When the roll call of players for the 2019-20 UEFA Champions League Final will be made tonight, the Green-White-Green colours of Nigeria will be conspicuously missing.
Though two players in the Bayern Munich team, David Alaba and Joshua Zirkzee have Nigerian heritage by parentage, the duo are recognised by their Austrian and Dutch Nationalities respectively.
But even though no Nigerian will be on parade on Sunday night, the country can look back with some level of pride that three players from the most populous Black Country in the world have featured in the prestigious Champions League final.
It must be said that a whole lot more Nigerians have featured in the Champions League with some even holding prestigious records but only three have made it and played in the final of the iconic football competition.
While the late Stephen Keshi is fondly referred as the first Nigerian to play in a major UEFA club competition final when he featured for Anderlecht in the 1990 European Cup Winners’ Cup tie against Sampdoria, Finidi is proudly Nigeria’s first player in the Champions League final.
Finidi’s historic moment was in Vienna when Ajax faced AC Milan in the final of the 1995 edition of the Champions League.
The Nigerian forward played all the 90 minutes for Ajax alongside other greats like Clarence Seedorf, Edwin van der Sar and Edgar Davids among others.
While Finidi and his colleagues toiled fruitlessly to get past Milan in that nervy final, a master class tactical change by the then Ajax coach Louis Van Gaal proved crucial.
Van Gaal brought in Patrick Kluivert in the 70th minute for Jari Litmanen and that was spot-on as the Dutch legend scored the winning goal in the 85th minute to give Finidi a memorable debut in the Champions League final
Finidi went on to feature in the next season’s final again and coincidentally it was another Italian opposition but this time Juventus.
While Finidi played all 90 minutes in the final played in Rome, he and his teammates were unlucky against Juventus as they were defeated on penalties after the game ended 1-1 in regulation and extra time.
As of October 2019, Papilo as he is fondly called, with 60 games to his name, is credited as having the most appearances by a Nigerian player in the European Champion Clubs’ Cup/UEFA Champions League (including qualifying).
Kanu also played in the 1995 final in Vienna like Finidi but he came on as second-half substitute in the 53rd minute.
Though he was a teenager at that time, Louis Van Gaal showed he had great confidence in the abilities of Kanu, bringing him in the 1995 final against AC Milan.
Kanu was brought in to replace Clarence Seedorf in the 1995 final.
Now fully integrated, Kanu was in the starting line in the next final against Juventus and played for all 90 minutes. Unfortunately, Ajax failed in their bid to defend their title against the Old Lady.
John Mikel Obi
After the heroics of Finidi and Kanu, the stock of Nigerian players did not see them command moves to big clubs that could play their way to Champions League finals.
For the handful of players that still made it to big clubs, they just never got to the final of the prestigious tournament until 2008 when John Obi Mikel made it with Chelsea to the final played in Moscow, Russia.
Unfortunately, then for Mikel, he could only watch from the bench as Manchester United denied the Blues a rare chance to conquer Europe.
Avam Grant overlooked Mikel in that epic final even though he made all three substitutions.
However, four years later, Mikel was back with Chelsea in the Champions League final and this time he played a pivotal as the Blues conquered Bayern Munich in the final.
Many often say that that final game at the Allianz Arena is one of Mikel’s best in his over a decade spell at Chelsea
It is interesting to see that all the Nigerians that have played in the Champions League final got their hands on the priceless silverware.
Beyond Nigeria, African players have enjoyed relative success as far as the Champions League is concerned with the likes of Samuel Eto’o, Yaya Toure, Mohammed Salah, Sadio Mane, Abedi Pele and Dider Drogba among others not just winning but proving their mark in the competition.