By Ed Dove
Shola Ameobi should have been an international player almost two years ago. It was January 2011 when he was first named in a Nigerian squad to face Guatemala in a friendly. Things didn’t go to plan, however, and it wasn’t until November of that year that Fifa officially cleared the Zaria-born frontman to represent his nation of origin.
Complications had arisen due to Ameobi’s previous international outings for England’s Under-21 team – the youth caps counting against him until a recent Fifa ruling made the changing of national allegiances permissible. After smashing Liberia to qualify for the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations, Nigeria boss Stephen Keshi announced that the powerful striker was firmly in his thoughts, and could well be in line to make his squad for the tournament.
Well that time has come, and Ameobi has been included in Keshi’s list of eleven foreign-based players to make the trip to Miami to take on Venezuela next week. Another Naija friendly in the USA, and another potential debut for Ameobi – this time the signs look good, and Shola must be bubbling with expectation at the prospect of finally slipping into the famous green jersey of the Super Eagles.
Following Keshi’s initial announcement, identifying Ameobi as a future option for the Eagles, several voices of disquiet emerged from the ranks of Nigerian fans. Some suggested that at 31, Ameobi could at best be considered a short-term solution for the national side, whilst others bemoaned the fact that another squad player from a European club was being considered ahead of some of Nigeria’s local-based hotshots.
Ameobi’s performance against Brugge in the Europa League on Thursday night could go a long way to appeasing the critics, the striker demonstrating just what he can bring to the table for the Super Eagles. Over the 90 minutes, Ameobi showed off his capabilities as a target man, constantly winning the ball and bringing it down to the deck; he proved his abilities to contribute to the build up play, a snazzy backheel early on setting Gaby Obertan up for a chance which the French winger really should have buried.
The striker also demonstrated the guile that only experience can harness – constantly taking up promising positions, one of which resulted in Newcastle’s equaliser just before half time, and proving himself to be a menace throughout.
When one considers the plethora of attacking options utilised by Nigeria recently, Ameobi brings something that few others do – presence. Whilst the likes of Victor Moses, Ikechukwu Uche, and Emmanuel Emenike offer powerful running and predatory finishing, Ameobi – at 6’3 - could offer variation in attack, ideal for when a change of pace or an altered approach is required.
Despite not yet being an international player, Shola could also provide the experience lacking in a young, vibrant Nigerian side. With Peter Odemwingie’s international future coming under speculation, and Yakubu and John Utaka featuring less frequently, the 31-year-old could bring some much needed composure and serenity to the national side in the cut and thrust of the 2013 Afcon.
His goal against Brugge was his 14thin European competition, an enviable record for a striker who has sometimes failed to win over fans in the Premier League. With opportunities like the one presented to him next week unlikely to be too all frequent in the future, none will relish the chance of becoming an international player more than Shola Ameobi.
It’s been a long wait, but in Miami, Shola has the chance to show that the wait has been worth it.