For Nigerian players, it should not be different. In the 1990s, the country had its best set of players, which is why it is not surprising that the period was the best for Nigerian football.
In the golden years of Nigerian football, the three-time African champions qualified for their first World Cup tournament in 1994 before losing agonisingly to eventual finalists Italy in the second round.
Before their remarkable achievement at the World Cup, they had won their second Africa Cup of Nations title earlier, beating Zambia in the final.
Two years later, the Dream Team made history by becoming the first African team to win the gold medal in the football event of the Olympics. Nigeria’s men’s U-23 team went all the way at the Atlanta 1996 Olympics to claim the gold medal in the football event.
This success was not limited to national football alone, as Nigerian clubs also had considerable success on the continent.
Shooting Stars reached the CAF Champions League final in 1996, while BCC Lions and Julius Berger won the defunct African Cup Winners’ Cup in 1990 and 1996, respectively.
But aside from the success Nigerian national team and Nigerian clubs had, the 1990s was also a period Nigerian players played for the biggest clubs in the world.
Finidi George and Kanu Nwankwo were part of the Ajax team that won the Champions League in 1995, while Sunday Oliseh played for the likes of Juventus, Ajax and Borussia Dortmund in the late 90s and early 2000s.
Victor Ikpeba was the Prince of Monaco, while Taribo West was one of the world’s best defenders. Celestine Babayaro played for Chelsea, Finidi was once the world’s best winger at Real Betis, while Emmanuel Amuneke played for Barcelona.
Austin Jay-Jay Okocha was the most expensive African player when he signed for PSG, while Tijani Babangida also played for Ajax.
However, after the mid-90s and early 2000s, Nigerian players have struggled to attract the attention of Europe’s top clubs.
Since 2002, only Obafemi Martins, Kanu Nwankwo, John Mikel Obi, Victor Moses and Alex Iwobi have played at some of Europe’s traditional big clubs.
It has even gotten worse now, with only Victor Osimhen and Zaidu Sanusi currently playing in a team that could be called a big European club.
Right now, many Nigerian players play for mid-table to low-level clubs, while some play in less fancied leagues across the world.
What makes the situation worse is that some of these players are not even regulars at these clubs.
But while Nigerian players struggle to attract the attention of Europe’s top clubs, other African stars do not have the problem.
Ivory Coast, Morocco, Algeria and Mali, for example, have a couple of their players playing for some of the top clubs in Europe.
So why do Europe’s top clubs avoid Nigerian players?
One of the issues that many Nigerian players have is that they do not fit into the system of these top clubs. Take Wilfred Ndidi, for example, who is the closest Nigerian player on a world-class level and one of the best in his position.
Ndidi joined Leicester City in January 2017, and in that time, he has gone on to become one of the best defensive midfielders in the world.
Yet, there have never been reports of Leicester rejecting a bid from a top club for him. While Ndidi is good at what he does, he is not a good passer of the ball and cannot move properly with the ball.
And in the modern-day game, top clubs want more than just a midfielder who is good at stopping the opposition’s attacking play because they are likely to have more possession. As a result, they are likely to go for a defensive midfielder that can also contribute to their attack.
Mali midfielder Yves Bissouma recently moved to Tottenham Hotspur from Brighton. Bissouma joined Brighton a year after Ndidi arrived in England, but he moved to a bigger club before Ndidi because he has what the top clubs are looking for.
Ndidi’s case is not an isolation. Taiwo Awoniyi recently signed for Nottingham Forest from Union Berlin after an incredible season.
The 24-year-old scored 15 goals in the German Bundesliga, helping the Iron Ones qualify for Europe.
Yet, the best deal he could get was a move to a newly-promoted Premier League side. In a summer where several top clubs are looking for strikers, Awoniyi could not sign for any of these teams because he does not fit into their profile.
Awoniyi did well at Union partly because he had a partner up front, but he will not get that luxury at a top club because most top teams play a 4-3-3 formation.
And for a player whose link-up play is bad and lacks speed, he is not going to be on the radar of top clubs. The same situation also applies to Onuachu, who broke all records in the Jupiler League in the 2020/2021 season but could not get a big move.
Meanwhile, Roman Yaremchuk played for Gent in the same league in the same season but signed for Benfica last summer.
Alex Iwobi is another Super Eagles star that shows why adaptability is one of the reasons why Nigerian players struggle to get a big move.
Iwobi was at Arsenal for four years before signing for Everton, but his performances divided opinions because it was hard to figure out his best position.
He is naturally an attacking midfielder, but he is not dominant and creative enough to play the role. He also plays sometimes on the flanks, but he is not fast enough to be a winger, so it is hard to figure out his best role.
Or maybe Nigerian players are not good enough
While adaptability may be a problem, it may also be the time to accept that Nigerian players may not be good enough to play for these top clubs.
Ekong, for example, moved from a Serie A club Udinese to join a second-division side in England. Although the move turned out well, as Watford secured promotion to the Premiership, his time in the topflight did not go according to plan.
After playing regularly in the first half of the campaign, Ekong did not start a single match in the second half and will now play second-tier football next season after Watford’s relegation.
It can be no coincidence that many Nigerian players play for mid-table and low-level clubs. Awoniyi had the best season of his career, yet the best deal he could get was with a club likely to go down next season.
As stated in the opening line of this piece, every player’s dream is to represent their country, win many trophies and play for the biggest clubs.
However, it appears that Nigerian players do not share number two and three points. It is rare to see a Nigerian player give an interview and say his dream is to become the best in the world or compete with the top players, which says a lot about their ambition.
While some may want to argue that financial liberty is the goal due to the rough background of these players, the same also applies to South American players, yet they are ambitious.
Seeking financial liberty should not stop a player from being ambitious, but it appears that is not the case for some Nigerian stars.
This is the best set of players the Super Eagles have produced in recent years, yet only two play in a top club. It needs to change.