Football is the most popular sport in Nigeria. It is a unifying sport which has huge followership among several segments of the society. Nigeria has one of the finest national teams in Africa and has produced many notable footballers who were and are still household names in the country.
Apart from the country’s pool of local talent, Nigeria boasts of vibrant export of players to the prominent league in Europe, America, Asia and other African countries.
From Eagles sojourn in African tournaments to debuting at the USA 94’ World Cup and a trail blazing performance at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic games, Nigerian football greats have made the nation proud with their exploit on the field of play.
It is difficult to narrow the list of greatest footballers in Nigeria to just 10 but here is an attempt which many people might find arguable. But the names on this list are truly legends in the country. Here is a list of Nigeria’s Top 10 Greatest Footballers of all time:
- Teslim Olawale Balogun
Teslim Balogun: Popularly known as “Thunder” Balogun due to his thunderous shots in front of goal. Balogun was a known football star in the mid-’60s as he played for a number of Nigerian clubs like Apapa Bombers, Marine Athletics, UAC XI, Railways XI, Jos XI, Pan Bank and Dynamos Club.
The man who the Teslim Balogun stadium was named after was the first African to qualify as a professional coach, a feat that earned him the coaching role of the 1968 Olympic team.
Thunder Balogun won a record 5 Challenge cup titles. He was also the first player to score a hat trick in the competition as Pan Bank walloped Warri XI 5-1 in 1952.
Balogun, who had six international caps for the Nigerian team is remembered in a lot of memorable footballing moment. One of those moments was his exploit at the November 10, 1960, game in Lagos as the Nigerian goal poacher thrilled Lagos fans in the country’s 5-0 victory over Congo Brazzaville.
- Yakubu Aiyegbeni:
Known for his mischievous smile when he misses golden opportunities in front of goals, Yakubu Aiyegbeni is one of the best and most successful strikers to have ever played for the Super Eagles. “The Yak” as he is popularly called is the 3rd highest goal scorer in the Nigerian senior national team with 21 goals. He is only behind the legendary Rashidi Yekini and the “mathematical” Segun Odegbami who netted 37 and 22 goals respectively in the traditional green and white jersey.
Yakubu is the second most prolific African player after Didier Drogba player to have ever played in the English Premier League, having scored 96 goals at Portsmouth, Blackburn and Everton. Yak’s most controversial moment as a footballer was his open goal miss against South Korea at the 2010 FIFA World Cup. A miss that cost Nigeria the opportunity to qualify for the round of 16.
Upon his retirement in 2017, the Edo state born striker had netted 175 goals in 452 club appearances across England, Israel, Turkey and Qatar.
- Muda Lawal:
Mudashiru “Muda” Babatunde Lawal: Rising from a humble beginning as a motor mechanic, Lawal, in the 70s’ rose to stardom to become one of Ibadan based IICC Shooting Stars Football Club’s best players.
In Muda’s first 9-year stint at the club, he helped Shooting star clinched their first ever African cup title and many other trophies.
He later played for Abiola Babes of Abeokuta.
Muda Lawal rose to become a fearful midfielder in the national team he was a pillar in the 1980 that won Nigeria’s first African Cup of Nations (AFCON) championship in 1980. The Abeokuta born mid field meastrowas the 4th highest capped player for the Nigerian national team, appearing in 86 matches and scoring 12 goals.
He was recognised by CAF for making playing in 4 AFCON tournaments and was honoured with an additional national honours OON by the Federal Government for that feat aside the MON he was awarded in 1980 for the winning the Nations Cup.
Until his untimely death in 1991, Muda Lawal was one of the few Nigerian players who gained popularity by spending all his footballing career in the local league.
- Sunday Oliseh:
Oliseh is undoubtedly the best ever defensive midfielder that has ever played for Nigeria. The hugely talented midfielder’s ability to marshal the midfield is always a sight to behold.
Oliseh was a pivotal member of the 1996 Olympic Gold-winning team, where he was an immense thorn in the flesh of oppossing attackers as he served a shield for the dream team defence line. He was also part of the squad to the 1994 and 1998 FIFA World Cups in USA and France respectively. Perhaps his most memorable moment for Nigeria was his winning explosive goal in Eagles 3-2 win over Spain in the first game of France 1998 World Cup.
Until his retirement in 2002, Oliseh had 63 caps for Nigeria. He also played for FC Koln, Borussia Dortmund, Ajax and Juventus in his 15 years of professional football.
- Stephen Keshi:
Super Eagles longest serving skipper and later coach, the Late Stephen Keshi was the first Nigerian to have ever won the African Cup of nations as a player in 1994 and as a coach in 2013.
A defensive midfielder who popularised the jersey number 4, the ex-Eagles international was not just a talented defender but he was also a natural leader on the field of play. He was a bridge between the old and the new generation beginning his career at the then Green Eagles in 1981, a year after Nigeria won the African Nations’ Cup for the first time, retiring in 1994 after the Super Eagles won the cup for the second time and a debut at the World Cup.
As a footballer, Keshi won the West African Club Championship (1983, 1984), Coupe Houphoet Boigny (1985, 1986), Belgian Cup (1988, 1989) among others
Keshi played 64 games for Nigeria scoring 9 goals in his footballing career spanning 15 years.
He began professional football career in 1985 with Stade d’Abidjan of Cote d’Ivoire ending it in 1988 with Perils FA football club of Malaysia.
In between, Keshi has played for such big clubs as Anderlecht, Lokeren of Belgium as well as FC Strasbourg of France.
His pioneering effort served as the elixir for many other Nigerian footballers who played professional football ouside the country.
Unfortunately, Stephen Keshi, aged 54, died of heart attack in Benin City in 2016. Nigerian football will never forget his contribution to the country football development and as such, his home state government, Delta, immortalized with the “Stephen Keshi Stadium” Asaba, Delta State.
- Vincent Enyeama:
Many remember Enyeama for his dutiful service to Nigeria and his ever brilliant saves to deny Lionel Messi a goal against Nigeria at 2010 and 2014 World Cups.
Vincent Enyeama holds the joint record with Joseph Yobo as the most capped player for the Super Eagles in an international career spanning thirteen years.
The former Enyimba and Iwuanyanwu Nationale goalkeeper was a second choice goalkeeper to Ike Shorunmu at the 2002 World Cup in Korea/Japan. He soon became Nigeria’s top choice goalie after Shorunmu left the stage.
Known for his intense agility, awareness and confidence in goal, Enyeama is remembered to have saved three penalty shootout against Tunisia at the 2010 AFCON quarter-final. He was named the man of the match on several occasions. Notably was his incredible display against Argentina at the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa. He was named man of the match despite the Eagles 1-0 loss to the Albiceleste.
The Nigerian shot-stopper was in goal for Super Eagles third place finished at the 2004, 2006, 2010 Africa Cup of Nations tournaments. He also captained Nigeria to victory at the 2013 AFCON.
Vincent Enyeama sterling career saw him win four league title; (3 in Nigeria, 1 in Isreal), two Champions league triumph with Enyimba (2003, 2004). Notable amongst his individual awards was the 2004 CAF Champions League player of the year, 2009 Israel League player of the year and the Nigerian Pitch Award in 2013 and 2014.
He is unarguably the best Goalkeeper to have ever played for Nigeria and would be rated above the heroics of Peter Rufai.
- The “Mathematical” Segun Odegbami:
Nicknamed “Mathematical” by the sports radio commentary icon, Ernest Okonkwo. Segun Odegbami is one of the finest and most brilliant players to have ever played for Nigeria. He began his professional football career at 3SC Shooting Stars shortly after graduating as an Engineer from the Polytechnic, Ibadan.
He soon rose to prominence with the Ibadan based club after winning the Africa Winner’s Cup title in 1976. His superb skills, speed and pass precision made “mathematical Odegbami” a household nickname very popular with Nigerians in the 70’s up to the early ’80s.
Young Odegbami at 24, made his first National senior team debut with the Green Eagles against Sierra Leone in 1976 after which he was enlisted by coach Otto Gloria alongside Christian Chukwu, Adokie Amasieamka, Muda Lawal, Felix Owolabi amongst others for the 1980 African Cup of Nations.
Odegbami led Nigeria to their first African Cup of Nations triumph in 1980 by scoring a brace at the final game against Algeria, when the then Green Eagles won with an emphatic 3-nil at the 85,000 capacity National Stadium, Surulere Lagos.
Upon his retirement in October 1982, Odegbami feature 42 times with the Green Eagles, scoring 23 goals. A record that made him Nigeria’s second highest goals scorer of all time behind Rashidi Yekini.
- Austin Jay-Jay Okocha
Jay-Jay Okocha is perhaps the most skilful African player in football history and rated by the legendary Pele as one of the top 5 most skillful in the world.
Okocha was not just a footballer; he was an entertainer on the field of play. His dazzling display on the pitch was as brilliant as it was a sight to behold. Talk of his dribbles, passes, skills and audacious display with the ball, Okocha’s name will always be called amongst football legend who has given life to the round leather game.
Born in Enugu, the 19-year-old young Okocha came into limelight featuring for the U-23 National Team coached by James Peters in 1992.
Okocha joined Eintracht Frankfurt in December 1991, where he linked up with many well-known players including Ghanaian international striker Tony Yeboah and later Thomas Doll. He continued to shine for the German side, one highlight being a goal he scored against Karlsruher SC, dribbling in the penalty box and slotting the ball past goalkeeper Kahn even going past some players twice. The goal was voted Goal of the Season by many soccer magazines, and also voted as 1993 Goal of the Year by viewers of Sportschau (an ARD German TV sports programme)
He later gained prominence in the Super Eagles and was in the AFCON 1994 winning squad.
He was in USA ’94 World Cup and later became a key member of Nigeria’s gold-winning dream team at the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atalanta, USA.
Before his retirement in 2006, Okocha played for Paris Saint Germain in a £14m move that made him the most expensive African Player at that time. The former Bolton Wanderers playmaker represented Nigerian in 5 African Nations Cup tournament and 3 editions of the FIFA World Cup. He featured 73 times for the Super Eagles and scored 14 great goals, making him the seventh most capped player in the National team.
Okocha, who was the only Nigerian named in Pele’s top 100 living football legend would probably have become Nigeria’s greatest player if he had won more individual awards, national and club titles like his counterpart in Kanu Nwankwo.
- Rashidi Yekini:
Born just three years after independence, ‘Goal father’ Rashidi Yekini is unarguably Nigeria’s best striker ever. Yekini moved from his teenage playing days in Kaduna to become a household name in the country and reigned with the Ibadan based Shooting Stars in the ’80s.
Yekini delivered Nigeria her second African Cup of Nations in 1994 lifting the Eagles to its second continental cup with his rocket like powered goals and was the tournament’s highest goal scorer and the most valuable player. In the same year, Yekini scored Nigeria’s first goal at the FIFA World Cup in a 3-0 win against Bulgaria at USA ‘94.
The Kaduna born striker’s biggest club feat came just after he left Africa Sports of Cote de’ Ivoire to Vitória Setúbal in Portugal where he he scored over 90 goals in 114 appearances.
Yekini till today still holds the record as Nigeria’s most potent striker, scoring 37 goals in 58 appearances.
The former Shooting Stars striker featured in two FIFA World Cups (1994, 1998) and was named Africa Footballer of the year in 1993 for his exploits in Vitória Setúbal and brilliance at the Nations Cup qualifiers.
Many are of the opinion that Yekini, who died in May 2012 after suffering depression, was Nigeria’s greatest footballer ever lived till date.
- Kanu Nwankwo
Nicknamed “Papilo” Kanu is perhaps the greatest Nigerian football player in history. Kanu became a household name in his exploit at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. He scored a brace to ensure team Nigeria defeated Brazil 4-3 to qualify for the Olympic final and then went ahead to clinch the gold medal.
Kanu, alongside Finidi George in 1994, became the first Nigerian players to win the UEFA Champions League as his club Ajax defeated AC Milan 1-0 in the final.
Shortly After his gold-winning Olympic tournament in 1996, Kanu signed for Inter Milan and was later named the African Footballer of the Year that year.
Kanu suffered a defective heart problem and left San Siro to Arsenal in 1999 after a corrective surgery.
The move proved a turning point in his careers as he went ahead to play 147 games and netted 44 times for the Gunners.
While at Arsenal, Kanu won his second African Footballer of the Year award in 1999, the FA Cup in 2003 and was part of the Arsenal Invincible who went 49 games unbeaten to claim the Premier League in 2004.
Note that the selection here is arguable. There are several great footballers who were not mention in this top 10 list. Who is your favorite great Nigerian footballer that should have made this list?