The Premier League, being the most-watched sports league in the world, has attracted the biggest stars in football. Since its inception in 1992, it has hosted players from virtually every nationality and Nigerians have not been left out. In fact, there has been a Nigerian player in each season of the league since its inception in 1992 when Efan Ekoku starred for Norwich City.
Since then, English football's top-flight has been home to Nigerians and they have undoubtedly added more glamour to the competition and have been a catalyst in the huge audience in the country and on the continent. Considering the number of Nigerians who have plied their trade in the league, it’s a tough choice to pick a top 5, but after much deliberation, here are the best Nigerian players to have graced English football.
5. Jay-Jay Okocha
After 4 years in Paris with PSG, Okocha moved to the Premier League in the summer of 2002 when he joined Bolton Wanderers on a free transfer. Sam Allardyce, the Bolton manager at the time, sought to bring more flair to the team and Okocha was his man. In his debut season, despite being hampered by injuries, he made 31 appearances, scoring 7 times; including the club’s goal of the season in a crucial league win over West Ham.
The next season, he became club captain after Guoni Bergsson’s retirement and led the club to the League Cup final, finishing as runners up to Middlesbrough. He played in every single league game barring one and was named the league’s player of the month in November after dazzling the fans with his array of skills and deft touches.
He went on to score 7 more times during his 124 starts for the club, becoming a cult figure among the fans. He played 73 times for Nigeria, scoring 14 goals.
4. Joseph Yobo
Nigeria’s most capped player (alongside Vincent Enyeama) was a bulwark of the Everton backline for so many years. Initially acquired on loan from Marseille in 2002, his solid performances earned him a permanent move in the following season.
A rumoured move to Arsenal in the summer of 2006 fell through before he committed himself to the club, going on to play every minute of that season alongside teammate, Joleon Lescott. He was the first African player to captain the club and was the record league appearance holder for an overseas player with 220, until Tim Cahill surpassed this tally in 2012.
He went on loan to Fenerbache in the summer of 2010 and after three and a half seasons at the club, he returned to the Premier League with Norwich in January 2014, going on to make 8 appearances for the Canaries.
3. Aiyegbeni Yakubu
Forget his shocking miss against South Korea at the 2010 World Cup, at his prime, The Yak was a genuine Premier League star in his own right. After initially arriving in England on loan at Portsmouth in the Championship, he scored in every other game he played to help his club secure the division’s title and in turn, a place in the Premier League as well as a permanent move to the South Coast club.
He set the league alight the following season, scoring 16 times in 37 matches and a further 12 in 30 starts cemented his place as Portsmouth’s top scorer in Premier League history. Middlesbrough came in for him with a record fee of 7.5 million pounds in the summer of 2005 becoming the most expensive Nigerian player. 2 seasons, 73 games, 25 goals and a run in the UEFA Cup where he got a runner up medal earned an even bigger money move to Everton.
The Toffees were looking for an experienced finisher and David Moyes forked out a club record £11.25 million for the Nigerian wrecking ball. Yakubu declined to take the number 9 jersey and took the #22 shirt instead, to indicate his goals target for that season. He fell one short. After 82 appearances and 25 goals, he ruptured his Achilles tendon in a match against Spurs that ruled him out for about a year.
He went on loan to Leicester shortly after he returned and 11 goals in 20 appearances earned him a permanent transfer to Blackburn Rovers. Despite scoring 17 goals in his debut season, the club was relegated to the Championship and he asked to leave. He had brief stints with Reading and Conventry in the Championship, where he eventually retired from football having amassed 95 Premier League goals in 252 appearances.
2. John Obi Mikel
Fresh from winning the Silver Ball in the 2005 World Youth Championship, John Obi Mikel became one of the most sought after youngsters in world football. Manchester United and Chelsea entered into a fractious legal battle for his services and it was the London club that won his signature in a deal worth a record £16 million, a mammoth fee for someone who had just turned 18.
After a shaky start to his Chelsea career, Mikel began to play a more prominent role, especially after Claude Makelele left for PSG and Michael Essien was out with a long-term injury. He won the FA Cup in his first season and two seasons later, he won the League and Cup double.
He became the first Nigerian to win the Champions League with an English club when Chelsea defeated Bayern Munich on penalties in the 2012, as he played the entirety of the game. He scored his solitary Premier League goal the following season and won another league title the season after. His strength, ball control and an array of passes made him a mainstay of the Chelsea midfield for many years, earning him 249 appearances.
He played 89 times for Nigeria, scoring 6 goals and was captain of the team that won the 2013 African Cup of Nations.
1. Kanu Nwankwo
If there was anyone responsible for the surge in the fan base of Arsenal and the audience of the Premier League in Nigeria, it is ‘Papilo’. He is arguably the most prominent name in Nigerian football as well as being the most decorated Nigerian footballer.
After being the first Nigerian (alongside George Finidi) to win the Champions League, he moved to Inter Milan where he spent two seasons. A medical setback ensured he did not play more than a dozen games for the Nerazzurri before moving to London to play for Arsenal, when Arsene Wenger signed him for just over £4 million.
He had a decent first season, scoring in every other match he played in. He won his first Premier League and Cup double in the 2001/02 season and was also part of the ‘Invincibles’ that won the league title without losing a single match in the 2003/4 season.
He ended up playing 119 league matches for the Gunners, scoring 30 goals before, falling down the pecking order after the arrival of Thierry Henry. He had a stint with West Bromwich Albion before spending another 6 seasons and 131 appearances for Portsmouth, winning another FA Cup before finally hanging up his boots.
He was the captain of the Nigerian team that won gold at the 1996 Olympics and had 87 caps for the national team, scoring 12 goals.Published 06 Dec 2019, 18:03 IST