By Shina Oludare
Not many believed that Nigeria’s senior national team - the Super Eagles would have it all good in 2013 after a silent showing the previous year – a severe penalty for missing out of the Equatorial Guinea and Gabon Africa Cup of Nations following a slither against the Syli Nationale of Guinea.
Amidst reams of speculations on how high the Eagles would fly in Nelson Mandela’s country, Stephen Keshi’s side displaced Cote’d’Ivoire and Mail to lift the Afcon title after 19 years of waiting. Not only that, the Eagles had an impressive showing at the Fifa Confederations Cup and before the applause died down, the African champions capped their magnificent performance in 2013 by securing a place at the Fifa 2014 World Cup. What a way to end an eventful year.
Many are of the opinion that Stephen Keshi’s masterstroke to attaining this laudable height was his mix of foreign-based players with the home-based stars which they believed made the team tick.
As the year runs out, it will definitely not be out of place to appraise the input of these products playing in the Nigeria Professional Football League. Has the gamble by Keshi on them really paid off or could it be that their ‘splendid performance’ is just an exaggeration? Judging from their effort, can we comfortably shoulder our hopes on the local based stars in the near future?
When Stephen Keshi reeled out his squad for the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations, many gawped at the criteria for selecting the then Enugu Rangers midfielder ahead of some more established names like Nnamdi Oduamadi and Haruna Lukman.
I was made to ‘eat’ my words when he wowed against Ethiopia as he effectively and creatively seized the midfield from the WaliaAntelopes. The Warri Wolves man left many mouths wide open as he scored the goal that broke the Elephants' back in the quarter final before going to score the only goal in the final against the Stallions of Burkina Faso that ensured Nigeria won the trophy for the third time.
Though, unable to re-ignite his spark at the Confederations Cup, Mba played a pivotal role to ensure that Nigeria B team qualified for their first African Nations Championship (CHAN) appearance. His performance did not go unnoticed by the Confederation of African Football as he has been nominated for African footballer of the year award in two categories.
One of the NPFL-based players who has been a regular feature in Keshi's team is the 19-year-old defender. Having impressed in Heartland FC's victory in the Federation Cup last year, he earned his first cap against Niger few months later in August. His club form was impressive as he helped the Owerri-based FC to victory in the Federation Cup. Although he was dropped from the final squad to Afcon 2013, he did enough to impress Keshi for a recall after the South African experience.
Occasionally criticised for his defensive lapses, Benjamin has proven that with more playing time, he might become another Ben Iroha in the Super Eagles. A regular in the CHAN Eagles squad, the overlapping left wing back was kept on the bench to understudy Elderson Echiejile for Nigeria's 2014 World Cup qualifier against Kenya in March and then made the 23-man squad for a friendly against Mexico, two Fifa World Cup qualifiers and the Fifa Confederations Cup.
He got his first major test against Italy and lived up to the occasion against the star-studded Europeans in London. Should Taye Taiwo eventually get a chance to battle for the Eagles shirt, he has a lot to do to displace this brilliant lad.
After the unceremonious exit of Dele Ayenugba from the national team, the Warri Wolves shot stopper has been commanding in goal. Although the presence of the duo of Vincent Enyeama and Austine Ejide still limits his playing chances for Keshi’s side, his commanding performance with the Super Eagles B has given a hint that if given the opportunity to start ahead of the more established goalkeepers, he will surely not disappoint.
Apart from his horror miss against Spain in the Fifa Confederations Cup, Gambo provided attacking options for Stephen Keshi in the absence of key strikers. Apart from this, the Kano Pillar forward scored crucial goals that qualified the country for their first Chan tournament.
Unlike most of the other locally-based players, the 25-year-old is a seasoned professional who has spent several seasons campaigning in the Nigerian top flight bringing his wealth of experience to the senior national team.
His imposing physical presence in the Super Eagles defence explains why Dele Adeleye, Joseph Yobo and Danny Shittu still remain far from the senior national team. Having lost his place to Kenneth Omeruo at AFCON due to a bout with chicken pox, he was included in the team to Brazil for the Confederations Cup where he made cameo appearances against Tahiti and Spain.
He also has surprising mobility and is capable of tackling with both strength and timing, making him a vital asset for Stephen Keshi during the World Cup qualifiers. The Warri Wolves skipper was commanding for the home-based Eagles in their CHAN qualifiers – and also in friendlies against Jordan and Italy. Even with disappointment at failing to lift the Federation Cup after his penalty miss ensured Enyimba were crowned champions, Egwueke deserves a mention as a stand-out performer for Nigeria since making his debut in 2012.
His overlapping runs and quick recovery rate has earned him the tag as Super Eagles’ Sergio Ramos. The Sunshine Stars right back has proved a great asset in the Eagles rear which once featured the likes of Chibuzor Okoronkwo, Adefemi Olubayo, Chidi Odiah and Abbey George.
Though he was dropped from the squad to the Afcon, the young lad has shown a great deal of improvement since his debut against Niger Republic as an 18-year-old followed by another breath-taking performance against Venezuela.
This genius who dumped the medical field for soccer boots against his family's wish has forged a solid unit with Oboabona in the heart of Eagles’ defence. Remarkable to think he is only a teenager, Nigeria & Sunshine Stars have an absolute gem on their hands - a case he justified against Italy holding his nerves against the likes of Mario Balotelli, Andrea Pirlo, Montolivio, Motta, Giuseppe Rossi and co.
Not taking away the credit due to Godfrey Oboabona whose major input to the national team was a local based pin-up alongside Juwon Oshaniwa, Gabriel Reuben, Emeka Eze, I am bold to say that the local-based players have surpassed fans' expectations by showing that they are better than some of the esteemed foreign-based professionals and that with regular stints in national team colours, they too can match the best legs in the world.
Aside from this, the Nigeria Professional Football League deserves applause for housing these heroes despite the crises and controversies that seemed to have rocked its existence over the years. At last something good has come out from our ‘Jerusalem’ and one hopes that in 2014 and subsequent years, they will continue to stamp their authority in the Super Eagles starting XI.
Can any of these home-based stars win the 2013 Goal Nigeria Player of the Year Award?
Voting for the Goal Nigeria Player of the Year Award opens on December 2, 2013. Use the hashtag #GoalNigeriaPOTY in your Twitter discussions.