What Will Finidi Bring To Nigeria In World Cup Qualifiers

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Finidi was assistant to Jose Peseiro when Nigeria finished runners-up to the Ivory Coast at the 2023 AFCON Tournament.

Finidi George faces his first major tests since his appointment as Nigeria’s head coach when the Super Eagles face South Africa and Benin in qualifiers for the 2026 Fifa World Cup this week and next.

George has already overseen two friendly matches as interim boss in March, a win over fierce rivals Ghana and a defeat by Mali.

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However, the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) has described the upcoming ties, on Friday 7 and Monday 10 June respectively, as “must-win encounters” after the West Africans took just two points from their opening two qualifiers in Group C.

Napoli striker Victor Osimhen has been ruled out through injury but George can still count on attacking depth including Atalanta’s Europa League final hero Ademola Lookman and Victor Boniface, who was top scorer for German double winners Bayer Leverkusen this season.

George enjoyed a glittering playing career and, since retiring, has led Enyimba to the domestic league title while also spending 20 months as an assistant to former Nigeria boss Jose Peseiro, who impressively guided the side to the final of the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations in Ivory Coast.

But what can Super Eagles supporters expect from George in the dugout?

A man for the big moments

Ajax players Nwankwo Kanu and Finidi George hold the Uefa Champions League trophy
George (right) won the 1994-95 Uefa Champions League with Dutch club Ajax

Born in the city of Port Harcourt in southern Nigeria, George is widely considered one of the country’s greatest ever footballers.

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He belonged to the famed class of 1994 which won the Nations Cup title and made an impressive debut at the World Cup in the United States later that year, reaching the last 16.

⁠⁠The 53-year-old made his senior international debut in 1991 and earned a total of 62 caps, with six goals to his credit.

After stints with three clubs in Nigeria, George moved to Dutch giants Ajax in 1993 and won three consecutive Eredivisie titles alongside the 1994-95 Uefa Champions League under Louis van Gaal.

“He was a down-to-earth and hard-working player,” former Super Eagles team-mate Mutiu Adepoju told BBC Sport Africa.

“He had good dribbling skills and speed to overcome defenders on the wings.”

The winger was often Nigeria’s man for the big moment, scoring the crucial goal which sealed the country’s maiden qualification for the World Cup finals.

George provided the assist for Rashidi Yekini to net the country’s first ever goal at the tournament, against Bulgaria, and then found the target himself against Greece in a 2-0 win which ensured the Super Eagles finished as group winners ahead of Argentina and the Bulgarians.

George left Ajax in 1996 and spells in Spain, with Real Betis and Real Mallorca, and in England with Ipswich Town followed.

Former Ipswich midfielder Jim Magilton recalls a sense of excitement at Portman Road when the club signed the “world class” Nigerian in 2001.

“Finidi must be in the top 10 African players that have graced the game,” Magilton told BBC Sport Africa.

“The Ipswich public could not believe we had signed a player of his stature.

“Finidi was quiet in the changing room but that didn’t mean he wasn’t a leader. He was more of a man of action rather than a man of words.

“He was tall, but he was so athletic and he had this wonderful way of being able to move.”

George featured for Nigeria at four editions of the Nations Cup, also finishing as a runner-up in 2000 and with a bronze medal in 1992 and 2002.

“He’s an accomplished footballer who will be respected by the players,” former Nigeria defender Sam Sodje told BBC Sport Africa.

“Finidi has a chance with the quality of players available in the team but he’ll need support from the NFF and the players to succeed.

“He knows what the fans expect from him and he has the capacity to deliver that.”

George’s backroom staff includes Daniel Amokachi, another star of the 1994 side.

The former Everton striker returns to the Nigeria set-up after working as an assistant to the late Stephen Keshi during the victorious Nations Cup campaign in 2013.

How will Nigeria set up under George?

Super Eagles player celebrating a goal
The Super Eagles missed out on the Qatar 2022 World Cup but impressed at the Nations Cup finals earlier this year

George’s career in management has been more of a slow burn compared to his playing days.

He has experience coaching youth teams at Mallorca and Dutch side PEC Zwolle, and he also worked as a director of international football at Betis.

He was twice overlooked by the NFF for roles at age-group level but George has already had some success on home turf.

After taking charge of Enyimba in September 2021 George won his first league title in his second season – despite combining his club role with his job as an assistant to Peseiro.

“He’s like a father to us,” Enyimba’s Olorunleke Ojo, one of three goalkeepers called up for the current World Cup qualifiers, told BBC Sport Africa.

“He gives room for players to express themselves. He relates with us and jokes when necessary but when it comes to work, he doesn’t joke. Whatever he says, we do.

“He encourages and believes in hard work. I believe he will excel in the national team.”

Yet George was denied his place on the bench during both legs of Enyimba’s African Champions League qualifying matches against Libya’s Al Ahly Benghazi in July last year – a tie the Nigerian club lost 4-3 on aggregate – because he lacked the requisite coaching qualifications.

Former Barcelona winger Emmanuel Amuneke was widely considered a favourite to land the Nigeria job, largely owing to his success at the Under-17 World Cup in 2015 with a squad including outstanding talents such as Osimhen and AC Milan’s Samuel Chukwueze.

But George, described by one journalist as a man who “knows Nigerian football” was the coach the NFF put its faith in.

“If you think of the managers who coached him and the players he played with, he has a wonderful bank of knowledge and experience,” Magilton, now the manager of Northern Ireland’s Cliftonville, said.

“If he can transfer that to his players then it is no surprise to me he has now ventured into management and landed a job of such significance as the Nigerian national team coach.”

No longer able to influence matches with his own moments of magic on the pitch, George will now need to find the formula to inspire the Super Eagles back to international football’s biggest stage after the country missed out on Qatar 2022.

The BBC.

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