By Solace Chukwu
Goalkeepers are a peculiar breed. The cliché is that they get better with age, like fine wine. The legendary Dino Zoff, for example, lifted the 1982 World Cup at the ripe old age of 42. Why this is so is not hard to fathom. More than any other position on the pitch, the goalkeeper is faced in every game with a simple task: to react to what goes on in front of him. They will perform the same actions and movements over and over, game on game, and it stands to reason that the longer they do this, the more confident and proficient they become at not just reacting to, but anticipating unfolding scenarios.
If there is one department that Stephen Keshi will be comfortable with heading to Brazil, it is certainly the goalkeepers.
Vincent Enyeama and Austin Ejide have been rocks between the sticks, with excellent displays against Italy and Mexico over the past six months. The stability and confidence of any defence is greatly dependent on the quality of the goalkeeper behind them.
Nigerians are well aware of the perils that come with an iffy goalkeeper at the World Cup.
In the rarefied atmosphere of the most-watched sporting event in the world, playing against the best teams, the slightest error can and will be penalized.
It doesn’t take much, really.
Brazil 2014 will be Nigeria’s fourth outing on the global stage. The consecutive second round appearances of ’94 and ’98 represent their best performances, but a closer examination will show what might have been.
Rufai | Reflexes let him down
Peter Rufai was the custodian for both those outings, and is rightly remembered with fondness as a legend of Nigerian football and its finest-ever goalkeeper. He possessed superb reflexes and was excellent, though occasionally unnecessarily flamboyant, at claiming crosses. However, in Nigeria’s second group game against Argentina at the Foxborough Stadium in USA ’94, his Achilles heel was painfully exposed.
A cardinal rule of goalkeeping is: do not get beaten at your near post. Rufai took this rule to absurd lengths with his awful positioning, showing too much of his far post to Claudio Caniggia. This was proved not to be a one-off, he repeated the error for Raul’s goal in the opening group game of France '98 against Spain. The lesson had not been learnt. If the ball was played down the side, Rufai left the far post wide open.
Four years later, with the World Cup in France looming, Ike Shorunmu was lined up to be number one. He impressed in a pre-tournament friendly loss to Germany, but was injured soon after. When erstwhile number two Abiodun Baruwa did a Rene Higuita impression in the next friendly against a rampant Yugoslavia, Rufai, then 34, who was on his way to a summer vacation got recalled. He served warning of the impending storm, failing to react to the subtlest of deflections on a Fernando Hierro free kick in the group opener.
The nadir was a shambolic performance against Denmark in the Second Round. With Nigerians already drooling over a potential Quarter Final against defending champions Brazil, Rufai’s poor handling was directly responsible for two of the Danes’ four goals.
A sad end to a legendary career.
Shorunmu | Paid his dues
2002 in Korea and Japan was similarly hinged on the performance of the goalkeeper. Ike Shorunmu, having been a long-time apprentice and having paid his dues, went into the World Cup at the age of 34 as undisputed number one. Once more, Argentina would benefit from a goalkeeping error against Nigeria. All game, Shorunmu misjudged the trajectory of Ariel Ortega’s corner kicks, rushing out and getting caught in no-man’s land repeatedly. Eventually, Gabriel Batistuta punished the veteran to earn the pre-tournament favourites a slim one-nil victory.
The second group game was even more of a letdown.
Defeat to Argentina was painful, but could supposedly have been budgeted for. Sweden, on the other hand, was eminently winnable.
With the game poised at a goal apiece and the Super Eagles dominating, Shorunmu scuffed a goal-kick straight to the Swedes, who roared into the penalty area and won a penalty. Henrik Larsson dispatched with typical aplomb and that was ‘all she wrote’ for the Nigerian side in the Land of the Rising Sun. Sweden sat back and defended for their lives till the final whistle.
When the Mundial came around to African soil in 2010, Nigeria were once more grouped with Argentina. That tournament ultimately ended in the disappointment of another First Round exit, but most Nigerians remember with fondness the heroics of Vincent Enyeama, who put on a goalkeeping clinic to keep out Lionel Messi and keep the margin of defeat against Argentina to a single goal.
Ejide | A Sturdy Stand-In
Not many remember, however, that it was his error in spilling a strike from just outside the penalty area that led to Greece’s winner in the second group game. Fewer still will recall that he failed to get down to a South Korean free kick in the third game which he ought to have saved. Had he saved that, the Super Eagles would have won that game and gone through at the Asians’ expense.
The point is this: the World Cup is decided on the tiniest of margins. Unlike that of any other role on the pitch, a goalkeeper’s error is far costlier. If a striker misses a chance, another can be created, and the team is not handicapped. If a goalkeeper makes an error, the team concedes a goal.
For the first time in a long time, the Super Eagles have a secure goalkeeping department. Perhaps this is why Nigerians can look to Brazil with hope. Enyeama and Ejide are now significantly more experienced, and at the peak of their powers.
With the goalie gaffes eliminated, there can be great reason for optimism.