Q&A with Finidi George - Part I
Finidi George is a legend of Nigerian football.
Born April 15, 1971, the 6ft 3in former Ajax Amsterdam midfielder was once described as the best winger in the world.
SuperSport.com recently had a sit down with Finidi to discuss his football education and his rise to one of the greatest players to ever play for the Nigeria national team.
SuperSport.com: How did you get into football?
Finidi George: It started for me when I was a youngster. I started by playing football across the streets of Port Harcourt (Southern Nigeria). I never felt I would go so far with the game because to be honest it was just a hobby for me back then.
SuperSport.com: Did you look up to anyone when you were growing up as a youngster?
Finidi George: No. However, my elder brothers were playing when I was young. I used to join them when they went for trainings and I guess that rubbed off on me.
SuperSport.com: You played for three professional football clubs in Nigeria, Iwuayanwu National (now Heartland), Calabar Rovers and Sharks before you jetted off to Europe. How would you compare the current standard of the Nigeria Premier League (NPL) back then and the NPL today?
Finidi George: To be honest, the standard has dropped drastically. We no longer invest in domestic football. In the past, the national team (Super eagles) was dominated by players who plied their trade in the local league. Today the story is different as the national team is dominated by players who play in Europe.
If you dont build up your domestic league, you will face problems at the national team level. That is the problem Nigeria is faced with today.
SuperSport.com: What is responsible for this trend?
Finidi George: Its quite disappointingI think the proliferation of cable television has not helped. These days, the people are exposed to so much foreign content in the shape of the Barclays English Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga and Serie A.
And when you compare the standard of football of these foreign leagues, the Nigerian football league lags behind so the people tend to prefer watching football from foreign climes.
The Nigeria Football Federation and the Nigeria Premier League must do well to improve the standard of our local league.
You won 62 caps for Nigeria at international level. How did you get to earn the first of those caps?
Finidi George: When I was playing for Sharks, players from the local teams were usually given the opportunity to play for the national teams. Impressive players from the domestic leagues were usually invited to the national camp and if they did well, they were given the opportunity to play for the full national team.
I was invited to the national team when I was with Sharks and the rest as they say is history.
SuperSport.com: Clemens Westerhof is widely regarded as the most successful Nigeria national football team coach. What sort of character was Westerhof?
Finidi George: He brought discipline to the team. He was nice but tough. He knew when to joke and knew when to be serious. His style of management helped us achieve success at the Cup of Nations and World Cup.
SuperSport.com: You joined Ajax Amsterdam in 1993. How were you received by the established super stars when you first joined the team?
Finidi George: I was well received. Ajax has always been a multi-cultural football team so it was quite easy for me to succeed. The Surinam-born Dutch players actually helped me a lot especially with the language and the food and the culture so it was not too difficult for me.
SuperSport.com: You were at Ajax at about the same time with another Nigerian, Kanu Nwankwo. How did you two get along?
Finidi George: We got on very well. We lived close to each other. He was a youngster and I did all I could to help him achieve his full potentials. We were like brothers and we helped each other so much.
SuperSport.com: You and Kanu were the first set of Nigerians to win the UEFA Champions League title, tell us more about that super team that included players like Marc Overmas, Danny Blind, the de Boer brother, Jari Litmanen, Erwin Van Der Saar, Clarence Seedorf and Patrick Kluivert.
Finidi George: That was a great team and been a part of that team will never leave my heart. The Manager, Louis Van gaal was also special and we all learnt a lot playing from that dream team. As a matter of fact, the current FC Barcelona team plays exactly the way we used to play back then in 1995.
SuperSport.com: You played 130 games for Real Betis and scored 38 goals for the club. Tell us about your experiences in Spain.
Finidi George: Apart from the trophies I won at Ajax, it was at Betis that I really enjoyed football. I was a more mature player when I joined the team and I brought all my experience to bear during that period. I really enjoyed my time in Spain.
SuperSport.com: You played in Spain alongside a certain Denilson at Betis. Was he a misunderstood character?
Finidi George: Denilson was the most expensive footballer in the world at the time. The rest of the squad did not feel bad because we earned less than him because we all had contracts which we respected.
For Denilson, I think he did well. He had little problems adapting to the culture in Spain.
SuperSport.com: You were widely described as the best winger in the world after you won the European Cup with Ajax in 1995. Many were bewildered when you decided to join Betis after Ajax. Didnt the bigger clubs want you?
Finidi George: After the 1996 football season, I had an interview saying I would move (from Ajax) if I got a better offer. The clubs officials were upset and told me in no uncler terms that my services (at Ajax) were no longer needed.
They told me they would buy another player for my position and they did. The player they got was Tijani Babangida (he smiles for the first time since the interview began).
I decided to leave. I had a pre-contract with Real Madrid but they couldnt come up with the financial valuation of Ajax and the move hit the rocks.
SuperSport.com: You spent one season with Ipswich Town.
Finidi George: (cuts in) After one successful season at Mallorca, the Manager of Ipswich decided to take me over. I have no regrets whatsoever and it is a pity the team was relegated. I was injured there and a lot of things conspired against.
SuperSport.com: What went wrong with your scouting deal with Real Betis?
Finidi George: Money problems (laughs). I was there trying to help them look for good players outside Spain but they were not able to foot the financial bills.
SuperSport.com; You were among the first set of Nigerians that ensured Nigerias flag was hoisted at the Fifa World Cup in 1994.
Finidi George: Yeahthat was a great team; a world class team. There were so many great players in that team. Players like Austin Okocha, Dan Amokachi, Yekini and others.
SuperSport.com: You scored the goal that sent Nigeria through to the 1994 Fifa World Cup when Nigeria drew1-1 with Algeria in Algiers to nick the sole qualifying ticket for the mundial.
Finidi George: Football is a collective game. Someone had to score and I am happy I was the one who got the goal. It was important that we eventually got the result that we needed to qualify for the World Cup.
SuperSport.com: You were a part of the team that won the Africa Cup of Nations in 1994 in Tunisia. How special was that team?
Finidi George: That was a great team. Westerhof did a good job and I think that is the problem we are facing with the national team today.
We just have to be patient and build a strong national team. The team of 1994 took about four, five years to build.
Watch out for part two