As Nnamdi Oduamadi fired home Nigeria’s late, late equaliser against Kenya on Saturday, Super Eagles fans everywhere breathed a sigh of relief. A first-ever defeat to the Harambee Stars was avoided, and the Champions of Africa retained top spot in CAF’s World Cup Qualifying Group F - their dreams of a summer in Brazil still well and truly within their grasp.
But as Stephen Keshi’s elect trudged from the turf, the elation of the goal tempered by the disappointing reality of the draw, one figure took a moment or two to scan the surroundings of the U.J. Esuene Stadium.
Obafemi Martins. Who knows how long it will be before he is back in the green of the national side?
While mixed emotions flanked the former Newcastle man on the final whistle, I am convinced that a conflict of sentiment greeted him as he walked out into the stadium on Saturday, making his first appearance for the national side since his run-out in the friendly against Venezuela back in November of last year.
How must the 28-year-old forward have felt as he emerged to take on Kenya? Excluding the young right-back Solomon Kwambe, he lined up alongside 9 heroes of the recent Cup of Nations, yet Vincent Enyeama and John Obi Mikel aside, none of them had given as much to the national side over the years as Obagoal. Martins put in the hours, put in the air miles, to chalk up 39 caps since 2004, but had missed out on the granddaddy of them all-the Cup of Nations triumph.
Years from now, Naija fans will still be able to recall that glorious Afcon side. They will remember Victor Moses and his electric performances, they will remember Sunday Mba and his pertinent contributions, they will remember the goals of Emmanuel Emenike and Ideye Brown-the team sheet will be as Gospel. Martins, in his absence, was forgotten-a missed episode and a lost opportunity for a striker who has endured his fair share of them with the national side.
Despite an encouraging 18 goals for the Super Eagles-averaging approximately a goal every other game-Martins’s international career has stuttered along, never truly realising the potential he demonstrated as a youngster at Inter Milan. Controversy shrouded his earlier years with Naija, following an administrative error and doubts about his genuine age, as well as failure to show for an international friendly back in 2007.
The 2010 World Cup must also be seen as a missed opportunity. Used purely as an impact substitute, Martins failed to bring his considerable talents to bear on the world stage, and watched on in agony as Nigeria crashed out in the first round.
Stephen Keshi’s introduction to the national set-up has brought a new selection policy and a fresh approach to the Super Eagles. Gone are the pampered European stars who failed to deliver for so long, in are the hungry, young domestic-based players-all of whom with ambitions to satisfy and desires to quench.
Clearly, Martins falls primarily into the former category, but Keshi is evidently tempted by his vitality, experience, and impressive goal ratio. But has the striker truly done enough to indicate that he can claim a spot in this new Nigeria?
It seems like his inclusion against Kenya was due, primarily, to the ill-fortune of others. Emmanuel Emenike’s injury ruled him out of contention, while Ike Uche’s bewilderingly disappointing Afcon campaign has clearly cast doubts in Keshi’s mind about his value to the side. I have little hesitation in saying that the pair, particularly Emenike, will be back in the fold before too long, and with others like Sone Aluko, Kalu Uche, and Victor Anichebe making their case, does Keshi really need to persist with Martins?
Not based on Saturday’s evidence.
Against Kenya, Martins was almost anonymous. A scuffed shot, coming within the first minute or two of the game, demonstrated the urgency the striker felt-possibly a result of the immense pressure placed upon his shoulders. He struggled to recover from early wastefulness and was replaced by the plucky Ahmed Musa just after the hour mark.
There is also the enduring question about his move across the pond to join Seattle Sounders in the MLS, and how this may affect his game.
While the American league is more competitive and professional than in the past, it is unlikely that Martins will face the same rigours in the States as he did in La Liga, where his former side, Levante, sit in 11th place.
Keshi has already demonstrated his willingness to look to America to secure new recruits for his Naija revolution. Bright Dike was, to the surprise of some, enlisted at the tail end of 2012, impressing briefly, particularly against Catalonia, before being dropped ahead of the Cup of Nations. Clearly the Big Boss is keen to utilise the full Diaspora of Nigerian talent, and isn’t discouraged by the supposed inadequacies of football State-side.
Saying that, however, will Martins’s move away from the heartland of Europe into competition perceived as easier push him down Keshi’s hierarchy? Surely it makes him even more the antithesis of the prototype of player the manager is trying to incorporate into the Super Eagles set-up.
Just as David Beckham’s move to LA Galaxy was considered by some as a signal of abdication, so Martins’s move to the U.S. may hasten the end of his international career-could it be the perfect excuse for Keshi to take one further step in his Naija revolution and axe the ex-Newcastle frontman?
Doubtless there will be opportunities ahead for the manager to experiment, and to examine some of the players who populate the fringes of his squad. If Martins continues to find the net on a regular basis-regardless of where he plays-then he will continue to demand the manager’s attention and will likely be given another chance to impress. He will be 29 by the time the World Cup rolls around, and with an international career edging towards the finish line, it may well be his last chance to produce that iconic moment Nigeria has been waiting for.