By Ed Dove
As the Premier League entered its final furlong, and as Stephen Keshi put the finishing touches to the Nigeria squad that will travel to Brazil this summer for the Confederations Cup, a Super Eagles forward was in the process of making major decisions about his future.
At the end of April, Everton striker Victor Anichebe announced that he was taking a break from his international career in order to manage his body and dedicate himself fully to the Blue cause on Merseyside.
It initially appeared to be a strange time for such an announcement to be made. Recently, a number of players have committed themselves to the national team cause. Indeed, with a World Cup on the horizon, the likes of Sidney Sam and Hope Akpan are expressing their desire to represent the land of their parents and take their place within Keshi’s youth revolution, ultimately, hopefully, to earn a spot at the global sporting centrepiece.
Anichebe, at a much more advanced stage of his international career than the other two, has taken the opposite approach. Speaking to the BBC, he revealed that the best thing for him to do, from a personal, club and national perspective, was to focus on his progression with Everton, and ignore Keshi’s supposed advances for the time being.
Considering the context of his club career, it does seem like ‘Big Vic’ is on the cusp of something with the Toffees. Since making his first team debut for the club in 2006, the homegrown talent has struggled to deliver on his undoubted potential.
Injuries have played their part, and for a player so explosive, a litany of groin and knee complaints have greatly stymied his progress. The problems haven’t merely been niggles and set-backs either; back in 2009 Anichebe was caught by then-Newcastle United midfielder Kevin Nolan—that cost him 11 months of his career, while against Madagascar in 2011, playing under Samson Siasia, he endured an agonising groin injury.
Another long lay-off, and another major disruption for his nascent career.
Finally, this season, Anichebe has largely avoided the physical impediments that have previously held him back. Already he has featured 23 times in the Premier League, and has already seen more action than in any of the previous four seasons.
Similarly, his influence on the team and his goalscoring has greatly improved.
While his first six seasons of action yielded only seven EPL goals, last year’s return of five has already been beaten by this year’s tally of six. It’s not prolific by any means, but it demonstrates that Anichebe might finally be able to find a measure of consistency from which to build.
While, in principle, this may appear to be the prime time to embark on an international career, Anichebe clearly realises the fragility of his predicament, and, after his arduous experiences, is acutely conscious of the ease at which things can fall apart.
In his interview with the BBC he expressed his desire to manage his body, and to avoid the kind of injury woes that have so beset his career to date. It is, in many ways, a thoroughly pragmatic move. One of Anichebe’s biggest set-backs came on a particularly uneven pitch in Antananarivo, and naturally, the risk of injury increases with international competition—particularly considering the travelling involved and, especially within an African context, the variety of terrains and facilities encountered along the way.
Similarly, the 25-year-old forward expressed a desire to repay the faith shown in him by Everton’s staff; those that have believed in him and nurtured him through his torrid years. This sentiment was perhaps increased by David Moyes’s recent comment that indicated that Anichebe still had a lot of hard work and endeavour ahead of him if he was to complete his development and realise his potential.
I think a combination of the tacit pressure placed upon Victor by Moyes, and the sense of gratitude, and of debt, that the player feels towards the club that has been home since 2003, has had a major influence on this decision.
Anichebe experienced the departure of his peer and close friend James Vaughan as his contemporary was finally released by Moyes in the summer of 2011. Despite being the Premier League’s youngest goalscorer, and, as a teenager, a prodigal young attacking talent, Vaughan rarely overcame his injury struggles, and failed to convince Moyes that he was worth keeping onboard. Perhaps the experience of his former teammate has convinced Anichebe that to maintain his place at Everton, he needs to demonstrate his complete commitment to the Blue cause.
The decision is certainly a short-term loss to the national side. While Anichebe didn’t feature in the triumphant Afcon victory, I named him as one of my five young players to break into the Confederations Cup squad—a decision that was well-received by those that chose to comment and contribute.
Keshi clearly saw the attacking possibilities that Anichebe could have brought to the side, and attempted to recruit him recently, only to be rebuffed by the player; while Hope Akpan, a former teammate of Anichebe, suggested to me recently that few players excited him as much as Big Vic who, he argued, could be anything he wanted to be.
Taking a long-term perspective, however, it is hard to see exactly where this leaves Anichebe’s future. The player was explicit in maintaining that the Super Eagles were still a part of his plans, insisting that a fruitful and consistent club career was a natural precursor to a successful international career.
I imagine the aspiration for the player is to find his feet fully with the Blues, continue to develop in the Premier League and steer clear from injuries, before eventually, one day, returning to the national fold. Ben Foster, the England goalkeeper, is a recent example of a player who did just that; returning to the national set-up following a self-enforced two-year absence.
However, it remains to be seen exactly how Keshi and the Nigeria Football Federation will take to the forward’s decision. Hardly an integral figure in the current set-up, the selectors may well decide that Anichebe has presented them with an ideal opportunity to maintain their authority and reaffirm their control over perceived player power.
I, for one, struggle to see Anichebe muscling his way into the World Cup fold—should we qualify—in time for next summer’s global centrepiece. I just hope that the Super Eagles’ loss proves to be Everton’s gain.