By Nkem Alu
When the Super Eagles lost to Croatia in their opening game of the current world cup campaign, a lot of tantrums went astir, and maybe, deservedly so. But somehow, I kept nurturing this stance that the boys played well, given the instructional circumstances on ground. Jokes apart, I blamed the coach and not the players for that loss. I blamed Gernot Rohr for using the world cup as an experiment laboratory. I quite blamed him for playing Mikel in a position he has almost forgotten its dynamics. I blamed him for not starting with Iheanacho and Ahmed Musa who are both goal poachers. I tongue-lashed him for teasing us with the inclusion of Uzoho, a mere 19-year old goalkeeper as our gate keeper, while the likes of Ezenwa, in the absence of non other, were there. I got quizzical about how and why the German tactician takes certain decisions and stands by them.
After a rigorous blame trade by Nigerians, I knew that only a win against Iceland would simmer off the oozing char of the first game loss. And till today, I don’t blame Nigerians who got angry following the game against Croatia. I don’t, and I won’t! One thing strikes me about the Whiteman and decisions; he sticks to them and also sticks out his neck to be cut, in case the water takes a different gutter. I call it gentle aggression. When Carl Ikeme was diagnosed of Leukemia, the Super Eagles Chief coach Gernot Rohr suddenly had his hands full of gravel and it showed. Then like a parcel of soothing relief, there came Ezenwa, and so, after the tempestuous leg-overs in the waiting, the boat sailed once again, even as the world cup qualifying series continued. Little did we know then, that the Mannheim of Germany born coach was not satisfied, yet. Yes, I know he likes huge and imposing players, or, at least tall ones. Don’t play it down; Germans like things big (though the coach himself is not a giant). And in what seems like a dusty twilight of circumstances, Rohr’s eyes were still darting and his scouts were taking instructions too.
WHEN GOD LOCATES A MAN
I have come to conclude that all it takes for God to announce a man is make a divine statement, and it happens. And by every bite on the apple, all men are not meant to toe the same track on the way to success. Get it right; destiny paths differ in dimensions and purposes. Some come through narrow corridors and others, through wide-open gates. Today, for a goalkeeper who is a second team player in Deportivo La Coruna of Spain, hardly featured in matches, to be Nigeria’s first choice goalkeeper at the world cup stage (to start with) is nothing but a miracle from the highest pinnacles in Galilee. Exit Vincent Enyeama and enter Carl Ikeme; Ikeme sick and now, enter Ezenwa. While Daniel Akpeyi prayed and fasted for chances, after months of laborious tests, a certain un-foretested and absolutely unknown Francis Uzoho was cooking in the cauldron of time somewhere in Spain. This life; you can be twisty!
At first we thought a third choice goalkeeper had been found. But, we were wrong, in Francis Uzoho, Gernot Rohr had seen what he was looking for; another Vincent Enyeama, one to be moulded over the coming years. Poor Ezenwa, he did wonderfully well during the qualifiers. Even after the first world cup match against Croatia, people were still calling for Ezenwa to be included in the next do-or-die match against Iceland. But you know what? Rohr was to stick to his raw decisions. Take it or leave it, I would have dared bring in Ezenwa, was I in Rohr’s position. But he didn’t, and today it paid off. But a tall question stands; “why were Nigerians standing on their toes since after the first match against Croatia?” Iceland is good at set pieces and they have guys who can fetch them some. They are also reputed to be among the oldest teams in the current world cup campaign while Nigeria is one of the youngest.
ENTER THE DRAGON
War day came and the coach heeded most of the calls from Nigerians, except one; the Uzoho-out and Ezenwa-in aspect. Superlative Ahmed Musa started the match and helped Victor Moses do a wing-wing stuff (remember the days of Finidi George and Emmanuel Amuneke?) Then Kenneth Omeruo that I have been calling for was brought in, making the defense water tight. All through the match, it was Kenneth Omeruo and Oghenekaro Etebo spoiling the stew for Iceland while Mikel Obi and Wilfred Ndidi handled the sins of overrunning strikers from the defensive midfield positions. Iheanacho’s inclusion from the beginning also paid off. He was helping Moses take set pieces, thereby allowing the latter to run and pass balls. (Remember; against Croatia, Moses was taking all set pieces, doing all runs and yet attempting to score, thereby necessitating a lot of running forward and returning in quick successions. Not forgetting the hard tackles he was getting almost at 2-minutes interval). On decisions, Rohr’s raw selection cooked a hard bean, especially in the second half. And when the dragon let go its fire in the second half, the blazing heat transformed the Icelandish cold temperature from frost to fire. It did not take long before I saw a bushy bearded man and his compatriots turning red in colour at every given instance.
AHMED MUSA AND BIG OCCASIONS
When it comes to rising up to big occasions, Ahmed Musa simply shows that firing from all cylinders can be rewarding. Since the last world cup, Argentina has not forgotten him, at least not Messi. And true to fears, Ahmed mesmerized Iceland and justified his starting lineup position. No small thanks to superlative passes from his namesake Moses who in my estimation was striker, winger, attacking midfielder and defender; Moses was everywhere for everything. Did I say namesake? Yes, Musa and Moses are the same name in two different religions. If I’m wrong, I stand to be corrected. Back to Musa, what he did today is a warning signal to Argentina who for sure, must be coming to dig potholes along the round-of-16 road for us. But can they? In Uzoho, Messi should see a budding Enyeama. In Etebor, the world has already seen another Daniel Amokachi. In Kenneth Omeruo, there is another Joseph Yobo and a bit of Uche Okechukwu. In Alex Iwobi, there is another Samson Siasia and a bit of Austin Okocha. In Bryan Idowu, well, we can mould another Ben Iroha or Celestine Babayaro. In Odion Ighalo, on a very good day, we have another Rashidi Yekini. In Kelechi Iheanacho, we have another Samuel Okwaraji and Victor Ikpeba in one. In Victor Moses, we have another Austin Okocha, Finidi George and Mutui Adepoju; all in one. In Onazi, we have another Sunday Oliseh. And for a good measure, in Ahmed Musa, we have another Tijani Babangida, Pius Ikedia, Dimeji Lawal and a bit of Daniel Amokachi. Back to Musa, he has shown that those dazzling runs which people often criticize as being too selfish can pay on questionable days. Barka!
THE VIDEO ASSISTED ERROR
And the penalty given to world cup debutants, Iceland? I call it a technologically assisted mumbo-jumboic act of penalization of no guilty fella! The diving was well timed because the Nigerian defender was right behind the Iceland player. In such situations, all you need do is reduce your speed and a body contact will happen between you and the person running towards you from behind, accentuating the claims of your diving. I think some coaches even conduct trainings on diving techniques. Take it from me; the video assistant referee (VAR) will generate incredible crises in the beautiful game in future. Thank God the penalty taker even chose to locate another post in the sky. I leave this aspect for another day. Now, let the cathedral bell ring. Come on Argentina. Come on, familiar foes. All we need to puncture your ego is tighten the seat belt a bit more and keep the focus. Those ferocious shots from Wilfred Ndidi and Victor Moses cannot be forgotten in a hurry. The invincible passes from Mikel Obi were rocket-speed sure. The brave saves from hitherto underrated Francis Uzoho were from cloud nine too. And for playing Mikel in his better position today, I salute Gernot Rohr!
Alu writes from University of Nigeria, Nsukka.
(Editor’s note: This piece was written immediately after Nigeria-Iceland World Cup 2018 match which ended 2:0 in favour of Nigeria)