Last week, Super Eagles midfielder Frank Onyeka was in the news after he named ex-Nigeria captain Austin Jay-Jay Okocha as the best Nigerian to play in the Premier League.
Onyeka revealed this while answering fans' questions in an interview with Premier League uncut. The Brentford midfielder cited Okocha's skills on the ball as his reason for choosing Okocha as the best Nigerian export ever in the Premier League. Onyeka even went further to call Okocha the best African dribbler the Premier League has ever seen, ranking him ahead of Manchester City's Riyad Mahrez.
In fairness, it is hard to fault Onyeka's choice. Okocha remains arguably the most talented player Nigeria has ever produced. He was famous for his trickery, dribbling skills and doing things out of the ordinary. Although he never played for Europe's traditional big clubs, Okocha was admired by fans and colleagues during his playing days.
Brazil and Barcelona legend Ronaldinho once said he was his favourite number ten. Ex-Liverpool and England star said he could watch the former Nigerian star all day.
Okocha was one of the many Nigerians (past and present) to play in the Premier League. Since its inception in 1992, the English top-flight has been home to many Nigerian stars.
For Okocha, he arrived in the league in 2002 after signing with Bolton. Okocha spent four years with the Trotters and was a cult hero at the club.
In his first season at the club, he single-handedly saved Bolton from relegation. His free-kick against Middlesbrough still lives long in the memory of fans.
During his time in the Premier League, Okocha wowed fans with his tricks, skills and dribbles. Players like Ray Parlour, Roy Keane and Paul Scholes were on the receiving end of Okocha's famous skills.
At the end of his four-year spell with Bolton, Okocha's impact was felt. It was no surprise when he was named the best player to play at the Reebok/Macron Stadium.
It is also important to note that Okocha's move to Bolton contributed to the popularity of the Premier Lague in Nigeria. Nigerians became more invested in Bolton's result. Okocha was so good that UK rapper, M.I.A, referenced him in the Blacqstarr remix of her hit song Paper Planes.
Okocha's eligibility as the best Nigerian player in the Premier League
However, while all these things highlight Okocha's greatness, is he the best Nigerian player to play in the Premier League?
The obvious answer is no. Although the best/greatest of all time is always a subjective debate in any field, there are some situations where it is easy to make a case for someone.
While Okocha was a very talented player and a fan favourite, he is not the best Nigerian export in Premier League history, considering the achievements of others.
As stated above, Nigerian players (past and present) are no strangers to the Premier League, but some have stood out better than others.
While Okocha is one of the brilliant players, there are three players that achieved more than him. Although their talent may not be on the same pedestal, Kanu Nwankwo, Yakubu Aiyegbeni and John Mikel Obi all fared better than Okocha in the Premier League.
Kanu trumps Okocha
Like Okocha, Kanu also made the league popular in Nigeria after he moved to Arsenal from Inter Milan in 1999. In fact, Kanu is one of the many reasons why Arsenal have a lot of fans in Nigeria.
Kanu is also equally gifted as Okocha, but he won more in England. The ex-Nigerian international won two Premier League titles with Arsenal, including the invincibles. In contrast, Okocha did not win a trophy in England, although he reached the League Cup final.
While arguments could be made for Okocha as Bolton are not on the same pedestal as Arsenal, Kanu still fared better when he left the Gunners.
The ex-Inter Milan striker joined West Brom before signing for Portsmouth after leaving Arsenal. These two clubs are on the same wavelength as Bolton, yet Kanu still showed his quality, winning the FA Cup with Portsmouth.
In terms of numbers, Okocha, although a midfielder, did not do enough, scoring just 14 goals and recording 11 assists in 124 league games. In contrast, Kanu scored 54 goals and provided 29 assists in 273 appearances.
Not only that, Kanu had more unforgettable moments, including his hat-trick against Chelsea.
What about Mikel?
Moving away from Kanu, Mikel is another player who could claim Nigeria's best player ever in the Premier League.
Although he never had individual moments like Okocha or Kanu, Mikel was a strong presence in the Chelsea team that dominated the league in the mid-2000s and early 2010.
After struggling as a youngster in his first two years, Mikel became a regular figure in Chelsea's team, bringing calmness to their midfield.
He was trusted by every manager that managed Chelsea, from Jose Mourinho to Carlo Ancelotti. He also helped to boost the popularity of Chelsea among Nigerian fans.
The 35-year-old was also the definition of longevity, making 249 league appearances and winning two titles.
Another Nigerian star who stood out is Aiyegbeni. Before Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane obliterated all records, Aiyegbeni was once the third-highest scoring African in Premier League history. He scored a total of 95 goals and recorded 25 assists in 252 appearances.
It is even more impressive, considering Aiyegbeni reached these numbers without playing for any of the top six sides. In his time in the Premier League, Aiyegbeni played for Portsmouth, Middlesbrough, Everton, and Blackburn Rovers.
The only thing missing in Aiyegbeni's collection is a lack of title, but he was also a fan favourite at every club he played for. The Nigerian even had a chant dedicated to his goalscoring skill.
Who is Nigeria's best-ever player in the Premier League?
It is hard to look past Kanu. While Mikel did well at Chelsea and Aiyegbeni's goals put him in a strong position, only Kanu ticks all boxes.
He was exciting to watch, popular, influential, scored goals and won titles. With all these factors, Kanu is only the right answer.
Nonetheless, all the players deserve praise for what they did in the league..