Football took him out of Nigeria then education sent Michael Emenalo out of Africa to the United States where he earned a degree in International Relations and Political Science. Today, he sits atop the most talked about league in the world. Emenalo got a fantastic present on July 12, 2023, barely two days to his 58th birthday on July 14.
Named Director of Football, Saudi Pro League (SPL), the world has been revolving around him and the class of stars that have moved to the Middle East nation these past few months. When Christian Ronaldo flew to Saudi Arabia, it sounded normal. He is in the last years of his great career. Then Emenalo arrived and the pilgrimage began.
Money began to speak and from the old generation of Karim Benzema, younger cleats began to march into the soccer fields of Riyadh. Brazilian superstar, Neymar, hit town, the France World Cup winner, N’Golo Kante, announced his presence. Senegal’s AFCON winning captain, Sadio Mane, showed up, as did Liverpool’s skipper, Jordan Henderson.
Kylian Mbappe’s heart is there although his legs are still in Paris. Mohammed Salah will likely taste more Arabian meals in the very near future. The cash is liquid. Out of nowhere Saudi clubs have so far spent 701. 3 million pounds doing this neo-business to outshine many already established leagues in Europe.
Super Eagles captain, Ahmed Musa and former Nigerian international striker, Odion Ighalo, have seen life in the Middle East. They may not be in the class of Neymar and Mane but this Saudi rebirth will draw more Nigerians to that part of Asia where soccer and oil will be dining on the same million dollar table. The Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) must get close to Emenalo now.
There is so much to benefit from partnership with the Saudi Super League. Destination Europe will be mentioned quite alright but with change elsewhere, attraction is guaranteed.
To improve the Nigerian Football League, there should be more emphasis on academies. Emenalo is an expert in that field. As Technical Director at former European champions, Chelsea, between 2011 and 2017, he turned around the Academy, did well with scouting and brought life to the Women’s section. Emenalo’s time at Chelsea drew such household names as Eden Hazard, Mo Salah, Kevin de Bruyne, Cesc Fabregas, Juan Mata, N’Golo Kante and Thibaut Courtois, to Stamford Bridge.
After leaving the Blues, he moved to Monaco, France in the same capacity, from 2017 to 2019. The positive is that with so much money pumped into the SPL and the quality of players plying their trade there, younger Nigerians will also weigh their options and may end up in Saudi Arabia ahead of China, Eastern Europe and the United States. Emenalo’s story will inspire others.
He began his journey from Abba Technical College in the Nwangele Local Government Area of Imo State although he hails from the Orlu area. His first major club was Enyimba, not as the Elephants are known today. In the early 1980s, the Aba Ngwa Boys struggled.
He crossed over to Enugu Rangers in 1983 where he spent two years before relocating to the United States for further studies. Emenalo was focused on what he wanted to safeguard his future. After education, he went back to soccer in 1989, from RWD Molenbeek, Belgium to Entreicht Trier 05, Germany, the journey continued to Nott’s County in England. Injuries did not help his professional career.
Emenalo was in Asia playing for Maccabi Tel Aviv in Israel before he ended up in the US with San Jose Clash. Education served its purpose so effectively. Football, combined with a degree, led him to places. It would be naive to place the SPL on the same pedestal as America’s Major League Soccer (MLS), Japan’s J-League or the Chinese Super League.
The Americans have not really gone beyond the Public Relations effect of Pele and Franz Beckenbauer. The Japs did well to lure former Argentine international midfielder, Sergio Batista; one time England skipper, Gary Lineker; former France international defender, Basile Boli and Junior, a former Brazilian international, among many others. However, with Emenalo, the Saudis mean business.
After that historic 2-1 defeat of eventual champions, Argentina, at the Qatar 2022 World Cup, and the presence of former Italy manager, Roberto Mancini, as new Saudi national team boss, change surely cannot be a one-off thing. Emenalo is eminently equipped for the task ahead. He played at the World Cup in 1994 and has some coaching experience.
At Chelsea he was an assistant coach. Europeans know this and the Nigerian having worked in London and Monaco will combine so much from different settings. Younger Nigerians have something to be proud of and be inspired to believe in themselves. The news is not only about fellow countrymen being beheaded in Medina on account of drug trafficking.
It is about another Nigerian heading the Saudi League. An Aba Boy rising beyond his environment to lead in a very big way. Who knows, there could be more to gain from Emenalo’s appointment. The NFF should think of sending some of their own to the SPL to learn a few football tricks. There is no better opportunity than now that a Nigerian is calling the shots at the head of the multi-billion Saudi football pyramid.