Oka Nikolov – 22 years of battles and loyalty

Oka Nikolov; photo: ran.deIt might not be the most glamorous name to make a move this summer but Eintracht Frankfurt’s 39-year-old Macedonian goalkeeper, Oka Nikolov, will be playing in the MLS next season for Philadelphia Union. With this move, Nikolov will be ending a career that spans 22 years at Eintracht Frankfurt, racking up 414 first-team appearances during all of that time, of which 229 were in the Bundesliga.

(This column is written by Aleix Gwilliam of www.BundesligaFanatic.com. To see the original version click here.)

Nikolov was actually born in Germany, in Erbach im Odenwald, some 45 miles southeast of Frankfurt am Main. He started his career with his local team SC Sandbach until the age of 15, when he moved to SV Darmstadt 98. Just two years later he made the big move to Eintracht’s youth team and stepped up to the first team in 1994, first as backup to Uli Stein and then to Andreas Köpke. He made his debut on September 9th 1995 in a 3:1 home win against 1.FC Kaiserslautern, to which he added three more Bundesliga appearances and 1 DFB Pokal one that season, as Köpke maintained his #1 spot.

Eintracht got relegated that season and Köpke, after an excellent European Championship in England, moved to Olympique Marseille, allowing for Nikolov to take over the #1 spot at the Waldstadion. It took two seasons for Eintracht to get back into the Bundesliga as they won the 2.Bundesliga in 97/98, with Nikolov playing all the matches and conceding just 32 goals, under a goal a game.

As Eintracht yo-yoed between the top two divisions for the following years, Nikolov was first-choice goalkeeper until the arrival of Markus Pröll from from 1.FC Köln in 2003. Pröll was deputy to Nikolov in his first season but, after another relegation, he took over Nikolov’s spot back in the second division. This was Nikolov’s first time outed from the first team but instead of searching for another club, he decided to stay and wait for his chance, a showing of loyalty that was to characterise him throughout his career at Eintracht. Despite Pröll’s presence, he was the starting goalkeeper for Eintracht’s Pokal run in 05/06, as they ended up losing the final 0:1 to Bayern München, although this did allow them into the UEFA Cup despite finishing in 14th that season.

Pröll’s injuries allowed him to regain a first-team spot more regularly but as Pröll left Frankfurt for Panionios in 2010, Nikolov encountered another rival, Ralf Fährmann, who had arrived from Schalke 04 and had made the jump to the first team. Yet again, Nikolov found himself alternating his spot with the impressive Fährmann, who thanks to his performances moved back to Schalke after just two seasons at the newly-named Commerzbank-Arena. Once again, Nikolov, the patient and ever-present man, stepped up to the job and drove Eintracht back to the Bundesliga in 2011/2012,  again averaging under a goal a game in 31 appearances.

38 years old by this time, Nikolov was facing what would be his last season as an Eintracht player but it wasn’t to be as #1, as Armin Veh had brought in Kevin Trapp from 1.FC Kaiserslautern. Trapp turned out to be arguably Eintracht’s best player of the season, making some crucial and spectacular interventions taking Eintracht into Champions League places. Nikolov could not compete with these performances and it looked to be a quiet ending for the loyal goalkeeper, as it was seemingly obvious that he would not renew his contract that expired at the end of the season.

However, some miracles do happen, even if they come in the shape of an injury. Whilst recording an advertisement, Kevin Trapp slipped and broke his hand, and once more the ever-reliable Oka Nikolov stepped up to the challenge. This was one of his biggest ever tests, however, as Eintracht were lying in 4th place but rapidly declining due to a lack of rotation and what looked to be a tired team. With Trapp having been a cornerstone, many feared that whilst Nikolov was now only a club emblem; he would not be able to be up to Trapp’s performances and that Eintracht would eventually drop out of the European places, seeing as Schalke were charging up the table in a great run of form and Eintracht were dropping points quickly. However, Oka kept his own and played the season’s last eight games, managing 3 wins, 3 draws and 2 defeats, conceding 9 goals and finishing the season in 6th place, in the last Europa League spot. Despite the pressure, Nikolov’s performances were good and Trapp’s absence was minimised.

After 66 minutes on the last game of the season against Wolfsburg, Nikolov was substituted by Veh due to injury and got the standing ovation he deserved. The whole stadium was chanting his name and it was a fitting ending to what has been an unusual career for a modern-day footballer; you don’t see many players play their entire career at a single club.

It was Nikolov’s loyalty, his strength against adversity, his persistence, his resilience and his love for Eintracht that kept him in the team when perhaps he could have moved to another club instead of deputising for other goalkeepers. Whilst perhaps not an illustrious career in terms of trophies, he did manage to gain promotion four times to the Bundesliga and play for his country 5 times, making his debut in 1998 in a 2:2 draw against Egypt. His international career was limited due to him taking up Germany dual nationality and therefore not being able to hold his Macedonian passport, so he was limited to only 5 matches for his nation between 1998 and 2001, all of them friendlies.

All in all, ‘Eternal’ Oka, as he’s known by the Eintracht faithful, has capped off his career in Europe with a move to the USA, a dream of his that was already put off once back in 2010, when he changed his mind and signed a new two-year contract in Frankfurt. A day after the announcement of Nikolov’s departure from his long-time club, the goalkeeper signed a contract with the MLS’ Philadelphia Union, where he’s expected to provide leadership for young but inconsistent starter Zac MacMath and backup Chris Konopka. ”We’re excited to have a player with Nikolov’s experience and leadership join our team,” Union manager John Hackworth said in a statement released by the team. “We think he will provide excellent depth and mentorship to our young goalkeepers.” (The Union brought in FC Köln keeper Faryd Mondragon for the 2011 season).

Nikolov remarked upon departing Eintracht:

“Eintracht are my everything. I have had a really great time at this fantastic club and I would like to thank both the club and the fans. But throughout my career, I have always dreamed of expanding my horizons with a move to America and now it’s possible to fulfil that.”

Nikolov is a rare breed of player, a player who showed loyalty to his club and never moved or asked for a transfer despite all the difficulties, and 22 years at a club have earned him the status of a club legend and a fan favourite amongst the fans of one of Germany’s greatest clubs.

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