Not many Nigerians would probably be able to locate Finland on the world map but for several of Nigeria’s top stars, the European country has turned the latest place to further their careers, writes ’TANA AIYEJINA
In the mid-1980s, former Nigeria captain Stephen Keshi spearheaded a mass exodus of Nigerian footballers to Belgium in search of greener pastures. Then if you were a Nigerian footballer and you weren’t plying your trade in Belgium, you weren’t regarded as a ‘big boy’ player in the country.
That was the era when star players like AdemolaAdeshina, YisaShofoluwe, EtimEsin, Austin Eguavoen, NdubuisiOkosieme, Christopher Nwosu, Daniel Amokachi, Celestine Babayaro, Sunday Oliseh, Victor Ikpeba, Precious Monye, KayodeKeshinro and several others lit up the Belgian scene.
These players earned tremendous respect at their various Belgian clubs. For instance Keshi captained giants Anderlecht, a huge feat for an African, winning two Belgian Cups (1988 and 1989) and the Jupiler League in 1991.
Former Club Brugge striker Amokachi emerged the first man ever to score a goal in the new format Champions League in 1991, with his lone strike in Brugge’s 1–0 win against Russian side CSKA Moscow.
Anderlecht’s Babayaro also etched his name in the history books becoming the youngest player to make an appearance in the UEFA Champions League. He also won the Belgian First Division and the Super Cup in 1995 and was twice named the Belgian Young Professional Footballer of the Year in the 1994/95 and the 1995/96 seasons before making a big money move to Chelsea in 1997.
From Belgium, several other Nigerian stars made high-profile moves to different parts of Europe to further their careers.
Later, the dwindling fortunes of the players saw them shifting focus to lesser leagues of the world in their quest for greener pastures. For example, Malta has since the 1990s served as home for a large number of the country’s average players, who would prefer to earn a living abroad, no matter the amount they are paid, rather than groan in the harsh economic situation of the Nigerian league, where players are owed salaries for as long as 12 months or even more.
At a point, from 2008 to 2011 precisely, Vietnam turned the new bride of Nigerian star footballers. The likes of former U-23 stars AdebowaleOgungbure and EjikeIzuagha; OlusolaAganun, 2007 U-17 World Cup winner, Ganiyu Oseni; former Nigerian league top scorer, Timothy Anjembe; OnomeSodje, OsasIdehen and several others brought glamour to the Vietnamese league and were amongst the top earners alongside the Brazilians in the Asian country.
However, the latest destination of some of the country’s brightest talents is now Finland. With a population of 5.5 million people, Finland has land borders with Sweden, Norway and Russia, while Estonia is south of the country across the Gulf of Finland.
Not among the top footballing nations in the world, Finland has managed to produce world-class players in the likes of JariLitmanen, Sami Hyypia, JussiJaaskelainen, Roman Eremenko and Anti Niemi.
Last year, experienced defender Taye Taiwo joined HJK Helsinki on loan with an option for an additional year. After some scintillating outings for HJK, Taiwo sealed a new deal and the former Marseille and AC Milan left-back has become one of the star attractions in Finland.
In January, former Super Eagles coach Daniel Amokachi sealed a one year deal to manage second division side JS Hercules. He immediately brought in Nigerian striker Junior Obagbemiro from Maltese side Sliema Wanderers. Another Nigerian Nathan Ibeh is also in Amokachi’s squad.
Nigeria international Nnamdi Oduamadi joined Taiwo at Helsinki in March on loan from Italian giants AC Milan and alongside his compatriot, has propelled the club to the top of the league.
In Helsinki’s 5-1 win over Ilves, Oduamadi scored a goal and provided three assists to bag the Man of the Match award, which he dedicated to his late father.
Other top Nigerian internationals in Finland are Super Eagles striker, Gbolahan Salami, who joined KuPS after winning the Nigerian Premier League tp scorer award with Warri Wolves. Towering centre-back Azubuike Egwuekwe is also Salami’s teammate at KuPS.
Forward Bello Yero plays for Ilvesafter stints in Israel and Romania. Yeroplayed for Israeli sides Ironi Khriyat Shmona, Hapoel Haifa, BneiShaknin, FC Ashdod and Vaslui (Romania) before joining Ilves.
According to Finish football scouting outfit TopSpot, which is based in Oulu, “the biggest dream of many young footballers from the African continent is to be able to play the “beautiful game” alongside sporting celebrities in Europe. The majority of the continent’s 10 or more million players are young boys, but the sport is also gaining popularity among girls.”
Super Falcons striker and two-time African Woman Player of the Year, Cynthia Uwak, is currently with Finish side Aland United after playing for top European sides Lyon and Saarbrucken.
A fans favourite at Aland, where she has emerged best player and top scorer severally, Uwak says she is enjoying her time in Finland.
“Finland is like home to me; I enjoy playing football here and the people are friendly. I don’t regret coming to Finland,” Uwak told SUNDAY PUNCH.
TopSpot has been bringing some of these promising Nigerian players to Finland since 2007. The scouting firm believes that for many young Nigerian footballers, the idea of playing in Europe conjures up visions of state-of-the-art stadia, fancy planes and lots of cash – euros.
However, once these footballers arrive in Finland, they come face-to-face with the chilling reality – there are few countries in Europe which pay their players less money than Finland does.
“It does come as a shock. There may be only three hours of daylight and even then the skies may be grey with sleet. It hits them like a slap in the face, although we do our best to prepare the players for what awaits them in reality,” said football agent Marko Saranlinna.
Nigerian footballers are well aware that pay levels in Finland are lower than in other parts of Europe. However they see the country as a useful training ground to advance to bigger and better prospects in the European leagues.
TopSpot has become a fixture in Nigeria and is well-known in local football circles.
“We have spotted many good players. For example DominicChatto, Dickson Nwakaeme, Obilor Friday, Augustine Jibrin, EmenikeUchennambachu and Nduka Alison,” said former Nigerian international and current TopSpot country manager Hilary Azodo.
According to Saranlinna, there are however many examples of less responsible tactics at work.
“For example, in Africa there are parties who are trying to bankroll their families and local managers by promising players a career in Europe. They take the money and then they disappear. We try to share information to prevent this kind of thing from happening,” Saranlinna said.