All eyes on Emmanuel Emenike
Some footballers have a tendency to keep journalists busy. Tabloid hacks living in South Manchester can barely risk going to sleep these days for fear of missing the latest Mario Balotelli escapade. Not too long ago it was worth many a journalist's time to sit in a bar on Merseyside, waiting for Joey Barton to turn up and punch someone.
For those of us not fortunate enough to cover Premier League football, however, a decent bet for a good headline every couple weeks or so is Spartak Moscow's Emmanuel Emenike. It's a shame that so few are aware of Emenike; when you consider his talent and his capacity to attract trouble on and off the field, the 25-year-old Nigerian is one of those can't-take-your-eye-off players. And with Spartak facing Emenike's former club, Fenerbahce, in the Champions League qualifying playoff round -- the first leg is Tuesday -- it's worth taking note.
A stocky player full of bustling intent around the penalty area, Emenike has spent the past four seasons terrorizing defenders, first in the backwaters of South Africa before heading to Turkey then settling in Russia. His 14 goals at a rate of a goal every other game since joining Spartak a year ago put him third, behind CSKA's Seydou Doumbia and Zenit's Aleksandr Kerzhakov, on the list of Russia's most potent strikers.
"He is one of the best strikers to have played in Turkey," Ahmet Ercanlar of the Hurriyet newspaper explained, seemingly without hyperbole. Those who have watched him continue to flourish in Russia have come to the same conclusions -- Emenike was voted into the Russian Premier League's team of 2011-12 having played barely half the season.
But trouble has followed him throughout his career. When Emenike tried to engineer a transfer away from Mpumalanga Black Stars in South Africa in 2008, the Nigerian Football Federation refused to release his registration details for six months, thus preventing his move.
After finally achieving his transfer to Turkey, one of the country's newspapers, Haberturk, released a picture of Emenike's passport that purported to show the player was 30 years old, not 23. Despite evidence that suggested the paper had a point, Emenike successfully sued the publication.
Even after moving to the Russian Premier League, the problems didn't stop. After being pelted with snowballs by a section of Dinamo Moscow fans this past March, Emenike flashed the middle finger -- an act that was unfortunately caught on camera. He was fined $6,250 and handed a suspended ban until the end of the season.
Two months later he accidentally went one better. After scoring for Spartak away at Zenit St Petersburg, Emenike celebrated by repeatedly tapping his right hand on his left forearm, an identical gesture to one used by Samuel Eto'o after his goal in the 2009 Champions League final. In Emenike's case, however, the referee interpreted the celebration as an offensive gesture aimed at Zenit fans behind the goal and showed him a straight red card. Despite wild protests by Emenike and Spartak, the Russian Football Union upheld his one-game ban despite bizarrely conceding that his actions were not abusive.
But the most dramatic of events to befall Emenike -- excepting his mother's attempted kidnapping just three months ago in his native Nigeria -- occurred just over a year ago in the Turkish Super Lig.
The striker was outstanding for an otherwise unfancied Karabukspor side playing its first season in the Turkish top flight in over a decade. With three games left in the season, Fenerbahce visited Karabukspor, needing a win to maintain its push for the title. So it was something of a shock when Emenike, the home side's leading goal scorer with 14 goals, was left out of the match-day squad with what was reported to be a mysterious and unidentifiable injury. Fener won the game 1-0 and went on to lift the title; a week after the season ended, Emenike completed a $11.2 million transfer to the newly crowned champions.
So far, so suspicious. Things got ugly as a match-fixing scandal emerged that eventually saw Fenerbahce president Aziz Yildirim sentenced to six years in prison and impacted dozens of other football officials, players and coaches. Fenerbahce's 18-match unbeaten run en route to lifting the 2011 league title, it seemed, wasn't all it was cracked up to be.
One of the key questions asked by prosecutors was why Emenike had missed Karabukspor's tie with Fener in early May and whether his subsequent transfer to the Istanbul club constituted a deal to buy the player's silence.
So Emenike was arrested and spent four days in an Istanbul jail. "I ate only bread and water," he later told Russian journalists, no doubt a rather sobering experience after commanding a multimillion dollar transfer fee only weeks before. "I just didn't feel like myself after that."
On July 28, 2011, eight weeks after signing for Fenerbahce and having barely trained with his new teammates, much less played a match, Emenike was sold to Spartak Moscow for $12.3 million. Despite whispers surrounding the circumstances of his hasty exit from Turkey, Emenike was cleared of any wrongdoing relating to the match-fixing scandal and has since blossomed in Moscow at the forefront of the Spartak attack.
With Emenike set to face off against his old club for the first time since joining Spartak, the buildup to Tuesday's match in the Russian press has been dominated by "will he/won't he" headlines concerning Emenike's participation, particularly as Spartak canceled a midseason training camp in Turkey in February for fear that the Nigerian might be arrested. Emenike will play in Moscow, but questions still remain over his participation in Istanbul in the second leg on Aug. 29. "It's too early to say whether Emenike will play," Spartak coach Unai Emery told the press corps on Monday.
Perhaps counterintuitively, Emenike is expected to receive a warm welcome from fans at Fenerbahce's Sukru Saracoglu Stadium. "It is said that he will be embraced by Fenerbahce fans," Ercanlar said. "It will be emotional -- they love Emenike very much."
That view was echoed by another Turkish football writer, Ahmet Turgut. "The match in Istanbul will be emotional for him and the Fenerbahce fans," he commented. Furthermore, the Turkish side has less reason to lament having sold Emenike now that former Liverpool striker Dirk Kuyt has joined the club. Kuyt has scored four goals in his first four matches for Fenerbahce, a record as enviable as that of the Nigerian.
Aside from the Emenike factor, Fenerbahce has extra motivation to succeed against Spartak, having been excluded from the Champions League last season by UEFA in the wake of the match-fixing scandal.
But consider the irony that Emenike, whose controversial transfer to Fenerbahce contributed to that decision, could play a key role for a second consecutive season in denying the Turkish side a place in the group stages.
Emenike has been one hell of a script writer so far in his career, and fans in both Russia and Turkey will be watching eagerly for the next installment.