BRASÍLIA (AFP) – For France to overcome Nigeria in Monday’s World Cup last-16 fixture in Brasilia, they must outwit a man who is something of an authority on thwarting French strikers.
Nigeria goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama kept 21 clean sheets for Lille in France’s Ligue 1 last season and now has his sights set on denying Didier Deschamps’s side a place in the quarter-finals.
Towards the end of last year, Enyeama went 1,062 minutes without conceding a goal in the French top flight — just 114 minutes short of former Bordeaux goalkeeper Gaetan Huard’s all-time record.
It moved Marseille defender Rod Fanni to label him “a phenomenon” and saw him rewarded with a new two-year contract by Lille, who finished third in the table with the league’s second-best defensive record.
From Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Radamel Falcao, Ligue 1’s top marksmen learnt to rue the 31-year-old’s dazzling agility and supersonic reflexes, and France’s players know they will have their work cut out at the Mane Garrincha National Stadium.
“He’s a very good goalkeeper; a very, very good goalkeeper, even,” said midfielder Yohan Cabaye, who left Lille for Newcastle United the year that Enyeama arrived.
“He’s shown it at Lille, but also in Israel before. Nigeria are a team who don’t concede many goals and he’s largely responsible for that. For me, he’s one of the very best goalkeepers in this competition.”
Enyeama, who has been Nigeria’s first-choice goalkeeper since 2002, is appearing at his third World Cup and will win his 95th cap on Monday.
Although an assertive presence inside the box, Enyeama is renowned for his relaxed demeanour off the pitch and has been nicknamed ‘Eddie’ by his Lille team-mates, after the American comedian Eddie Murphy.
The lighter side of Enyeama’s character was on display at half-time of his side’s 3-2 loss to Argentina on Wednesday, when television cameras caught him feigning outrage to referee Nicola Rizzoli about the number of free-kicks he was awarding to Lionel Messi.
– ‘Lucky to be alive’ –
Messi scored twice in the game — including once from a free-kick — but in his personal duel with Enyeama, the score is 1-1.
In a group match at the last World Cup in South Africa, the Nigeria number one thwarted the Barcelona superstar on no fewer than four occasions, drawing admiration from then Argentina coach Diego Maradona.
While Enyeama can rub shoulders with Messi now, his path to the top has been far from straightforward.
He was involved in a fatal car crash in October 2004 en route to his hometown of Uyo in southern Nigeria, which killed two motorcyclists and left the driver in a critical condition.
Enyeama escaped with only bruises and admitted he was “lucky to be alive”.
He also had to bide his time at Lille for two years after arriving from Israeli side Hapoel Tel Aviv in 2011.
Finding his route to the first-team barred first by Mickael Landreau and then Steeve Elana, he spent the 2012-13 campaign on loan at Maccabi Tel Aviv before finally being given a chance to shine by incoming coach Rene Girard last year.
His Ligue 1 connections have made him the focus of French media attention in the build-up to Monday’s game and he is especially eager to get one over on his Lille team-mate Rio Mavuba, who will start on the bench for France.
“Before the competition, I said it would be the match of my dreams,” Enyeama said.
“I joked about it a lot with Rio Mavuba before leaving. But to be honest, I have great confidence in us. We want to go to the end.”