– The Sun News

Super Eagles’ goalkeeping dilemma

Cosmas Odoemena

I wanted to be reticent on this matter and mind my business so that the Super Eagles’ manager, Gernot Rohr, and his employers can sort it out. But football is too important in the life of Nigerians to be quiet. 

Nothing in Nigeria brings smiles or cheers to Nigerians anymore. Is it the bad economy and hardship? Is it the bloodletting in the land? Is it kidnap of innocent girls for whatever purpose? Is it corruption? Elections are around the corner, but like Jesus who stood between two thieves, Nigerians are standing between “two” political parties. What else can bring us cheer and unite the whole country if not football? Even FIFA President, Gianni Infantino, himself said “football is life” in Nigeria.

That’s why I am concerned that just a few months to the FIFA World Cup, the Super Eagles’ goalkeeping position is yet to be decided. After the first choice goalkeeper, Carl Ikeme, was diagnosed with leukemia, that department has remained unsettled.  However, Ikechukwu Ezenwa took Ikeme’s place and somehow Nigeria qualified for the World Cup. But Rohr seems not to be satisfied. He tried bringing back Vincent Enyeama who called it quits with Nigeria over controversial circumstances, but that did not work out. He then invited Deportivo La Coruña goalkeeper, Francis Uzoho. But after three matches, Uzoho is less than satisfactory. I know Rohr prefers foreign based players to home based players. Also, being a German he sure prefers tall goalkeepers, which is one advantage Uzoho has over Ezenwa.

As it is, the final choice will be between Uzoho and Ezenwa. I like Uzoho. But making Uzoho first choice at the World Cup will be a huge gamble. Uzoho was as steady as an alpine leaf at the last match against Serbia. I feared the boy would collapse. He was so jittery, he could not hold on firmly to simple shots. And the defenders realized this and it was most unsettling for them. They kept looking over their shoulders. If not for those defenders, we would have been beaten silly. 

The senior World Cup is for men, not for boys. Experience usually trumps youth. Even being the youngest team there is already a disadvantage. 

Height is an advantage in many sports and football is not an exception. This is especially in the goalkeeping position. But there have been successful goalkeepers who were not tall. We have Iker Casillas who is a European Champion and World Cup winner with Spain in 2010 and conceded only two goals in that competition, making him also the Golden Gloves winner. Jorge Campos, the former Mexican goalkeeper also played as a striker. But as a goalkeeper, he won back-to-back CONCACAF Gold Cups in 1993 and 1996, and conceded only two goals in the former and no goals in the latter, and also won FIFA Confederations Cup in 1999. At USA 1994 and France 1998, he was remembered for his flamboyant shirts.

What some goalkeepers lack in height they make up for in good vision, good instinct, good reaction time, positioning and good leadership from the back to help organize their defence. 

Uzoho is 19, Ezenwa is 29. If Uzoho goes to be number one at the World Cup it means we are placing our fate on a teenager, who has 3 caps (or maybe 5 at most if he keeps in the two remaining friendliness) who has not kept in a competitive match, and who is third choice in his club! No serious nation can even contemplate that no matter how talented that player seems to be. 

Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know. Ikechukwu Ezenwa helped qualify us for the World Cup. He seems lucky and often trusts his luck in his rosary which he brandishes when we win. Successful teams do need luck too. The Super Eagles will surely need any kind of luck. But Ezenwa performed well against Cameroon at home and away. And also showed class against Algeria and Zambia. All these are top rated teams in Africa and more so competitive matches, World Cup qualifiers for that matter.

If Ezenwa were playing abroad, perhaps there would not be the confusion about his place even if pint-size. But we must remember that Vincent Enyeama was playing at home with Enyimba while he was our number one goal tender. It is the same club Ezenwa is playing for now. Home based players feel inferior to the foreign based players, Nigerians know this, now there is Rohr to rub it in. Enyimba is the most successful club in Nigeria today. We should trust it to at least produce one first team player if not more in the Super Eagles as it happens in other great footballing nations. 

That virtually all the players going to the World Cup for Nigeria are foreign based even if they are Nigerians does not speak well of our league. By the way, how many domestic league matches has Rohr watched? Rohr never had any major input in the CHAN Eagles if at all, except “go on, I am behind you,” while he chills out in his country. I remember in the past that it was suggested that any foreign manager that Nigeria contracts must help in developing our league. Instead of beaming his searchlight on our league, he is still searching for more Nigerian players abroad just with the World Cup close by. When will the team blend? Rohr should stop experimenting and work with those players that qualified us for the tournament in the first place. And Ezenwa is one of them. If anything Uzoho can be his backup, but never first choice. 

Foreign managers ensure the tradition that Nigeria uses some home based players to get us to qualify for World Cup, and when it is time for the main tournament their hearts are broken, all because of foreign based players who may just be overrated. This disdain is not only for home based players, even a Nigerian coach, late Shuaibu Amodu, was a victim. If karma exists, it may be in our past disastrous outings. 

Dr. Odoemena is a medical practitioner in Lagos.

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