As part of an Inter Milan side that went all the way to the UEFA Europa League final, Victor Moses joined a very exclusive group of Nigerians who have reached a major European final.
We look back at three standout Nigerian finalists in a UEFA club competition final, and how Moses’ run to the final against Sevilla compares.
From the street to the pitch, a Nigerian footballer’s journey to the top is typically long and arduous, but hugely rewarding.
John Obi Mikel
Mikel wore the famous Chelsea blue between 2006 and 2017. Chelsea won eight major trophies during Mikel’s stay, but none was more memorable or dramatic as their UEFA Champions League (UCL) shootout win over Bayern Munich in May 2012. It was attained under the guidance of former Chelsea player Roberto Di Matteo. And with current Chelsea manager Frank Lampard being a former club hero like Di Matteo, people interested in live football betting next season will again follow Chelsea’s progress in the Champions League with particular interest. Although they ultimately failed this season, the general feeling is that Lampard will take them further next year.
In 2012, they reached the final in a straightforward manner, firstly topping a challenging group that included Leverkusen, Valencia and Genk by winning all of their home games with a clean sheet. Then came a dramatic UCL round of 16 tie, which saw Chelsea overturn a 3-1 first-leg deficit after extra time, to progress 5-4 on aggregate against Italian side Napoli.
An easy double of victories over Benfica in the quarter-finals set up a challenging tie with Barcelona. Chelsea won the first leg 1-0 at Stamford Bridge, with Mikel in the centre of midfield and tasked with stopping the opposing midfield trio of Xavi, Busquets and Iniesta – widely considered to be the best midfield operation in the 21st century.
Mikel also featured in the final, sitting much deeper alongside Frank Lampard, and unenviably tasked with marking Bayern winger Franck Ribery. After repelling waves of Bayern pressure and equalising after an early setback, Chelsea took the Bavarians all the way and prevailed in the penalty shootout.
Kanu was just eighteen years old when he became a Champions League medal recipient with Ajax. It was a fairytale end to his breakthrough season with a European giant, with the Owerri-born striker netting ten Eredivisie goals in 1994/95. Kanu made seven appearances in that season’s Champions League quest.
Back then, only sixteen teams – split into four groups of four – participated in the tournament proper. Ajax dominated a group that contained an AC Milan side still feared across the continent, winning it by a five-point margin.
Ajax met Hajduk Split in the quarter-finals. Though favourites, they were held 0-0 in the first leg at Gradski Stadium, making a strong start to the home leg all the more important. Kanu himself scored the opener in the return leg, and it turned out to be decisive, with Ajax going on to keep a clean sheet and progress.
After an easy 5-2 aggregate victory over Bayern Munich in the semis, Ajax defeated AC Milan 1-0 in the final, with Patrick Kluivert netting a late winner, and Kanu playing 40 minutes. Remarkably, Ajax got to the UCL final again the following year, with Kanu playing alongside Finidi George. Though they lost on penalties to Juventus, it marks the last time two Nigerians played on the same team in a UCL final.
Today, Ajax play at the imposing Amsterdam arena, but have gone more than two decades without Europe’s top prize.
As foreign imports, African players in general – not just Nigerians – have always had more to prove when signing for a Russian club. However, there was nowhere near the same level of today’s diversity in Russian football back in 2005, giving left-back Chidi Odiah a mountainous challenge both on and off the pitch.
CSKA’s 2004/05 Champions League campaign ended at the group stage, but as the third-placed team, the Moscow outfit went into the UEFA Cup (now UEFA Europa League) knockouts. It was a long road to the Lisbon final against Sporting Lisbon. But Benfica, Partizan Belgrade, Auxerre and Parma all fell to CSKA, who lost only once, inconsequentially going down 2-0 at Auxerre after winning the first leg of that semi final 4-0.
CSKA were at a disadvantage in the final, playing it at their opponents’ own stadium, but their task was made even more difficult by a first half scoreline of 1-0. However, they were still on a high from a Russian league and cup double, and goals from Berezutski, Zhirkov and Vagner Love turned the game around. The opposition ranks also contained a Nigerian, with Lisbon’s central defender Joseph Enakarhire among the disappointed Sporting men departing with a runners up medal.
How does Moses’ run to the Europa League final compare?
The trio listed above averaged a selection rate of just under 0.78. That means, they appeared as a player in the starting XI or a used substitute in a combined average of nearly 78% of games across their respective European campaigns.
Up to the final, Moses had played in 80% of Inter Milan’s UEFA Europa League, including the semi-finals, putting him on a par with his fellow countrymen. In terms of difficulty though, nothing compares to Mikel’s Champions League triumph with Chelsea, as it takes something very special to best clubs like Barcelona or Bayern.
Whether he sticks with Chelsea or moves to Inter, Moses is guaranteed Champions League action in 2020/21, and will hope to fly the Nigerian flag higher than any countryman has yet done in Europe’s elite competition.