A few years ago while in Ghana for the 2008 Nations Cup finals, I was impressed by what I saw on a trip to the camp of the Ghanaian team. I met the legendary Abedi Pele who had come over to lend some support to both the Ghana team and his young son André ‘Dédé’ Ayew. What caught my attention was how they got along. They seemed just so inseparable and they communicated in French only, much to the admiration of onlookers. Then I remembered that the young Ayew was born in France and was an Olympic Marseille player while his father had made a name as a player for the same club in the 80s and 90s. Abedi Pele won the European champions trophy with Marseille in 1993.
Then I thought of the Super Eagles and it struck me that today, most of the players in the green and white tunic either understand or speak French. They have played or still play their football in France or Belgium. Starting with the former coach Siasia, he spent a part of his career in France playing for FC Nantes. Osaze Odemwinge played in France before joining West Brom in England. Taiye Taiwo speaks French fluently as he spent several years as an Olympique Marseille player before his move to AC Milan.
In 1989 during Nigeria’s campaign for a ticket to the 1990 World Cup, very few players could understand or speak any language other than English. Steven Keshi –current Super Eagles’ coach-was one of the privileged few who spoke French, coming from Anderlecht in Belgium and he was really useful to his team as skipper. I remember him struggling to communicate with Cameroonian officials and players and also acting as interpreter to his team mates in that highly tense qualifier for the Mondial as I watched from the stands at the Omnisport Stadium in Yaoundé. There were also very few Nigerian players in the French league at that time. Whether influenced by linguistic and cultural considerations or colonial affiliation, a Nigerian player could hardly be found in France. Belgium was the closest any player could get to a French speaking country. But today, as the whole wide world has become a global village, many Nigerian players have passed through the mill of the French league. But it did not start in one day.
It is interesting to note that of the 22 Super Eagles players that made it to the USA ’94 World Cup, only one played in England. Efan Ekoku of Norwich City was the exception. More players came from the Belgian league- a country that officially speaks both French and Flemish. A combination of all players that came from French speaking countries added up to nine: 6 from Belgium, 2 from France (Siasia and Ikpeba; Nantes and Monaco respectively), 1 from Cote D’Ivoire (Thompson Oliha).
It should be remembered that Victor Ikpeba enjoyed much success with Monaco to be fondly called, ‘The Prince of Monaco’. It was his performance for both club and country that earned him the crown of African Player of the Year in 1997. Austin Okocha’s move to Paris Saint Germain (PSG) in 1998 was the much needed opening for his compatriots. It was then one of the most lucrative deals for an African player. Between Ikpeba and Okocha, other Nigerian players were rising in prominence in France and contributing to the national team. They include Wilson Oruma of Sochaux, Taribo West of Auxerre and Bartholomew Ogbeche of Paris Saint Germain. Others who have played in France or are still part of the” French legion’’ are: Austin Ejide, Rabiu Afolabi, Elderson Echiejile, Onyekachi Apam and David Solomon.
So it should not come as a surprise to hear players in the Super Eagles’ camp speaking in a different tongue. That should simply be seen as an acquired behaviour rather than deus ex machina – a supernatural intervention!