Nigerian footballers were first choice with teams like Ajax and Arsenal but now just any team any where would do, writes 'TANA AIYEJINA in this special report.
In the mid 1980s, former Super Eagles captain Stephen Keshi started the mass exodus of Nigerian players to Belgium. Having been banned alongside some other players for reporting late to camp by the Nigerian Football Association, in 1984. Keshi moved to Cote d'Ivoire in 1985 and played first for Stade d' Abidjan and then Africa Sports.
His impressive performances caught the eye of Belgian side Lokeren, who snapped him up in 1986.Again he impressed there and in no due course, opened the door for multitudes of other Nigerian players to play football in the European country. In fact, Belgium was then referred to as the 'Mecca of Nigerian footballers.'
Today, there's a new trend. Nigerian players are now flooding the lowly Vietnamese league for greener pastures, an indication of the dwindling fortunes of the country's footballers.
According to statistics, Brazil and Nigeria dominate the list of foreign players in the Asian country.
While Brazil has 19 players in the V-League, as the Vietnamese topflight is known, Nigeria comes second with 13 players. In the first division, both countries have 15 players each.
The likes of former U-23 captain Adebowale Ogungbure, another former U-23 defender Ejike Izuagha and Olusola Aganun, who was once a hit in the Austrian topflight, now ply their trade in Vietnam.
Well, some may argue that the above mentioned players may be in their prime and are in Vietnam for their final pay day having played previously in Europe. But what about the likes of 2007 U-17 World Cup winner Ganiyu Oseni, Osas Idehen (21), 2005 Nigerian league top scorer and former Lobi Stars striker Timothy Anjembe, Onome Sodje (22) and other youngsters who have flocked the country for greener pastures?
The players have made their impact felt positively on the pitch, though. At the moment, Samson Kayode, who plays for Dong Thap, is the third highest scorer in the V-League with 13 goals. Abdullahi Suleiman, who plays for first division An Giang is also third in the lower league with 11 goals.
What makes Vietnam a lucrative market for Nigerian and other foreign footballers there?
Well, it's not far-fetched. Despite Vietnam being a poor country, foreign footballers earn considerably well. Last season alone, about 70 foreigners competed for 14 V-League teams with monthly salaries of between US$5,000 and $12,000.
Aganun, who was recruited by Dong Thap FC with a salary of around $3,000 last year, recently signed for Hoa Phat Ha Noi after a successful season, where he netted 10 goals for Dong Thap.
The former Wacker Tirol powerful forward is reported to have signed for the Hanoian team for a salary of around $7,000 a month.
Anjembe, who played for Dong Thap last year, also moved to Hoa Phat Ha Noi after a good season.
"Nigerian players are here (Vietnam) because of money," Anjembe, who has carved a niche for himself in the V-League says. "And again, the facilities here are better than what you have in Nigeria."
Former Charlton Athletic striker, Sodje, a nephew to Super Eagles defenders, Efe and Sam Sodje, admits that the standard of football in Vietnam is not comparable to what obtains in England but says the players are happy with the pay package.
He says, "Yes, the standard of the league here is not as high as in England but they pay good money to compensate for it. Football is a short career and a lot of footballers don't have a clue on what they will be doing when they retire. I don't want to be part of that group.
"I am just happy to be playing again and I like the football here because we train a lot. Football is getting harder by the second in England and Europe. There are a lot of players in Europe who are eager to come here. I am living a free life here and playing a game I love so much."
Foreign footballers actually have made the V-League more competitive since the Vietnam Football Federation launched its professional league in 2001 and allowed teams to offer contracts to foreign players.
This season, the VFF issued regulations restricting V-League teams to a maximum of four foreign players, three of whom are allowed to play at a time.
The last two years has also seen a growth in teams offering contracts to naturalised foreign players who do not affect the foreign-player quota.
In effect this means that V-League teams are permitted to play one foreign-born player, in addition to three foreign passport holding players.
In May, Amaobi Uzowuru who plays for Binh Dinh was among five foreign footballers granted citizenship by the Vietnamese government having lived in the country for at least five years. Consequently he adopted a Vietnamese name and he is now known as Dang Amaobi.
However, it's not been a bed of roses for Nigerian footballers there as some of them are reportedly roaming the streets of major cities of Vietnam after they were unable to secure contracts in the Asian country.