On Monday night, under the flashing lights inside the architectural masterpiece of Théâtre du Châtelet, Lionel Messi cemented his status as the greatest player of his generation after winning a record-extending seventh Ballon d’Or award.
Messi beat Bayern Munich striker Robert Lewandowski and Chelsea midfielder Jorginho to win the award. But just like any other individual award, it drew controversy as some argued that the Poland striker should have won.
However, while the arguments continued on social media, one question came across my mind as I watched on, and it was a simple one.
When is a Nigerian player going to win the Ballon d’Or?
Obviously, I do not have the answer to this, but I know it is not anytime soon. It’s such a pity that for a football-loving nation with over 150m people, we have never had a player in the top five of either the Ballon d’Or award or FIFA World Player of the year.
The highest a Nigerian player has ever finished in any of these awards is the sixth position, which was earned by Kanu Nwankwo at the 1996 FIFA World Player of the year.
Kanu also achieved Nigeria’s highest-place finish till date in the Ballon d’Or rankings, finishing in 11th place in 1996.
The last time a Nigerian ever got a nomination for the Ballon d’Or was in 1997, which saw Victor Ikpeba finish in 32nd position.
In fact, since the award was made open to non-Europeans, only three Nigerians have been nominated and earned points.
Finidi George (1995), Kanu Nwankwo (1996) and Victor Ikpeba (1997). It means the last time a Nigerian player got a nomination was 24 years ago, which is quite disappointing for a country that prides itself as the giant of Africa.
The lack of Nigerian players representation in the nominees’ list for football’s individual awards raises the question of whether the players are good as fans claim they are or the country has just been producing average players.
The latter seems to be the case. For all the talk about the 1994-1996 golden generation, only Finidi George was world-class, although arguments could also be made for Kanu, Ikpeba and Sunday Oliseh.
And taking a look at their careers, these four players are the only ones that played regularly at a top club in Europe, with three earning a Ballon d’Or nomination.
The reason for Nigeria’s lack of representation in football’s biggest individual awards is not far-fetched. Most of the country’s top players played for mid-table and lowly-rated clubs in Europe.
Only a few got to play with Europe’s biggest clubs. It is more the same with the current Super Eagles set-up, with only Victor Osimhen playing for a respectable club in Europe.
Wilfred Ndidi and Kelechi Iheanacho play for Leicester City too, but the Foxes are not one of the iconic clubs in Europe on paper.
Meanwhile, countries like Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Algeria, and Egypt have all had players nominated for the biggest individual awards in recent years.
Although one could argue that the Ballon d’Or or FIFA player of the year is a difficult award to win, Nigerian players have not fared any better on the African continent.
Kanu, in 1999, was the last time a Nigerian won the African player of the year. Since then, Super Eagles stars have struggled to finish in the top five, with the exception of Austin Jay-Jay Okocha, Vincent Enyeama and John Mikel Obi.
This is really poor for a country whose number one sport is football and has a population of over 150m people.
While there have been a few good players, the vast majority of players that have represented the country are not as good as we claim.