Go on Rohr
Nigeria’s Super Eagles won the African Cup of Nations in South Africa in 2013. The coach, Stephen Keshi, said that the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF) neither supported the team fully nor expected it to win. But Nigerians were happy that Nigeria had come back into continental reckoning in a game that they love very much.
However, in the two subsequent editions of the tournament (2015, 2017) the Super Eagles did not even qualify for the competition which made the 2013 victory look like a fluke. But Nigeria played at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil making zero impact and crashing out in the first round. We can finger poor funding, politics and coaching problems as contributory causes to our poor showing then. Now we have a new coach, Gernot Rohr, who knows the nuts and bolts of the business and has an appropriate level of enthusiasm to go with it. He is going everywhere searching for Nigerians in the European league who can make a marked difference to the team he met on his arrival here. His contract hinges on his ability to qualify the team for the next world cup in Russia.
One of the persons he feels the team needs is Vincent Enyeama, the Super Eagles number one goalkeeper who retired from international football a few years ago under controversial circumstances. Mr Enyeama had lost his mother and had gone to his village in Akwa Ibom State for the burial. He got back to the Super Eagles camp in Belgium one day late and an angry coach, Sunday Oliseh, chewed him out, stripped him of the captain’s band and called security officials to send him out of the camp. He opted to retire from international football. The juicy details of that encounter are known only to football insiders. Oliseh himself had his own altercation with the NFF and left in a huff.
Rohr says of Enyeama: “I saw him play in France and he is the kind of player we need to help us move forward.” Besides, the Super Eagles number one goalkeeper, Carl Ikeme, has a hamstring injury. His coach at Wolverhampton Wanderers, Paul Lambert, says he is not sure if Carl will be fit before the end of this season. Nigeria has an important match against South Africa in Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, on June 5 for the single spot in the African Cup of Nations group to which Nigeria belongs. So right now we have a gap in goal. But there are two other goalkeepers, Daniel Akpeyi who keeps for Chippa United in South Africa and Ikechukwu Ezenwa, Ifeanyi Ubah’s first choice goalkeeper. The coach, Rohr, apparently does not think they are ready for top grade competition when he has found a man of Enyeama’s quality.
Enyeama has received good testimonials from some experts. A former Nigerian keeper, Joe Erico, says: “Enyeama is still the country’s longest serving goalkeeper and one of the best keepers Nigeria has ever produced.” Ike Shorunmu, a former goalkeeper and goalkeeper trainer of the Super Eagles, praises Enyeama for being at the top for such a long time. He says Enyeama has a lot that he can teach the younger keepers. He offers his advice to the other keepers who would like to wear the number one jersey of the Super Eagles: “The other keepers should make themselves relevant in their clubs and be consistent. To play for the national team for a long time and be able to keep out competition from other keepers is a huge task and kudos to Enyeama for being able to do that.”
No one has questioned Enyeama’s competence as a high grade goalkeeper. He has appeared in all of Lille’s matches in the French league and cup this season. He has kept the club’s second choice goalkeeper, Mike Maignem, on the bench for the better part of the 2016/17 season. He has been named Africa’s best goalkeeper thrice in the last seven years. However, some other experts think the coach should not pull him out of retirement. Mr. Dosu Joseph, a 1996 Atlanta gold medallist of the Under 23 championship, says eventhough Enyeama is good and talented he should not return to the team. His reason? “There are other keepers that are doing well too. They should be tested in friendly matches and allowed to take charge of qualifiers to see how well they have developed rather than asking a retired keeper to return to the team.”
The World Cup and the African Cup of Nation’s qualifiers are not an experimental laboratory for untested players. They are opportunities for countries to pick their very best players even if they have retired. During the 1998 World Cup in France, the Super Eagles first choice goalkeeper, Ike Shorunmu, was unavailable for duty. He had broken his hand at his club, F .C. Zurich and the Super Eagles coach, Bora Milutinovic, had to quickly find a replacement. He recalled Peter Rufai who had retired from international engagements rather than call on some untested keeper.
A few years ago, the Indomitable Lions of Cameroons felt that their attacking machine for the World Cup was wobbly. They decided to recall Roger Miller, their 42 year old war horse, a striker with a killer instinct, from retirement. The huge man was a thorn in the flesh of opposing defenders. Each time he scored a goal he would run to the corner flag and do some sexy Makosa dance. The stadium would erupt based on the beauty of his goal and the sexy-ness of his dance steps. He became the oldest man to score in a World Cup final. Cameroonians have reserved a place of honour for him in their hearts.
Coach Rohr has declared that the best Nigerian footballers are in Europe. They are not in Nigeria or anywhere else in Africa. That is why those who play in Europe are paid stratospheric salaries. That is also why those who play in Nigeria wish they can play in Europe. Those plying their trade in Nigeria’s local league have no choice. If they had they would have been in Europe. The road to Europe is long and hard. Nigerians who play abroad were either born there or had performed very well during the various age grade competitions or the African Cup of Nations or the World Cup. If the scouts don’t look in your direction during these competitions it means you haven’t met the mark. Those who are playing in the Nigerian league must up the ante to get noticed. Enyeama was the first choice goalkeeper for Enyimba football club. He, along with his colleagues, won a continental title twice before an Israeli club looked his way. It is from Israel that Lille poached him. The lesson here is that wherever you are you must excel in order to be picked from the crowd of young Nigerians who want to play top grade football, earn humongous salaries, drive a Bentley and live in a house with a warm and cold water swimming pool in Europe.
The estimate is that there are more than 500 Nigerians playing football abroad. Some of them are in the inferior leagues in Europe while others whose careers have gone into extra time are heading to China, Indonesia, Turkey, the United States and Qatar on the last minutes of their playing time.
Those who want the young goalkeepers to stay between the sticks for Nigeria think that Enyeama’s return will breed conflict in the team. That is inevitable. Competition for shirts in a team has inbuilt conflict because only 14 players are needed by the coach in each game: 11 players and three reserves. In any competition, the coach goes with only 23 players, two players for each position and three for the goalkeeper’s position. Who he chooses to play depends on the fitness level of the players and his game plan. So definitely some players will have to sit on the bench and cheer or sulk.
What depresses me in the Enyeama debater is that we have not learnt any lesson about our failure as a country. Instead of picking our best 11 we prefer our third 11 as a country. That is how our leadership choices have been since 1960. That is why, despite enormous human and material endowments, we have made very little progress. Today, we are still talking of 3000 megawatts of electricity; pure water factories that produce impure water; food importation with abundant arable land; petrol importation into a crude oil producing country; a federal capital airport that has only one runway; a country with no hospital where our President can be treated for ear infection. These are the results of picking our third 11 instead of our first 11 for the top job in the country.
My advice to Coach Rohr: search anywhere on this planet and fish out the best legs and hands for the Super Eagles. Only the best, the very best, are good enough for Nigeria.