Top ten: Kanu, Taribo and the greatest Nigerian stars to never win the Afcon

Nigeria first won the Africa Cup of Nations on home soil in 1980 before subsequent triumphs at Tunisia ’94 and South Africa 2013.

Between those historic years were excellent players who strived but could not lead the West African giants to victory at the continental showpiece.

Soccernet shines the light on ten of the best whose endeavours merited a Cup win but who did not manage to bring it home.

1. Nwankwo Kanu
Afcon record: one silver medal, four bronze medals

There is a reason why Kanu is the most celebrated Nigerian footballer in history – the Arsenal legend is the most decorated footballer to ever come out of the West African nation.

Kanu won everything from the UEFA Champions League, the UEFA Cup, the Eredivisie, the English Premier League, the FA Cup, the Olympic gold medal, to the U-17 World Cup. Almost everything.

The most significant winner’s medal missing from the former Ajax man’s trophy cabinet is the Africa Cup of Nations.

Kanu narrowly missed the triumphant party in 1994 and came closest in 2000 when the Super Eagles finished as runners-up to Cameroon on home soil.

The iconic striker never stopped trying until after the 2010 edition, but an incredible haul of four bronze medals is all he has to show for his endeavours.

2. Julius Aghahowa
Afcon record: one silver medal, three bronze medals

Fresh from impressing at Nigeria ’99 World Youth Championship, Julius Aghahowa was a squad member as the Super Eagles failed at the last hurdle of the Afcon the following year.

However, Mali 2002 could easily be tagged the Aghahowa show as the former Wigan striker almost single-handedly dragged a Shaibu Amodu-led Eagles to a bronze medal finish.

The then 19-year-old forward netted three times to emerge as the competitions’ joint-top scorer with three goals, earning his place in the tournament’s best eleven.

3. Ike Shorunmu
Afcon record: one silver medal, two bronze medals

Ike Shorunmu was a member of the Nigerian side that finished in third place at the 1992 Afcon in Senegal, but he narrowly missed the all-conquering Nigerian party at Tunisia ’94.

A long wait till the year 2000 was, however, rewarded with a silver medal as the Super Eagles lost to the Indomitable Lions on penalties.

Shorunmu earned another bronze in 2002 to seal his spot among Nigeria’s greatest goalkeepers.

4. Celestine Babayaro
Afcon record: one silver medal, two bronze medals

Arguably Nigeria’s most outstanding full-back, Celestine Babayaro was destined for greatness after he helped the Golden Eaglets triumph at the 1993 cadet World Cup in Japan.

He also played a crucial role as Nigeria won the Olympic gold medal at Atlanta ’96, after which he sealed a move to Chelsea, where he spent the majority of his career.

Babayaro made his Afcon debut at Ghana/Nigeria 2000, where he picked up a runners-up medal. He never reached that height again as third-place finishes followed in 2002 and 2004 before he faded from the scene.

5. Taribo West
Afcon record: one silver medal, one bronze medal

Renowned for his tough-tackling, no-nonsense style of defending, Taribo West was for many years Nigeria’s best defender in the late nineties and early twenties.

West won national and continental honours with Italian, French, and Serbian clubs, and he was instrumental in Nigeria winning the football event of the Atlanta ’96 Olympics.

But Afcon gold eluded West, whose debut at the tournament was a defeat to Cameroon at the 2000 final. 

The former Inter Milan ace returned to make the CAF Team of the Tournament at Mali 2002, but he could only take a bronze medal home.

6. Tijani Babangida
Afcon record: one silver medal, one bronze medal

A consummate right-winger in the mould of former Arsenal star Marc Overmars, Babangida was a delight to watch for many years down the flanks.

An Atlanta ’96 hero, Babangida won trophies in the Netherlands and Turkey and amassed over 30 international caps.

The Kaduna-born attacker only made his African Nations Cup debut in 2000, winning a silver medal. Babangida then added a bronze at the next edition in Mali.

7. Peter Odemwingie
Afcon record: three bronze medals

Born in Tashkent, Soviet Union, Peter Osaze Odemwingie could have represented Russia, but he chose to represent Nigeria, where his father was born.

The former Lille lad did not regret that decision as he represented the country over 60 times, including at two World Cups and four Africa Cup of Nations.

Now retired from active football, Odemwingie’s trophy cabinet should display that fine silver medal won at the 2008 Olympics, and three Afcon bronze medals claimed at Tunisia ’04, Egypt ’06, and Angola ’10.

8. Yakubu Aiyegbeni
Afcon record: three bronze medals

Love him or hate him, Aiyegbeni remains one of the most prolific Nigerian strikers of the twenty-first century.

The ex-Portsmouth hitman is the highest Nigerian and the fourth-highest African goalscorer in Premier League history with 96 goals.

Only Rashidi Yekini and Segun Odegbami have scored more goals than ‘The Yak’ in the history of the Nigeria national football team.

He also featured for Nigeria at four African Cup of Nations tournaments, the 2010 FIFA World Cup, and the 2000 Summer Olympic.

But Aiyegbeni’s goals could not power Nigeria’s hunt for Afcon glory as the Suoer Eagles settled for bronze medals at three of the four tournaments he participated in.

9. John Utaka
Afcon record: two bronze medals

For more than a decade, Utaka was one of Nigeria’s most enterprising wingers, combining pace, power, and an excellent technique on the ball.

Having played for a host of clubs in Egypt, Qatar, England, and France, Utaka won titles in each country and was a regular for the Super Eagles.

The former Montpellier, Lens, and Rennes forward helped Nigeria make it to two World Cups and three Africa Cup of Nations.

But after near-misses at the Afcon, Utaka, who began his career at Enugu Rangers, can look with pride at his two bronze medals.

10. Obafemi Martins
Afcon record: two bronze medals

Fast, diminutive, agile, and quick on the ball, Martins was a terror to defenders in the Italian Serie A, the English Premier League, the German Bundesliga, the Spanish La Liga, the MLS, and the Chinese Super League.

Super Eagles fans loved to see Martins on the field: the Lagos-born striker gave his all for the green-white kit every time, packed a fierce shot in his left foot, and you could miss his goal but never his acrobatic celebrations.

But hard as he tried, the Afcon trophy eluded Martins with two bronze medals, all he has to show for his 11-year dedicated service to the nation.

Afcon’s best unlucky Eagles XI: (3-4-3)
Shorunmu; Odiah, Taribo, Babayaro; Oruma, Odemwingie, Utaka, Babangida; Aghahowa, Kanu, Aiyegbeni.

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