The position of back-up goalkeeper is football’s most unwanted job. In any other position, rotation might be required due to the rigours of different competitions, but goalkeepers perform the most simplistic function: saving shots. The only way a back-up plays is if the first-choice gets injured or suffers a cataclysmic slide in form.
Or a coaching change?
While Roma’s players were having a giggle at new manager Rudi Garcia’s guitar-playing antics on YouTube, Enyeama saw an opportunity. Rene Girard, brought in as Garcia’s replacement at Ligue 1 side Lille, set about evaluating the club’s goalkeeping options. This was Enyeama’s big break. A manager keen on defensive solidity, Girard picked up on him as the last line of defence ahead of erstwhile number one Steeve Elana.
It was a gamble, even allowing for Enyeama’s superiority in the experience stakes. He was signed by the club in 2011, but had only managed a single appearance: a group-stage Champions League loss to Inter Milan. The rest of the time had been spent on loan in Israel.
Girard was on to a winner.
The Nigeria international took Ligue 1 by storm, revelling in the manager’s confidence. He grabbed headlines as he piled up consecutive clean sheets in the league, a run that was ended against Bordeaux by a deflected Landry N’Guemo strike at 11 games and 1062 minutes. It is the closest anyone has come to equalling a 20-year-old record of 1176 minutes held by Gaetan Huard, ironically set with Les Girondins.
No record, but few will forget Enyeama's run of clean sheets
That sequence made the world sit up and take notice, but his excellence had been clear for over a decade at international level. Already an African champion, he played a vital role in Nigeria’s qualification for the World Cup in Brazil, marshalling a defence that conceded only four goals and kept four clean sheets in eight qualifiers en route.
His stellar season with Lille was met with approbation and acclaim, as he claimed the Marc-Vivien Foe Award as the best African player in Ligue 1, the first goalkeeper and the first from Anglophone Africa to claim the gong. He was also selected in second place for the Ligue 1 Goalkeeper of the Year Award, even though the consensus was that he should have won it ahead of Salvatore Sirigu.
When the biggest stage of world football beckoned, Enyeama was not found wanting. The Super Eagles struggled to shine in Brazil with the world watching, but the man between the sticks was one of the few bright spots. He showed his concentration, saving from point blank range against the run of play in the group opener vs. Iran; produced a priceless stop with his feet at the very last to earn three points against Bosnia-Herzegovina; and could do nothing to prevent the three goals conceded against Argentina.
Without these monumental contributions, Nigeria would have failed to secure a place in the World Cup Round of 16, tying their best ever performance at the Mundial.
Messi and Enyeama: Nemeses with respect
He is already arguably Nigeria’s finest-ever goalkeeper, and his magnificent showings over the past twelve months put him in the world football’s top bracket. His 21 clean sheets in the league for Lille dragged the modest outfit to 3rd place and Champions League qualification; no other goalkeeper bettered that tally in Europe’s top 5 leagues.
Enyeama has superb footwork and is a reliable passer over long distances, but has really stood out in his goalkeeping style over the past season is his speed off his line. Not so much in terms of sweeping (he is no Manuel Neuer) as in reacting to situations in the box. He anticipates the movement of the ball, and if the receiving player does not control the ball properly, he is lightning-quick to pounce. He amassed 82 blocks in Ligue 1, a mark of his propensity to dart off his line and make himself big in a one-on-one situation.
He also boasts superb reflexes from close range, and is a prolific shot stopper. If there is one weakness in his game, it is his aerial ability. A bit short for a goalkeeper at 5ft 11in, he is not always the most assured in a crowded penalty area, and can struggle when he comes off his line on set-pieces.
The appreciation and accolades are coming thick and fast for the 31-year-old Enyeama. It is said that keepers get better with age. If that holds true for him, this will not be the last the Goal 50 sees of Nigeria’s number one.