UEFA Champions League winner and one of the greatest right footers in football history, Finidi George, in this exclusive interview with Saturday SunSports correspondent, BOLAJI OKUNOLA, revealed his ups and downs as a footballer. The former Nigerian winger opened up on various threats he received while playing the round-leather game, voices he heard before he could find the back of the net, how he joined Eagles scoring debutant, pains he passed through after his younger brother was shoot dead by unknown fan several years ago at the Lekan Salami Stadium, Ibadan, his perception about Gernot Rohr-tutored Super Eagles team, Eagles chances at the forthcoming African Cup of Nations in Egypt, his impression on the performance of his former club, Ajax, in the ongoing UEFA Champions League and lots more.
You were rated the best winger during your days, what was the secret?
I was a winger who read games and knew what to do with the ball. Playing from the flanks was not an easy thing. As a matter of fact, I see playing from the wing as the most difficult position in the field of play. A winger needs to make fast decisions on what to do with the ball.
Right from my childhood days I always practiced crossing the ball. I measured the length and the direction I wanted the ball to go. Before getting a call up to the Super Eagles in the 90s, I was known for my ability, and I think that fetched me my national team call up. Besides that, Clemence Westerhof, Bonfrere Jo and other coaches did a lot to develop me. Hard work and determination also played great parts in it. You know, as a player, you won’t love to lose your shirt to other players, so, that’s just the secret. It was not an easy task.
You hung your boots several years ago, what have you been doing since then?
I’m still part of the game. Football is my life. I don’t think I can do without it. Nine years ago, I became a director of international football in Betis, in Spain, although that’s the club I joined after I left Ajax. I have also acquired coaching certificates from various football bodies. I am now more exposed to the coaching aspect of the game. With this idea, I’ve revealed I won’t mind tutoring the Nigeria underage team. My experience as a youth coach in Mallorca FC of Spain will also help me with the boys. I’m driven to give something back to the country. I wish to impact what I have learnt working with age-group teams.
What inspired you while playing for the Super Eagles?
Back then, there was not much money in the game unlike now when footballers are millionaires, because the game is now big business all over the world. Passion is the only thing we had back then. We all wanted to wear the national team jersey to make the fans proud. We never knew we could go far, but thank God for where we are today. With passion, we won the ‘94 African Cup of Nations in Tunisia, and we also made our first appearance at the World Cup.
But, today, everything has really changed. I can still say it anywhere, that our set remains the best Nigeria ever produced. We were driven by passion, from the goalkeeper to the attackers. Even the coach also did the best for us to showcase our talents, and the fans were glad we shocked the world in grand style.
How come Eagles were unable to tame Italy at the knockout stage of the USA ‘94 FIFA World Cup, despite leading with five minutes left to play?
Like I normally say, you have to be focused in football. We lost focus in the dying minutes of the game and we paid for it. Although the Italians were more experienced and exposed than us, that never stopped us from beating them. We were ranked the best in Africa and the Italians were scared of us. We had a team with the most clinical finisher in Africa, Rashidi Yekini, in the attack, Austin ‘Jay Jay’ Okocha in the midfield, Amuneke and myself supporting from the flanks. I’m sure if we were told to replay the game, we will wreck the Italian team. People still see us as heroes for forcing the Roberto Baggio-inspired team into extra time. But, let’s just keep receiving accolades because that competition was our first world cup appearance. With time, I see Nigeria getting to the final stage of the competition.
Can you reveal a little on your Super Eagles debut?
I saw hell on my Super Eagles debut. The fans never stopped threatening me. I made my debut against Burkina Faso and I never believed I could make such an impact. I was so scared. The match was played in Lagos.
The fans issued so many threats at me. I was hearing different voices and languages from the fans. Then, Lagos was the home ground of the Super Eagles. And thank God I was able to win their hearts when I scored in the game and made several assists for legendary Rashidi Yekini. I remember we whitewashed Burkina Faso 7-1. And the fans turned their name around to “Burkina Suffer.” Assuming I failed to score or I fumbled on the pitch, who knows, I might have been killed the way my younger brother Iginaware was killed by an unknown fan in Ibadan after a league match. But I thank God for where I am today, and the country still recognizes me as a living legend.
How did you feel when your brother was killed at the Lekan Salami stadium in Ibadan, in 1995?
I don’t want to talk about that please. It’s a gone issue. All the government has to do is to provide a good security during league matches. That’s all I have to say about that painful incident. It’s been long, and I don’t like talking about it.
Do you think the Super Eagles will excel at the forthcoming African Cup of Nations in Egypt?
Why not? The team is still young. Gernot Rohr is lucky to have such a young team. They have what it takes to excel. What can one say about a team that grabbed an AFCON ticket with a game to spare. Let’s just keep supporting the team. They have the potential to do well. It all depends on mindset. If one goes into a competition with a right mindset, he or she will surely excel. Let’s just keep our fingers crossed and see how it goes. The players have to rely on a particular playing style, and, by so doing, I tip them to excel in Egypt.
John Obi Mikel has continued to snub the Super Eagles; do you think Rohr still needs him in the team?
Sincerely speaking, I don’t know the situation concerning his availability; but, he is a respected captain, and if his current form is okay, then, it’s a plus for the team. He doesn’t need to play all the qualifiers to join the team. He could be with the team even if he doesn’t get 90 minutes in all games; he could just help them in team building because he is a player other colleagues respect and the young ones can learn from. But, as a coach, you need to speak to him before the tournament and clarify his role in the tournament, to avoid a possible burst up; and if he agrees, then, for me, it will be a massive boost for the country in Egypt.
You are the first Nigerian to win the UEFA Champions League with Ajax. How was the feeling?
Smile! I wasn’t the only one; Nwankwo Kanu was also in the Ajax team of ‘95. I was very happy to lift the trophy. Having said that, I was not the only key player back then. The likes of Edwin Van dar Sar, Kluivert, Overmars, Edger Davies and others were part of the success. Ajax is known to be nursery for future stars, even till now. As a matter of fact, we also made it to the final of the tournament during the following season, but, sadly, we lost to Juventus. Hard work was our secret back then. You know, we were all young and willing to make names. Our record still stands firm in Holland.
Ajax will be facing Juventus in the quarterfinal stage of the UEFA Champions League; do you think they have a chance against the Christian Ronaldo inspired team?
Ajax has a very young squad. I believe they have what it takes to beat Juventus. Quite a lot of people were saying they luckily beat Real Madrid, but I see them proving critics wrong. The boys know what’s at stake. Their camp spirit is high. I see them as a team willing to make name. I’ve been following the team since I left Netherlands several years ago.
They have a game plan, pattern and style. They are always hungry for goal. If they make use of their chances just the way they did against Real Madrid, then, I see them proceeding to the final stage. From the beginning, I know they will go far because it’s been a while the team made it to the bigger stage of a competition like the UEFA Champions League. I urge them to keep their hopes high, believe in themselves and remain fearless against their rivals. Ronaldo is also a player like others. I think they can still tame him if they remain fearless. He’s currently nursing an injury and I think they can take that as an advantage.