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World Cup

Emenalo supplied the cross, but can Africans tap in?

Chelsea FC Technical Director Michael Emenalo
Michael Emenalo became the highest-profile former African international at Chelsea.

When then-Chelsea coach Avram Grant turned to Michael Emenalo, his former charge at Maccabi Haifa, to join him at Stamford Bridge as an opposition scout a decade ago, not many could have imagined that he would last as long as he did, let alone rise to become one of the most powerful people in European club football.

Prior to the Nigerian's arrival, no former African international had made it through anything close to the big leagues' front door, let alone to his recently-relinquished position of technical director for the Blues, which he was promoted to in 2011.

But it has always been in Emenalo's character to achieve great things quietly. As a player, he was not the most flamboyant. He was the man who got the job done with as little fuss as possible. That was precisely how he managed to scale heights that no African before him had done, at least not one born and bred on the mother continent. Luck... and competence. 

Soon after his resignation this week, Emenalo told KweséESPN about his plans, such as they are, for the immediate future.

"I need some rest and a new challenge," Emenalo said, although in typical self-effacing fashion, he steered clear of any hints as to where that 'new challenge' would be.

Monaco has been rumoured to be that next destination, but good luck getting Emenalo to admit that. Or anything else for that matter. It is what makes him so intriguing.

As a member of the Enugu Rangers squad which won the league title in 1984, Emenalo was always marked for great things. But he decided to pursue an education at Boston University instead.

"That move reduced his national team invitations and contributed to him earning just 13 caps for the national team," Clement Nwankpa, a Nigerian football journalist, tells KweséESPN.

Despite this, Emenalo found his way into the Nigerian World Cup squad in 1994, despite not playing a single game in the qualifiers. Fortuitously for him, regular left-back Ben Iroha was injured in the opening game against Greece and Emenalo found himself thrust into the fray, playing the rest of the tournament in an exciting Nigerian team which captivated the world.

"He has always been hardworking, loyal and trustworthy," former teammate Daniel Amokachi told KweséESPN. "His relationship with Grant in the last years of his professional [playing] career helped him get the job at Chelsea and when he came, Abramovich saw the importance of Emenalo and that's why he stayed even when Grant left."

Those qualities intersected with a bit of luck, but no amount of simple good fortune keeps a man in a high-pressure job for 10 years, especially not one with a front-facing and demanding boss like Roman Abramovich.

For the most part, it all came down to Emenalo simply being good at what he does, either as an opposition scout, assistant manager, or Technical Director. He may have had his issues with some of the coaches -- notably the reported 'palpable discord' with current Chelsea coach Antonio Conte -- but on the whole, Emenalo did a more than capable job.

In doing so, he has opened the door for more former players of African origins to take a stab at dipping their feet in European waters as leading administrative men. Amokachi, who now coaches Hercules in Finland, admits that there was some influence from Emenalo for him and fellow Super Eagles Class of 94-er Sunday Oliseh to take the leap.

"Him being there was a delight for us as Africans, especially those of us who knew him closely and played with him. It was inspiring him to see him there doing so well," Amokachi says.

"It definitely tells the rest of the world that Africans can be good as administrators and coaches too, if they will just give us as much trust and support as they give their own. Look at the job my former teammate Sunday Oliseh is doing in Holland, even though he doesn't seem to get enough credit back home." 

The door may not be open wide, and it might yet take years for another African to even get a foot in the door, but Emenalo has at least turned the key. The rest will now need to push the door on their own, using his template.


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