As the Nigeria legend reaches 50, Goal ask whether he should have achieved more during his club career
Ajax’s 1994/95 history-making campaign will never be forgotten. The entertaining Dutch side not only triumphed domestically, they also repeated the trick on the continent by winning their only European title of the Champions League era.
It’s also been the only win in Europe for any side from the Netherlands since the tournament’s change in format, which underlines the importance of that achievement by Louis van Gaal’s young team.
One of the mainstays in that side was Finidi George, the right winger who was a vital component of the team that went unbeaten at home and on the continent over a 45-game run.
That feat had hitherto never been attained and no other team has matched that achievement by de Godenzonen since. They netted a staggering 106 goals domestically while a further 18 strikes came in Europe.
The Nigerian wideman was one of the three non-EU players in van Gaal’s team, alongside countryman Nwankwo Kanu, and his wing role was one of the important features of that Ajax side.
While LVG tended to utilise the 3-4-3 with a midfield diamond, the tactic sometimes morphed into a 4-3-3 whenever Frank Rijkaard dropped into the defence. There were several fascinating aspects to that side but the wing play of Finidi on the right and Marc Overmars on the other side made for interesting viewing.
Both were instructed to maintain the width with little or no creative freedom…this was to prove significant in the Nigerian’s departure.
Perhaps the standout performance in their European run was the 5-2 semi-final second leg thrashing of Bayern Munich at the Olympic Stadium.
After a dour goalless game in Munich, the reverse fixture in Amsterdam was open and produced seven goals, with Finidi’s probably the best of the bunch. Having drifted infield from his wide right position, he received a pass from the two-footed Overmars on the edge of the box, before firing a thunderous effort into the top right corner of the goal. It was his first and only goal in Europe that season.
Ajax won the league and triumphed on the continent, but the Nigeria winger wasn’t happy with his manager’s seemingly mechanical style which focused on the collective than any one individual. Van Gaal didn’t want his wingers taking on multiple players, rather he mostly shunted them out wide in a somewhat rigid system.
The absence of expression in van Gaal’s system was frustrating to Finidi and he was robbed of any sort of individualism at the time.
While that probably contributed to his departure after Ajax’s Champions League final defeat by AC Milan in 1996, the decision to move to Real Betis was likely more damaging to the winger’s career.
Admittedly, he led Betis from eighth-place in the previous campaign to a fourth-place finish in 96/97, as well as a runners-up spot in the Copa Del Rey, yet moving to La Liga ultimately proved the pre-cursor to a downwards trend in his career.
After the brief Dutch revival in the mid-90s, power switched hands in the latter part of the decade, with Italy becoming the strongest nation in Europe.
Even though Italian sides only enjoyed Champions League success twice in the 90s, they were largely consistent throughout that time and were also rated as the top league in Uefa’s co-efficient ranking, whereas the Spanish league was third.
While the wideman reportedly disagreed with van Gaal over the freedom he was afforded in that Ajax side, he did enjoy more carte blanche at Betis, but the side were to get relegated in 1999/00 having failed to match 1997’s fourth-place finish in subsequent years.
A 12-month spell at Mallorca followed, before a brief stint in the Premier League with Ipswich Town, who also suffered relegation, with Finidi still remembered as one of English football’s most high profile flops.
The 1994 Africa Cup of Nations winner formed part of the Ajax side that won hearts in the mid-90s but he never really built on that following his departure from Amsterdam.
Birthday boy Finidi is fondly remembered in Seville following his spell at Betis, however that move hurt his career as he failed to truly hit the expected heights after success in 1995.