George Finidi: What could have been

George Finidi: What could have been

Standing at six foot three inches, George Finidi was one of Nigeria’s most exciting talents of the 1990s. He was regarded as one of the best number 7s in the game, following his Champions League win with Ajax and described by Roberto Carlos as one of his toughest opponents. On the international stage, with Nigeria, he was a standout figure in their 1994 African Cup of Nations win and World Cup campaign in America – Nigeria’s first-ever appearance in the finals. Known by Ajax fans as ‘The Gazelle’ for his imposing physique, tied together with his blistering pace, he enjoyed his most successful years at the Amsterdam club. That was before a move to Real Betis in 1996 signalled the start of his decline. What could have been. 

Born in a family with 11 brothers, Finidi, which means ‘future full of sun’ in his native language, grew up in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. Here, in the country’s fifth-largest city, Finidi played for three clubs as a right-winger. His potential cried out for a bigger stage with better competition to challenge him. This led to his first big move in 1993, as Ajax of Amsterdam secured not only his signature but that too of Finidi’s compatriot, Nwankwo Kanu. Finidi was scouted by the club whilst away training with Nigeria at their Dutch camp, whilst Kanu was signed on the back of a standout U-17 World Championships. 

Two of Nigeria’s most promising players had become trailblazers as well as future inspirations for those African footballers who would go on to take a similar route in the years that followed. Former Ajax teammate, Marc Overmars, described the arrival of Findi and Kanu as: “They had something that we didn’t have. We had all learned how to play football on the streets, but their football upbringing was much more raw, and you can see how they benefitted from that.” Immediately, they earned the respect of the dressing room. 

During the 1993-94 season, Finidi and Kanu started well for Ajax, with both scoring goals and winning over fans with their performances. Their coach, Louis Van Gaal, deployed a 3-4-3 system, which gave the team great success. Marc Overmars on the left and Finidi on the right made for exciting displays. In his first season, Finidi scored four times as Ajax won the Eredivisie. 

That summer came the World Cup Nigeria had long awaited. Drawn in a group with Bulgaria, Greece, and Argentina, the Super Eagles won two of their three matches, topping the group. In doing so, they captured the attention of the footballing world. Finidi started every match and scored in their 2-0 win over Greece, a goal that he celebrated by dropping on all fours before cocking his leg, imitating a dog urinating. It added to the likeability of a team enjoying their first appearance in football’s greatest tournament. 

In the last-16 they came up against Italy. Nigeria took a surprise lead against the team tipped to win the World Cup, through Emmanuel Amunike and were on the cusp of a great upset. That was until a Baggio stoppage-time brace ended their dream and knocked out Nigeria. Even though they had fallen short, the team set the foundations for the future, and George Finidi had gained plaudits for his performances. 

After an exciting summer, Finidi and Kanu relished the opportunity to play in Europe’s elite club competition, the UEFA Champions League. Together, they were instrumental in the team’s success in this competition. In the semi-final second leg against Bayern Munich, Finidi scored in the 5-2 aggregate win to progress to the final, where they met the holders, AC Milan. A young Patrick Kluivert scored in the 85th minute and Ajax won their fourth and most recent Champions League title, with Finidi at the heart of it all. 

During this time, Finidi suffered from the loss of his younger brother, Igeniwari George, who was killed amid crowd trouble at a football match in Nigeria. Another promising footballer, Igeniwari had been a member of Nigeria’s U-17 World Cup team in the August before his death in 1995. Finidi described the ordeal as “a terrible experience; I got the news of his death hours before an away game for Ajax. Van Gaal asked me if I could play or I needed some time off but I told him I want to play." The George family still do not know who killed Igeniwari. Finidi had to grieve in his own time, away from his family, in Holland. 

Heartbroken and feeling lost, Finidi decided to deal with this news by playing regularly. In the following campaign, Ajax won a third straight Eredivisie and reached the Champions League final again, this time losing to Juventus. Following the defeat, the factions between Finidi and Van Gaal were there for all to see. Ajax signed another Nigerian winger, Tijani Babangida, which threatened Finidi’s place in the side and his spot in the Nigerian team. There was no choice but to find a new club. 

Plenty of suitors enquired about Finidi, most notably Manchester United and Real Madrid. The latter came close but the move went cold. Instead, it was another Spanish side, Real Betis, who decided to move for the Super Eagle on 10th July 1996. Their president at the time, Manuel Ruiz de Lopera, wanted to invest in the Andalusian side and made Finidi their main signing. In reality, this was a step-down for Finidi, but he had his guarantee of regular game time and a future full of sun ahead of him. 

The winger raised the standards for the Béticos and pushed the side to a fourth-place finish in the table, as well as reaching the final of the Copa del Rey. In the final, he was on the scoresheet but the side slipped to a 3-2 extra-time defeat to Barcelona. This first season showed Finidi’s ability to connect with the fans. Whenever he scored at home, Finidi celebrated by putting on a Cordovan hat, a nod to former Betis midfielder, Eduardo Anzarda, who did the same during the 1970s. 

After over-achieving in the 1996-97 season, Betis began their steady decline, before being relegated from the Spanish top-flight in 2000. They had to make cutbacks and Finidi departed for RCD Mallorca, having played 152 times and scoring 44 goals for the Andalusians. 

Following a steady season at Mallorca, Finidi moved to England, with Ipswich Town in 2001. Manager at the time, George Burley signed him for £3.1 million as the side looked to build on their fifth-place finish in the previous Premier League season. Ipswich underperformed, with the side relegated at the end of the season and Finidi being criticised for failing to bring instant success. He was released in 2003 before having his last dance with Mallorca for a season before retiring. 

In his retirement, Finidi had a spell as director of international football at Real Betis, before completing his coaching badges. Once seen as Nigeria’s greatest wingers, Finidi is now looking to coach Nigeria’s youth team- "As I continue to look at other options out there, I am open and will not shut the doors to Nigeria” Finidi told the BBC in January.

Words by Owen Mawer