Phil Murphy breaks down why Nigerian 19-year-old starlet Henry Onyekuru is a name high on many clubs’ transfer wish lists.

For more than a decade, from the late 80s to the turn of the century, Nigeria’s best young footballers started their European careers in Belgium, a country mostly renowned for the importation of used cars into the West African nation.

In the early 90s, the likes of Daniel Amokachi, Sunday Oliseh, Celestine Babayaro, and a host of upcoming Nigerian footballers, developed their skills in the comparatively small European nation.

Amokachi, at barely 18 years old in 1990, departed the shores of Nigeria while playing for Ranchers Bees FC of Kaduna to sign for Club Brugge. He enjoyed a four-year spell at the club, becoming the first player to score in the rebranded UEFA Champions League, in a 1-0 win against CSKA Moscow on 25 November 1992.

The leftback signed for Anderlecht and was an integral member of the squad for three years, before his eventual switch to Chelsea for £2.25 million — a club record for a teenager at the time.

Before the new millennium, Joseph Yobo signed for Standard Liege in 1998, his first European club, later forming a formidable ‘Nigerian defence’ at the club alongside the more experienced Godwin Okpara and Rabiu Afolabi.

Osaze Odemwingie, fresh from his exploits with the national team as one of the alternates at the 2002 FIFA World Cup, transferred to modest Belgian club La Louviere from Bendel Insurance of Benin. That transfer appeared to seal the passage of some of the country’s finest budding talents to the European nation for the next decade.

Thereafter, the country’s best youngsters were spread across Europe, notably Italy, Scandinavia, Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, and Israel. For close to 13 years, save for Imoh Ezekiel’s transfer to Standard Liege in January 2012, playing alongside Michy Batshuayi in attack, Nigeria’s most exciting, next-generation players were no longer at a premium in Belgium.

All of that gradually began to change at the start of 2015, with the transfer of some highly-rated, yet untested, Nigerian youngsters to Belgian Jupiler League teams.

In January of same year, Moses Simon, dubbed the ‘Nigerian Ronaldo,’ arrived from Slovakian club AS Trencin, signing for Gent, while Wilfred Ndidi signed for Genk for £78,000 from Nath Boys, a year after he trialled with the club.

Just a few months later, Simon was nominated for the Ebony Shoe award, scoring seven league goals, and was voted into the team of the season as he led Gent to a first league triumph in their 115-year history. Another exciting winger, Godwin Saviour, signed for Oostende on loan at the start of the 2015/16 season and despite a goal-scoring debut, injuries limited his first team appearances afterwards.

Fast forward to the 2016/17 season, where the Nigerian rookies dominated the Belgian top flight. Ndidi won the 2016 goal of the year award for his spectacular 30-yard strike against Club Brugge, after which the leggy midfielder secured a massive £15 million transfer to Leicester City in January 2017.

In the same month, Samuel Kalu, another exciting winger, signed for Gent and has done big things in his short spell in the league.

AS Eupen trio of Henry Onyekuru, Anthony Bassey, and Odeni George Jamabo all had impressive debut campaigns in the recently concluded league campaign, with Onyekuru in particular catching the eye with his 23 league goals.

Early feelers indicate both Simon and Onyekuru could well be on their way to the Premier League, following in the footsteps of Babayaro, and recently Ndidi, as highly rated Nigerian youngsters to transfer from Belgium to England.

For a country with such a strong football tradition, it is strange that no Nigerian has won the African Footballer of the Year award since 1999. Perhaps one of the aforementioned young stars will break the jinx in the near future, replicating the feat of Victor Ikpeba, another member of the ‘footballer made in Belgium’ tradition.

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Phil Murphy breaks down why Nigerian 19-year-old starlet Henry Onyekuru is a name high on many clubs' transfer wish lists. For more than a decade, from the late 80s to the turn of the century, Nigeria's best young footballers started their European careers in Belgium, a country mostly renowned for...