Emmanuel Amuneke

Celebrating football’s christmas legends

Mr and Mrs Ventura received the perfect present on Christmas Day 1944. They did not, however, anticipate it would prove an invested gift for football; that the timid baby they cradled in their arms would evolve into O Furacão (The Hurricane), one of the most devastating, dynamic players in history.

But that is exactly what Jair Ventura Filho, or Jairzinho, became. He belied the burden of inheriting Garrincha’s hallowed No7 jersey at Botafogo by propelling them to a series of honours and entrenching his name in the club’s pantheon of greats; he belied his 31 years to play a fundamental role in Cruzeiro’s capture of the Copa Libertadores trophy in 1976; and he belied fierce competition for places to establish himself as a permanent fixture on the right of Brazil‘s attack.

Jairzinho is best remembered for his exploits at the 1970 FIFA World Cup Mexico™, where his breathtaking personal high-point contributed heavily to what is arguably the zenith of the Brazilian national team. Bullying opponents with his hulking physique, exhausting them with his breakneck speed and elusive movement, he cut an impressible figure as A Seleção dazzled their way to the Jules Rimet Trophy. Moreover, he managed the unique feat of scoring in every round of the competition.

And even after Jairzinho hung up his boots, he had one consequential function to perform: unearthing Ronaldo, who has gone on to become another legend of the FIFA World Cup.

There is some similitude between Jairzinho and Etienne Mattler: the French defender was also born on Christmas Day, in his case in 1905; he was too a robust yet curiously agile player; and he likewise participated in three FIFA World Cups, which earned him the distinction of being one of only four men to have turned out in all pre-second world war editions of the competition. Mattler also served Sochaux infallibly, helping them win the only two Ligue 1 crowns in their history during the 1930s.

Emmanuel Amuneke, born on 25 December 1970, is another to have impressed the FIFA World Cup. Although slight in stature, he had an abundance of pace and trickery, which he used to help Nigeria top Group D en route to being edged by Italy in the Round of 16 at USA 1994. Still, his performances proved enough to earn him the African Footballer of the Year award that same year, and two years later he scored the winner in a 3-2 defeat of Argentina in the final of the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament.

Just months earlier, Gary McAllister, exactly six years Amuneke’s senior, captained Scotland at UEFA EURO 1996. The appearances the cerebral, elegant midfielder made in England contributed to the 57 caps he won for his country, although he gained more acclaim, perhaps, at club level. After starring for Motherwell and Leicester City, he joined Leeds United, whom he helped become English champions in 1992.

When Coventry City released McAllister in the summer of 2000, few could have envisaged that, at 36, he would ink another glowing chapter in his career with one of the world’s biggest clubs. But he did just that, playing memorable roles in Liverpool’s seizure of five titles in 2001. McAllister capped off an unforgettable year by receiving an MBE for his services to football.

A number of other former FIFA World Cup participants were born on Christmas Day, among them Brazilian midfielder Amaral (born in 1954), Belgium’s Guy Vandersmissen (1957), Dutch goalkeeper Joop Hiele (1958), Mike Sweeney of Canada (1959), Bolivian legend Carlos Borja (1960), Colombia’s Luis Antonio Moreno (1970), Gabriel Popescu of Romania (1973), Choi Sung-Yong (1975) and Hyun Young-Min (1979), who helped Korea Republic into the semi-finals at Korea/Japan 2002, Daniel Quauye of Ghana (1980) and Angola’s Loco (1985).

Photo and article credits: FIFA

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