By Ed Dove
So, as I suggested last night during Twitter commentary of the contest between Nigeria and Spain, “The dream is over, what can I say?”
The line comes from a 1970 song written and performed by John Lennon, a personal hero of mine, and his Plastic Ono Band. In the track, Lennon charts all of the things he no longer believes in, the Kennedys, Gita, kings, Elvis, Dylan and the rest, before finally, emphatically, stating that his faith lies only in himself and Yoko Ono—the individual and the lover.
In the song’s final, desperate stanza, Lennon claims that while the dream of the Beatles, and the lyrical voyages they forged together, are over and resigned to the past, the future, and a focus on the positives of the self, prompt his nihilistic optimism.
The loss against Spain, in Fortaleza, confirms Nigeria’s exit from the Confederations Cup; the dream may be over, but this Super Eagles elect can take many positives away from their summer sojourn to Brazil
Paradoxically, in defeat, the Super Eagles have won more admirers than they did following their 6-1 rout of Tahiti. Against Spain—the champions of Europe, the champions of the World, and one day, surely, to be christened as history’s finest, the Super Eagles held their own.
The early goal—following a few fortunate ricochets and a weak tackle from Kenny Omeruo—changed the complexion of the clash, and Nigeria should be hugely credited for the quality and confidence of their response.
Despite conceding three, Vincent Enyeama was a dependable and resolute final line of resistance in goal. John Obi Mikel was his typical imperious self, casting passes around the middle of the park, impressing with some majestic touches and demonstrating his elevated class. I have been told that no player in the Confederations Cup group stage completed as many passes in the final third as Mikel.
The fullbacks, Elderson Echiejile and Efe Ambrose once again were progressive and looked to get forward. Despite losing his partner, Omeruo, to injury, Godfrey Oboabona was once more assured and elegant in defence, snuffing out regular Spanish chances and, on occasion, carrying the ball out from the back to aid those ahead of him.
The side impressed Spanish coach Vincente del Bosque enough for the legendary manager to identify them as a “great opponent”; the World Cup-winning boss suggested that the Super Eagles prospered as they “managed to create a balance in possession”—it is a trait that will doubtless serve them well in the challenges ahead.
Despite all of this optimism, there are some causes for concern—in the short term at least. The Nigerian attack came across as miraculously incompetent throughout this competition, and indeed, it doesn’t take a genius to identify the strikers as the Super Eagles’ key area of weakness.
The rotated duo of Ideye Brown and Anthony Ujah have both failed to justify their inclusion, the former was chosen against Spain, but lost his nerve when presented with a handful of promising chances. Joseph Akpala featured sporadically, but has once again done little to suggest he is of international quality.
Kano Pillars frontman Mohammed Gambo made a late substitute appearance against La Roja but contributed only once, a horrible miss when faced with an open goal. Gambo certainly shouldn’t be written off on the basis of one disastrous moment, but it’s going to be a hard road ahead for any of the four to win back Keshi’s confidence.
It’s almost agonising to imagine how things could have been this summer had Emmanuel Emenike, Victor Moses and even Kalu Uche been present and not sidelined through injury. The first two will doubtless return to the starting line up within the next few months, and can be expected to lead the line in Brazil next summer. The likes of Michael Eneramo, Victor Anichebe and the prodigal Imoh Ezekiel might be worth a look following the stuttering failings of this summer.
While these concerns can be saved for the coming days and weeks, I wish to close by returning to the positives of the Spain clash and, more broadly, the summer as a whole.
Against both the Champions of South America and the Champions of Europe and the World, Nigeria held their own, battling in midfield, resolute in defence, and hamstrung only by the failings of a sub-standard forward line.
It has become easy to forget, amidst the encouraging performances of the last six months, just how young and relatively inexperienced this side are. It was a reality that Keshi took time to acknowledge after the defeat to Spain.
The outfield first XI that guided Nigeria to the Afcon final were all aged between 19 and 25 and some of the key figures in this impressive outfit are only at the beginning of exciting careers. Attackers Moses and Nnamdi Oduamadi are only 22, midfielder Ogenyi Onazi and Ahmed Musa are merely 20, while the assured defensive pairing of Godfrey Oboabona and Omeruo are 22 and 19 respectively.
This side has space to develop and room to grow. The dream may be over for now, but if their impressive trajectory continues, expect Nigeria to enjoy a much longer sojourn in Brazil next summer.
Ed Dove writes from Brazil and can be followed @Eddydove.