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The five best Nigerian players to grace the Premier League

The birth of the Premier League in 1992 created a truly global sporting phenomenon. Prior to the rebrand, the vast majority of players in the old Division One were born and had played all their football in the UK.

In fact, in 1992, there were only 13 players in the whole competition that could be classed as being ‘foreign’, with the vast majority of those being from Europe. Today it is a much different story, with players from all four corners of the globe gracing the league.

And it is perhaps the rise of the number of African players at the top level in England that has been the most noticeable, with stars from nations in the north of the continent the best represented. Algeria has produced 15 Premier League players, for example.

But in this article we will be focusing on the Nigerian players who have played in the Premier League, from the trailblazers who set the course during the late nineties, to the stars of recent years who have challenged for silverware and played for England’s elite clubs.

Nwankwo Kanu

Nwankwo Kanu made his Premier League debut just before the turn of the century, arriving at Arsenal after making a name for himself with two of Europe’s other club superpowers, Ajax and Inter Milan. Kanu captivated fans with his skill level and ability to hold on to the ball in tight spaces and he was especially effective as an impact player, being introduced from the bench in the vast majority of matches. The Owerri-born star won the Premier League and the FA Cup multiple times during his time with the Gunners, cementing his reputation as a true legend of the club.

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Jay-Jay Okocha

Another player who can fairly be described as a legend of his club is Jay-Jay Okocha. Unlike Kanu, Okocha was not a part of a team that regularly challenged for trophies, but his legacy is perhaps just as golden. A veteran of more than 120 appearances for Bolton Wanderers, Okocha is recognised as one of the finest dribblers of the ball in Premier League history. Okocha was a key factor in their ability to overperform season after season, even captaining them to a League Cup Final.

Yakubu Ayegbeni

It would be a harsh but fair criticism to suggest that the two players we’ve named above didn’t have the greatest eye for goal – Kanu managed 30 in 6 seasons – but that label does not apply to this man, who bagged 95 goals in 252 top-level appearances. Yakubu got his Premier League start with Portsmouth, before enjoying illustrious spells with Middlesbrough, Everton and Blackburn, helping him become the top-scoring Nigerian to play in England.

Jon Obi Mikel​​​​​​​

Mikel arrived at Chelsea amid high expectations in 2006, and he certainly lived up to the hype, making 250 appearances for the Blues and helping them to two Premier League titles, three FA Cups, a League Cup, as well as triumphs on the continent in the Champions League and Europa League.

His silverware haul saw him eclipse Kanu as the most decorated Nigerian Premier League player. He left Chelsea after 11 years to take up an opportunity in China, before returning to England two years later to play for Middlesbrough in the Championship. The Blues have remained competitive after his departure and were one of the favourites to finish in a Champions League spot in the football betting prior to the break.

Celestine Babayaro​​​​​​​

The final name on our list also made his name at Chelsea, making more than 130 Premier League appearances between 1997 and 2005, before passing the torch to fellow countryman Mikel. Babayaro was known for his reliability and creativity on the left side of the pitch, working tirelessly to lay a platform for his team-mates. He was beloved by the Stamford Bridge faithful for his acrobatic goal celebrations, even though it was usually his team-mates finishing off the chances!

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The five players on our list have enhanced the Premier League and elevated Nigeria’s own footballing reputation. Stars like Kanu and Okocha paved the way for players like Mikel to make a serious impression in England – and it is without doubt that more will follow in the years and decades to come.