The mid-90s to the late 90s is seen as the golden age of the Nigerian national team, not just because the Super Eagles were the best team in Africa during this period but because of the quality of the players in the team.
The team had players like Finidi George, who was arguably the best winger in the world at a time, Kanu Nwankwo, Sunday Oliseh, Emmanuel Amuneke, Victor Ikpeba, Taribo West and Austin Jay-Jay Okocha.
These players played for the top clubs in the world then. Finidi and Kanu were part of Ajax 1995 Champions League winners while they also played for Real Betis and Arsenal, respectively.
Amuneke played for Barcelona, Taribo played for the two Milan clubs, Oliseh had spells at Borussia Dortmund and Ajax, while Ikpeba was the prince of Monaco.
During this period, the quality of Nigerian players was undeniable. Moving forward to the 2000s, the quality dropped, and it became worse in the 2010s.
However, the squad has improved in the last few years thanks to the influx of dual-nationality players choosing Nigeria.
At the just-concluded 2021 Africa Cup of Nations, Nigeria missed four key players, but they were able to call up in-form players as replacements.
This is a testament to the strength in depth of the team. However, this has led to suggestions that the team has a couple of world-class players.
But while the Super Eagles squad depth cannot be denied, the suggestion that there are world-class players in the team is far from the truth.
To understand this, it’s important to know who a world-class player is. The term ‘world-class’ is a word that has been abused by football fans.
Who is a world-class player?
It’s difficult to define a world-class player because it is broad and subjective. However, we have managed to narrow it down.
A world-class player is a player who has the X-factor, consistent for both club and country, and will walk into any team in the world.
It is hard to find a Nigerian player who fits into these criteria. There have been claims that Victor Osimhen and Wilfred Ndidi are in the world-class category, but they do not tick all boxes.
Although both players have the potential to reach that level, they still need to improve. Osimhen is one of the best young talents in world football currently, and while he is a deadly finisher, the 23-year-old does not have the x-factor.
The Napoli striker is not a player that can win games on his own for the team or through individual brilliance. He also needs to stay consistent before he can be considered one of the world’s best players.
For all of his quality in front of goal, he is yet to score 15 league goals since he started playing in Europe’s top five leagues, although injuries have not helped his cause.
Osimhen’s quality is not in doubt, but he still needs to do more to be in the bracket of players like Erling Haaland and Kylian Mbappe.
The same can also be said about Wilfred Ndidi, who is currently one of the best defensive midfielders in the world.
But while there are only a few better ball winners than Ndidi right now, the Nigerian international will struggle to fit into a team that dominates possession.
Ndidi is a brilliant defensive midfielder, but for teams that like to have more of the ball, they want more than just a midfielder known for breaking up opponents attacking flow.
Possession based teams want a player who can contribute going forward, which is not really Ndidi’s biggest strength.
This season, he has no assist and has completed just 536 passes. In contrast, West Ham’s Declan Rice has four assists, Manchester City’s Rodri has two, while Chelsea’s N’golo Kante has provided two assists.
Ndidi has made just 39 progressive passes in the Premier League this season, with just two into the opposition’s box.
Meanwhile, Rice has completed 18 passes into the 18-yard-box and has made 89 progressive passes. Kante has made 16 passes into the opposition’s box and completed 66 progressive passes this season.
With these statistics taken into account, Ndidi may struggle to fit into some of the biggest teams in the world, except he improves on his passing ability.
It is also important to note that many Nigerian players play for mid-table and lowly-rated clubs in Europe. In the golden era of the Nigerian national team, the Super Eagles had a couple of players playing at some of the biggest clubs in the world. At the same time, they were also nominated for big individual awards.
Kanu won the Africa player of the year twice, while he also finished sixth in the 1996 FIFA World Player of the year.
He finished 11th in the Ballon d’Or rankings the same year. The former Arsenal star also finished 23rd in the 1999 rankings while Finidi and Ikpeba were also nominated in the year 1995 and 1997, respectively.
This is not the situation presently. The last time a Nigerian finished in the top three of CAF Africa Player of the year was in 2014 when Vincent Enyeama finished third.
This shows a huge decline in the quality of players representing Nigeria now compared to the golden era.
Currently, only Osimhen is playing for a reputable club with a history in Europe’s top leagues. The world-class players play for the big clubs, and right now, the three-time African champions do not have that.
This is not to say all the players in the squad are below average, as the likes of Joe Aribo and Moses Simon are also good players.
But it will be a bit much to call any of them world-class as the Super Eagles do not have one.