournaments- 1984, 1988 and 1994 winning all shades of medal starting with the
bronze in his maiden appearance and picking the
gold medal in his swansong tournament. He announced his international retirement shortly after but a late injury to “in form” Ike Shorunmu en route
France 1998 World Cup signalled a goalkeeping crisis in the squad and Rufai was “cajoled” out of retirement, albeit, reluctantly. His passion for
motherland masked the reality of his poor form and the rest as they say is history. Nonetheless, the real students of the Nigerian football history aren’t one to be deluded nor distracted by his France 1998 showings as that was only 1 chapter out of the 15 chapters in a legendary book compiled over 15 illustrious years. No other Nigerian goalie boasts of same longevity. He was capped 65 times and netted once, yet another record.
In the next edition, we shall look at Nigeria’s Greatest of all Time (GOAT) 15-17.
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