As Africa gets set for the Glo-CAF Awards, Nigerians are hoping that their candidate, Mikel Obi, will eventually end a long drought spanning 15 years, reports ’TANA AIYEJINA
After an outstanding performance last year in football, winning the Africa Cup of Nations and the U-17 World Cup, Nigerians are hoping to start the New Year on a winning note on Thursday when the Confederation of African Football announce the winner of the 2013 African Footballer of The Year.
Nigerian Chelsea midfielder, Mikel Obi, was last week named on the final three-man shortlist alongside Ivoirians Didier Drogba (Galatasary) and Yaya Toure by the African football ruling body.
The Glo-CAF Awards ceremony holds in Lagos.
Even though Super Eagles coach, Stephen Keshi is pitted alongside compatriot and Golden Eaglets coach, Manu Garba, for the Coach of The Year award, the focus of Nigerians on January 9 would be the outcome of who wins Mikel’s category.
The last time a Nigerian won the award was in 1999, when Nwankwo Kanu, just recuperating from a heart ailment, scooped it for a second time while playing for English giants, Arsenal.
Former Eagles captain, Austin Okocha, was the last Nigerian nominated in the final shortlist 10 years ago. He came third behind Cameroonian winner, Samuel Eto’o and Drogba.
If the awards were decided on trophies won last year, then Mikel would have been the automatic winner having won the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations and the Europa Cup. Indeed he spearheaded the Eagles 2-1 defeat of Ivory Coast as the team romped to a third AFCON title.
Head, Nigeria Football Federation Technical Committee, Chris Green, was probably speaking the minds of some Nigerians when he insisted in a telephone interview with our correspondent that Mikel was the right choice for Player of The Year award.
“As far as I am concerned, the crown should go to Mikel; if he fails to win it, I will demand the criteria in selecting who wins,” Green said.
“Mikel has won everything in a calendar year and qualified his country for the World Cup. What has Toure won? He played against Toure and Drogba and he defeated them. So, he stands above them.
“I have written Drogba off from the race because Toure is even ahead of him. The last time Toure won it, Manchester City won the EPL title and nobody complained but now, Mikel deserves to win it with his achievements.”
But even though former Monaco striker, Victor Ikpeba, who won the award in 1997 while with the French club, is hoping to see Mikel win the award, he cautioned that winning it went beyond winning trophies for club and country.
Ikpeba might be right, as Mikel had already lost out to Toure in the British Broadcasting Corporation version of the award.
He said the individual performances of players were also important in deciding the winner of the award, adding that voters had different criteria for casting their votes.
He said, “This is the first time in about 15 years that we might have a winner and we should be proud of that. But we shouldn’t get carried away; things can happen when it gets to voting. About 54 countries will vote for the eventual winner of the award and I believe a Nigerian should win it this time around.
“You have to be very good all year to win the award. This time around, we have done very well. Mikel won the Nations Cup and Europa Cup and it might count in his favour. He also had an outstanding Confederations Cup.
“The process is all year round; it’s not the performance at a particular tournament. We saw (Lionel) Messi not winning the Champions League, he also didn’t win anything with Argentina but he was voted the best player in the world.
“I hope we win it this time because people may go crazy. But we shouldn’t feel because we have a player who won the AFCON and Europa Cup, we are the automatic winners. Beyond that, the voters want to see what the individual player input is for club and country all year round. I said it three years ago that if our players improve, we will win the award soon.”
In the past, the awards have been viewed as favouring players from Francophone countries or players playing in the French league.
This is not far-fetched though, as the awards were initiated by France Football magazine in 1970. The Ballon d’Or Africaine (African Golden Ball), as the magazine named the winner’s trophy, eventually stopped in 1994 after CAF began the organisation of their own awards in 1992.
And there was an immediate difference. Ghana’s Abedi Pele, who was playing in France for Olympique Marseille, won both awards in 1992 but in 1993, while CAF named Nigeria’s Rashidi Yekini — who was playing in Portugal — as Africa’s best player, France Football retained Abedi as the winner.
The same thing happened the following year as CAF picked Portugal-based Nigerian winger Emmanuel Amuneke as the winner but the other version of the award had Liberia’s George Weah, who was then playing in France for Paris Saint-Germain, as the winner.
It was obvious both awards could not continue and France Football stopped their own version.
Before the advent of the CAF Footballer of The Year award in 1992, the African Sports Journalist Union organised their own edition from 1980 to 1991.
However, controversies also trailed the award. No poll was reportedly conducted to pick the winners, with few officials allegedly deciding who wins.
In fact, the winners were most times those announced by France Football for their own award.
The trophy for the winner once got missing and it was traced around Africa before it was eventually recovered from Algerian, Rabah Madjer, who won the award in 1987.
Cameroonian Roger Milla was the last man to hold the original trophy aloft at a ceremony held in Lagos in 1991. The trophy got broken while in his custody.
Ikpeba, a gold medalist at the 1996 Olympic Games, however does not feel the award for the continent’s top player is selected along colonial ties.
“It’s only a Nigerian impression. In the 1990s, Kanu won it while with Inter and Arsenal, Amuneke and Yekini won it while they were in Portugal. I think what happened was that we didn’t have a lot of Nigerian footballers playing abroad in the 1980s. That deprived us of winning the award. The 1980 squad had several players who should have won it but most of them were based at home.
“I don’t think it has anything to do with the voting. The voting may favour Francophone countries but if you look at the history of the Ballon d’Or Africaine, you will agree that those who won it deserved it. You can’t tell me that players like Milla, Abedi or Weah didn’t deserve to win it.
“Sometimes Nigerians are too sentimental but we need to look at the mirror and face reality. We need to be objective; if our player didn’t win, we need to ask ourselves, “What has he done all year round to win it?” That is the question we should ask ourselves rather getting carried away,” he said.
The former Borussia Dortmund man maintained that he won the prize 17 years ago because of his hard work on the pitch and not because he was playing in France then.
Ikpeba added, “In 1997, there was no AFCON but I think my performance from 1996, winning the Ligue 1 and a fantastic Champions League performance helped me in winning the award. If I look at my performance that year from January to December, I am proud to say I was up there among African best players in terms of scoring goals, assists and overall team work. I think Mikel can as well. My impact at club level helped me tremendously in winning.
“That year’s Ballon d’Or, I was the only African player nominated; so it wasn’t a surprise winning the African award. I feel the fight will be between Toure and Mikel. He (Toure) is a fantastic player. We have seen him play this season and you can’t say he didn’t deserve to be named winner of the award in the last two years.
“That is why I said we should not be too confident that because Mikel won the AFCON, Champions League and Europa, he automatically wins the award. The voters think differently but I think it will be close between Yaya and Mikel.”
A football fan, Godfrey Ehigie is also upbeat Mikel will win it.
He said, “Mikel is every Nigerian’s choice. He has had a fantastic year and should be rightly recognised.”
The country has also been nominated for other awards. Nigeria will battle Burkina Faso and Ethiopia for the National Team of The Year award while 2013 U-17 World Cup Most Valuable Player, Kelechi Iheanacho will compete with Ghana U-20 star Ebenezer Assifuah, Egyptian Saleh Gomaa and Alexis Yougouda of Cameroon for the Promising Talent award.
For the Youth National Team of The Year, the Golden Eaglets are the sole nominees for the award.
Green wishes Keshi wins the coaches category ahead of compatriot Garba and Burkina Faso manager, Paul Put.
He said, “I expect Keshi to win ahead of Garba. They are our coaches but Keshi won AFCON and qualified Nigeria for the World Cup. Garba won the U-17 World Cup, that is cadet level.
“However, I will support whoever wins the diadem amongst the two of them.”
Inasmuch as Nigerians would want the country to sweep the awards, the crowning glory would be producing the continent’s best footballer once again, after 15 years.