BY JOE APU
Back in the ‘80s, when the big stars of Nigerian football moved in droves to the Belgium league with the Late Stephen Okechukwu Keshi leading the train with his move to Anderlecht in 1987, little did anyone think that it would open the flood gate for others.
Some of the players that joined the train then included Etim Essien, Late Osaro Obobaifo, Peter Rufai, Augustine Eguavoen, Ndubuisi Okosieme and Phillip Osondu, Victor Ikpeba (Monaco), Nwankwo Kanu and George Finidi (Ajax).
It would be recalled that Rufai’s move to Europe was first to Belgium where he spent six years with Lokeren between 1987-1991 and later Beveren between 1991-1993.
Augustine Eguavoen moved to Belgium in 1986. He spent nine years in Belgium where he shone for KAA Gent between 1986 -1990, and later K.V. Kortrijk between 1990 -1994. He returned to K.V. Kortrijk between 1995 -1996 after a short stint in Spain.
Philip Osondu played in Belgium for teams that included Anderlecht (1989-1996), RWDM (1990-1992), La Louviere(1994-1995), Union Saint Gillis(1996), and Diegem Sport(1999-2002).
Etim Essien played in Belgium for K.A.A Gent, Lokeren(1988-1990), and Lierse SK(1991-1992).
Osaro Obobaifo played in Belgium for KRC Genk. Ndubuisi Okosieme played in Belgium for KFC Eeklo.
Christopher Nwosu played for Beerschot, St. Truiden and Germinal Ekeren in Belgium.
In recent times however, the train of Nigerian players have changed tracks from Europe to the Major League Soccer-MLS and today to the Chinese Super League where irresistible monies are dangled at top soccer stars.
In February 2016, Obafemi Martins joined Shanghai Shenhua and pocketed about $6.6 million on a short nine-month deal. Martins in spite of the mega bucks got off to a slow start, going scoreless in his first seven appearances and having just one goal through 11 matches while mostly coming off the bench.
By October, 2016, the former Super Eagles striker reportedly signed a contract extension that will keep him at Shanghai Shenhua through 2017 and net him about $9 million.
Just last month, John Mikel Obi moved to the Chinese Super League after his transfer to Tianjin TEDA was confirmed.
Mikel, who had been frozen out of Chelsea’s first team this season with N’Golo Kante, Nemanja Matic, Nathaniel Chalobah and Cesc Fabregas ahead in the pecking order, is reportedly earning £140,000 a week.
Mikel’s move made him the second player to swap West London for the Far East, following Oscar who has signed for Shanghai SIPG.
Mikel spent 11 years at Stamford Bridge after controversially joining Chelsea, despite appearing at a Manchester United press conference and posing with a United shirt with his name on it.
The Nigerian captain is understood to have signed a three-year deal, after a successful spell in England, winning the Champions League, two Premier League titles and four FA Cups.
He played in pre-season with Chelsea last summer but then left the squad to win an Olympic bronze medal with Nigeria in Rio and could not find a way back into Conte’s plans thereafter.
Not long after Mikel’s China move, Watford striker Odion Ighalo joined the cash rich Chinese Super League with a move to CSL club Changchun Yatai after passing a medical.
The club officially confirmed the transfer to be around £20 million. The Nigerian international joined Watford in 2014 and was an integral part of their success as he played a key role in their promotion to the Premier League last season.
Only on Tuesday, another Super Eagles player, Brown Ideye completed his move to Chinese side Tianjin Teda from Olympiakos.
Ideye, who is believed to have commanded a transfer fee of 12 Million Euros has since united with his compatriot John Obi Mikel.
The former Dynamo Kiev striker has been at Olympiacos since the summer of 2015 after joining the club following a disappointing one-year spell in the Premier League with West Bromwich Albion.
With a salary of about 3.5 million euros every season, Ideye becomes the sixth highest paid Nigerian player.
Aside Super Eagles players that have moved to the Far East for greener pastures with more waiting in the wings, Super Falcons striker Asisat Oshoala dumped Arsenal Ladies in the Women’s Super League One club to join Chinese side Dalian Quanjian.
The 22-year-old won the BBC’s Women’s Footballer of the Year Award in 2015 before joining Arsenal from Liverpool.
The Chinese attraction is not luring only Nigerians but top players from all over the world to help turn around the country’s league.
While many are wont to believe that the Chinese League is for retiring players like David Beckham, Didier Drogba and the likes, it won’t have slipped the notice of many that money talks in the world of football with the likes of AFCON 2017 MVP Christian Bassogog of Cameroon, Axel Witsel, Ricardo Carvalho, Carlos Tevez, Alexandre Pato and many others ready for the cash windfall.
Over the course of the past 12 months Jackson Martinez, Ramires, Oscar and Alex Teixeira have all moved to the Chinese Super League for a combined total of £150million.
While big names joining clubs outside Europe is nothing new, the key difference between the current crop heading to China and those packing their bags for places like America or the Middle East is that Martinez, Oscar and Teixeira are far from ageing stars.
England striker Wayne Rooney will earn £1million a week in the Far East and is set to complete his move before their transfer window closes next week Tuesday.
Past and present Nigerians in the Chinese League
Admas Kola (2004–2005 Inter Shanghai)
Samuel Ayorinde (2004 Shenyang Ginde)
Prince Ikpe Ekong (2004 Shenyang Ginde)
Benedict Akwuegbu (2006 Tianjin Teda, 2007 Qingdao Jonoon)
Henry Makinwa (2006 Tianjin Teda)
Gabriel Melkam (2006–2007 Xiamen Lanshi, 2008–2009 Changchun Yatai, 2011–2013 Qingdao Jonoon)
Deniran Ortega (2006 Chongqing Lifan)
Garba Lawal (2007 Changsha Ginde)
Obi Moneke (2008–2010 Henan Construction)
Edison Joseph (2009 Shaanxi Chanba)
Pascal Kondaponi (2009 Qingdao Jonoon)
Ernest Jeremiah Chukwuma (2009 Hangzhou Greentown)
Alfred Emuejeraye (2010 Tianjin Teda)
Akanni-Sunday Wasiu (2010 Changsha Ginde)
Victor Agali (2010 Jiangsu Sainty)
Obiora Odita (2011 Tianjin Teda)
Peter Utaka (2012–2013 Dalian Aerbin, 2013–2014 Beijing Guoan, 2014 Shanghai Shenxin)
Yakubu (2012–2013 Guangzhou R&F)
Bentley (2013 Wuhan Zall)
Aaron Samuel Olanare (2014–2015 Guangzhou R&F)
Derick Ogbu (2014–2015 Liaoning Whowin)
Daniel Chima (2015 Shanghai Shenxin)
Obafemi Martins (2016– Shanghai Greenland Shenhua)
Anthony Ujah (2016– Liaoning Whowin)
John Obi Mikel, Brown Ideye (2017– Tianjin Teda)
Odion Ighalo (2017– Changchun Yatai)