Carl Ikeme was the unlikely star man on Saturday as Nigeria stumbled to a 0-0 draw with Tanzania in 2017 Cup of Nations qualification.
In light of Sunday Oliseh’s comments when he took over as the Super Eagles coach, the identity of the national side’s star man is almost laughably ironic.
When the former Nigeria midfielder took the reins of the West African giants, he revealed the changes he would make to differentiate his reign from the unhappy dirge that Stephen Keshi’s time in charge of the team had become.
One of the decrees he unveiled was that only players from top leagues around the world would be considered for call-ups.
“At the moment there has been a lot of talk as regards the fact that we have decided that first division players are the players that we found eligible to serve our country. We feel the best has to play for us and the best in any country play in the first division.”
They were comments that proved divisive among the Nigerian fanbase. Surely, Oliseh’s decision was partially (at least) populist propaganda, aimed at getting supporters on board and setting himself apart from what had gone before.
“We no longer accept this mediocrity,” he almost urged, “we want only the best for Nigeria from now on.” It’s an easy sentiment to get on board with, and many of you did.
But what exactly constituted a ‘top league’? Would Oliseh eschew players from the Spanish second tier, for example, over those playing their trade in the Maltese Premier League?
“Only the best for Nigeria,” many of you retorted, but is the Chinese top flight really any better than the German 2. Bundesliga?
Oliseh backtracked on—or at least qualified—his comments with his first squad, which included Wolverhampton Wanderers goalkeeper Carl Ikeme, not playing, of course, in a top-tier division.
Ikeme features in the English Championship, a veritable hotbed for Nigerian talent, and one that Oliseh can surely not afford to ignore. Recent internationals Sone Aluko and Hope Akpan represent Hull City and Blackburn Rovers respectively, potential young recruit Chuba Akpom is on loan with the Tigers, while Odion Ighalo (now of the Premier League), proved last season that the Championship can be a gold mine for the Super Eagles.
Not only was Ikeme called up, he also started for the Super Eagles against Tanzania, and delivered a star turn, keeping the Taifa Stars at bay on his international debut and demonstrating that he is every bit worthy of his spot in the squad.
Ikeme’s showing—which it will doubtless have delighted Oliseh—is unfortunate in its irony, as it only serves to underpin the muddled beginnings to the coach’s reign.
Keshi’s time in charge of the national side was characterised by odd decisions and inconsistency of selection, and it’s hard to understand many of Oliseh’s decisions.
Why, for example, was the aforementioned Ighalo overlooked against Tanzania, a side against whom Nigeria needed pace and invention to unsettle and break down?
Oliseh’s explanation that the Super Eagles could only call up two players for each position was vague and doesn’t truly make sense, while his insistence that he couldn’t invite all of the country’s top stars as he wanted to avoid wasting resources is equally hard to fathom.
Is this what Nigeria fans should come to expect? 22-man squads which include 11 top stars and 11 players that are cheap to fly to various venues across the continent?
If so, then Oliseh may already have demonstrated that the hard times are set to continue for Nigeria for some time yet.
It would certainly be preferrable that the NFF invested in flying Ighalo from Hertfordshire to Abuja, rather than spend their cash on sending Amaju Pinnick to the Community Shield final in order to chin wag with Arsene Wenger!
Setting aside Oliseh’s muddles, there is certainly some solace to be found in Ikeme’s performance, even if that too is tinged with irony.
In truth, goalkeeper is one position where Nigeria do not need to find an answer…at least not for now.
The absent Vincent Enyeama remains an elite operator—as he has demonstrated with LOSC Lille so far this season—and doesn’t show any signs of dropping beneath a level that still makes him a valuable asset for Nigeria.
Enyeama is 33. It is expected he will play until at least the 2018 World Cup, when he will be 35. Only then will the question of a successor become pressing, and only then will the coach—whoever it may be—need to seek solutions between the sticks.
By then, of course, Ikeme will himself be 32. If he is a potential successor to Enyeama, he’s hardly a long-term solution!
“Nigeria lost two points and found a son”…proclaimed my colleague Solace Chukwu after the 0-0 draw.
In truth, they lost two points, found a slightly better, slightly younger replacement for Austin Ejide, and proved that Oliseh isn’t about to return Nigeria to their former glory instantaneously.
Nigeria has no shortage of talent…I’ve argued this before…she just needs to start playing them!
By Ed Dove from Culled from Goal.com