•My journey from Sharks to Ajax, Real Betis & Nowrich
•Our days under Clemens Westerhof
•Football ‘ll be dead in Nigeria if…
•Speaks on Gernot Rohr, Qatar 2022 World Cup
Finidi George belongs to a special breed of Nigerian footballers. As a member of the 1994 Super Eagles squad, he made the N0 7 jersey his exclusive preserve.
Finidi spoke with our Weekend Editor, Onochie Anibeze and Jacob Ajom, Deputy Sports Editor on his journey from Sharks to Real Betis.
The former Ajax winger also spoke about the Super Eagles and the Nigerian football league. Excerpts.
You have had a tremendous track record from Sharks to Ajax, to Real Betis and to Norwich. How would you describe the journey?
I would say, when I left Nigeria to Ajax, it was not that easy but being home-based, we did what we had to do. Before one left Nigeria, one worked hard, trained very hard and at the end of the day it all paid off. When I travelled to Europe, that was when everything we did back home started manifesting – good way of thinking and good football. I was a disciplined player. Everything went very well for me and at the end of the day, it was a fantastic journey.
What were the special things that happened to you in each of these three big clubs?
At Ajax, we were fortunate we got there when the boys were hungry for success. Nothing special, I would say, we had very good players. To me, getting to Holland was not really a problem … In my first year the winter was too harsh and it was so cold that I could not even play well.
When I went to Spain, the climate was more favourable to me and I got a lot of support from the club and the fans. It didn’t take me much time to get myself going. I really enjoyed it better than my time in Holland. Apart from winning all the trophies in Holland, when you talk about individual happiness and self-fulfillment, I like it more in Spain.
What was it like, winning the Champions League with Ajax?
Oh, that was fantastic. Till date, that remains the biggest trophy in European football and in the world too. If you want to be the best, you have to come to Europe. That is why sometimes you see South American players like the Ronaldos, the Ronaldinhos among others, they all come to Europe because if you don’t come to Europe you can’t win world best player. This is because the leagues in Europe are the best in the world. It will be very difficult for you to play in Brazil or Argentina and win the world player of the year. For me to have won the Champions League which remains the biggest club competition was a great thing.
How was it in Ajax, with all those young boys?
We were dedicated then and we respected one another. We all were eager to learn because we had a perfect blend of experience and youth with the likes of Rijkard and Danny Blind. We did well.
You played in Holland, Spain and England. Which of these countries has the best league?
I think the Spanish league.
In terms of money or quality?
I think in terms of quality. The way they think about football is different. It is always evident when the top teams play in the Champions League, the Spanish teams are always coming out tops. So that tells you about the quality of the league there. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying the Premier League is bad but when the English teams clash with their Spanish counterparts, it shows how good one league is better than the other.
In terms of glamour, the money and the publicity, the Premier League is the best in the world but in real football sense – in terms of the quality, Spanish league is the best.
Can we go back home and start from how it all started? Your entry into the national team; how would you describe your first game for Nigeria at the national stadium, Lagos?
Yeah…if I could recall, in those days, as home-based, we rarely had the opportunity to fit in if you didn’t work hard. Now times have changed. The players mix up and you don’t really know who is a foreign based player from who is locally based. In my time when you see the professionals come from Belgium and other countries in Europe, there was that big difference between us. But the good thing was that Westerhof gave everybody chance and the good local ones played some matches. I was able to manage myself and I was given the opportunity by Westerhof. I took advantage of the chance given me.
I recall it was a match against Burkina Faso?
Yes, it was my first official game I played for the Super Eagles. I think Eguavoen was injured and Westerhof told me to warm up, that I had to replace him. I must confess, I was very nervous. You know the intimidating atmosphere at the national stadium, Lagos with about 70,000 people looking at you. I was indeed nervous. But surprisingly, everything just turned out fine as I made three assists and scored one goal. It was a very brilliant start for me. That was how everything started.
You started from the defunct Sharks FC of Port Harcourt. There is no more Sharks in Nigerian football. What is your thought on this?
Well, it is unfortunate. As you know, these are government clubs, and for one reason or the other, they decided to change the name. It is unfortunate because Sharks had been the team of the state for so many years and for reasons I do not know, the team just died.
The Nigerian league was very good when you were playing at home. You visit Nigeria from time to time. Now, the crowds are no more there, no sponsors, etc. What would you attribute this to?
It’s all about packaging. You see the English Premier League people clamour to watch Manchester United or Manchester City play, I think we can achieve that in our own way. I am not saying it must have to be at that level of the English Premier League, but we have to start from somewhere. Today, nobody has the interest of going to the stadium to watch football anymore because the level has dropped. We have to rejig our league and try to publicise our league so that people will become interested.
The media has a role to play too?
Yes, it’s everybody, because as you make your bed so shall you lie on it.
It has to be a combined effort. It should not be left for NFF alone. All hands must be on deck. The journalists should write good things about the league, the administrators, the referees, everybody so that all hands must be on deck. With that unity of purpose, people will go back to the stadium.
When I was playing in Nigeria, if you asked any young boy to tell you the player wearing number 7, number 10 or number 4 for Stationery Stores, they would tell you. Today ask any kid about players in our local league, they won’t even know. They know players that are playing in Europe than the ones playing here at home.. We have to go back and do the right thing, where everybody will be moving in the same direction so that we bring back the glamour to the league. Right now, the league is there but is like it is not there.
We have to appeal to the fans in particular to be interested in the league. That is when you see thousands go to the stadiums to watch games.. Right now the interest is not there again. We have to do things that will attract them to the league. People prefer to get Dstv to watch the Premier League than go to the stadium. We have to bring back that trust, the confidence has to return in the fans, as they would know that when they go to the stadium it would be worth the troubles. If we don’t do that, not long from now, football is going to be a dead sport in Nigeria.
Could you paint a picture of your set of Super Eagles because people keep referring to the 1994 squad as Nigeria’s best ever? What was it like in those days; the camaraderie, the friendship, the bonding and the fight for positions in the team?
Yeah, it was like that. We all knew that in every position there were like three people capable of wearing that shirt. You could not say you were the best in any position and relax in the hope that it was your exclusive right. If you did that somebody would grab your place and that’s the end of it. It was highly competitive. We hardly see that today. You can count in every position and say who is playing number 9 for Nigeria, does he have somebody competing with him? I mean fair competition. We don’t really have it anymore. So that player is just there, so relaxed; he does not care even if he does not play; if he is playing well or not he doesn’t care; whether he is coming for this game or the next game does not matter to him.
When we were playing, if Amokachi was not playing, Samson Siasia would play. If Yekini was not there someone else would replace him. If I were not there Babangida would play, if Oliseh was not playing we had Mutiu, we had Thompson Oliha and there was competition all round. That is not what we see today. When players were being selected for tournaments, we would respect one another because we knew what we were capable of doing. We were there to fight for the country. We also had trust in our abilities to deliver.
Now it is quite difficult to go into the game with full confidence, we lack the conviction, we don’t even know one another, no trust in one another, we do not know what we are going to do, no discernable formation and anybody does what he likes, just playing individual football. Yeah, sometimes you can score but you really don’t see the plan. We see that a lot and that does not win tournaments. Not getting players to compete at the top level in Europe is really affecting our football. We have depreciated. In my time, we had most of our players who were champions in Europe. Today, we don’t see that. Some of our players are in China, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, etc. The top players in Nigeria, where are they playing? You can count one or two but where are the rest?
The quality of players we export is not of your class and players’ agents are not helping matters. How can we solve this problem?
It has to do with our local league. The quality of the league has dropped. Back in the days, you would see thousands of people trooping to the stadium to watch good football; the teams were good and everybody was fighting to win. Today, the league has dropped in quality and the players you have are not what the top teams in Europe need. So, even when agents move the players out of Nigeria, they end up in Belarus or Ukraine. We don’t have the players. How many players do we have in the English Premier League, the La Liga, the Italian League or the French Ligue 1? Very few.
Back then you had Ikpeba playing for Monaco, Oliseh was playing for Borussia Dortmund, Yekini playing for Vitoria Setubal, Keshi playing for Anderlehct and all these were top teams in Europe. They were competing week in week out. So when we came back and having set the standard, playing against the top players in Europe, whenever we met we never suffered anything like inferiority complex. Now when you play in a lower league and you are to face a top European country like Germany, you will be wondering ‘ah we are going to meet Germany o, how are we going to beat them?’ So that is the problem we have. That calls for upgrading of our league. Back then, we had players from Ghana playing in Nigeria. Foreign coaches too had spells in the Nigerian league. We have to pump up our league and grassroots football development. We have to make the league more competitive to rekindle people’s interest in it.
Draw for Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup pitched Nigeria in the same group with Liberia, Central African Republic and Cape Verde. Are you seeing it as an easy group or a tough group?
On paper, it looks easy. On paper, definitely, Nigeria should qualify from that group. Football, being what it is, you never know. The last I heard of Cape Verde, they did very well. On paper Nigeria should qualify, but how prepared are we? Preparation is key. Who is taking us there? Are we going to have a new coach? I do not know..
The coach is having a little challenge with the NFF because he lives in Europe and only comes to Nigeria when we have a match. It was not so when you were playing as Westerhof was living here and he raised a home-based team. What will be your advise to them on this matter?
He(the coach) should come and live in Nigeria. I am not saying he should live in Nigeria for a whole year. Let him come and stay, maybe three or four months, he can go home and visit his family. He should be visiting match venues, monitoring players and grooming them. I was discovered that way; myself, Ike Shorunmu, Ajibade Babalade. We were playing here, attending tournaments and we grew up that way, so by the time they say they need you in the main Super Eagles, you would be ready.
People say you ex-internationals are only good at criticising without working the talk, that some of you were supposed to be back home coaching or administering clubs. Is this accusation that you(ex-football players) are not doing enough correct?
First, we must have the platform. One cannot just jump in if there is no platform. If they want to, they all know who has a license and who does not have. One can find out. It is not difficult to verify. We don’t have clubs, you know. So, it is when these clubs indicate interest in you and ask for your services then somebody will be willing to come and help. But we have not been given that opportunity to say manage this or that club, then we will just be talking.
We want a situation where club owners recognise those that have licenses to coach and see how they can bring them back. It is not all about money but the recognition is also important. They recognise that you have a license, where can you help? Even if it is advise or coaching, we are willing to do that but we don’t have the platform to say we want to do this or that.
You once applied to handle the national U17 team, you were interviewed but you were not given the job. What really happened?
I had an interview, I sent all my credentials and was hoping they would give me the job but at the end of the day, I read in the news that the job had been given to someone else. I wanted to start with the youth players, that is where you can teach. I did not say I wanted Super Eagles. I wanted U17. That is what I am used to doing in Europe; the U15s, U17, I have coached all those in Europe. I believe that is where to start from but at the end of the day, they had their eyes on somebody else and they gave the person of their choice. That was how I left it. I am not going to fight anybody.
It was quite disappointing that a person of your stature asked for such a job and they did not give it to you.
I hope in the near future, they will sit down themselves and think over it. The thinking in the NFF is that they always want to run to the white man for rescue.