By Solace Chukwu
It’s a good thing that, being deeply religious, Nigerians are no strangers to vigils spent in frenzied anticipation.
The Super Eagles’ 23-man squad list for the World Cup was finally cleared for announcement by the media (it had apparently been sent to Fifa hours prior) in the early hours of Tuesday, after a tenuous wait. The list received mixed to negative reviews, with many bemoaning the absence of Enugu Rangers’ winger Ejike Uzoenyi and Real Betis’s Nosa Igiebor, among others. Cup of Nations hero Sunday Mba was cut as well, a victim seemingly of his own carelessness in failing to report to camp at the time instructed.
However, the cull has been done and the places have been decided, so there is little benefit in crying over spilt milk. What is clear from the list is that the coaching crew led by Stephen Keshi have more rigorous interaction with the players and have identified certain qualities that stand those selected in good stead for Brazil. So, what are these qualities and which of the new picks could be the team’s trump card?
Ukraine-based Michael Babatunde divides opinion the most of the 23 selected.
He was part of a somewhat experimental side to last year’s Confederations Cup, but looked out of his depth. However, he must have done enough in the heat of Brazil then to suggest he will be a valuable asset now, because Keshi surprised us all by including him not only in the preliminary 30, but in the final 23. He offers high work-rate, and is reasonably quick, but must pay greater attention to his defensive duties. His lapse allowed Alan Hutton to advance and set up Scotland’s second goal in last Wednesday’s friendly at Craven Cottage.
Babatunde | Nigeria fans are unconvincined
Next out of the oven is Reuben Gabriel (what a great name that is, eh?). The man who turns out for Waasland-Beveren in the Belgian League showed promise earlier in his career, but has not found the transition to Europe as smooth as he would have liked. In many ways a throwback, he offers strength and aggression at the base of midfield. His passing was slightly awry against the Scots, likely a function of his match-rustiness; and he is not the quickest over the ground. However, once Nigerians get over their anguish at the exclusion of Igiebor and Joel Obi, they just might realise a little steel in the middle is not a bad idea, especially against a Bosnia-Herzegovina side full of technicians but with a soft underbelly.
Uche Nwofor proved his worth in earning the Super Eagles a not-so-deserved draw against Scotland, showcasing his superb positioning and movement in his 29 minute cameo off the bench. The archetypal fox-in-the-box, his ability to be in the right place at the right time could well decide a tight, nervy game as the group opener against Iran may turn out to be.
After the game against Mexico in March, it was clear that Michael Uchebo had a lot to offer. Playing high up the pitch just off Emmanuel Emenike, he shone in his defensive responsibilities, slowing down Mexico’s attacks with his disciplined positioning. Against Scotland, he showed that intelligent spatial awareness in the attacking phase as well. His decision-making is not always right, but he is very skilful for a big man and against a team such as Argentina who like to build through a deep-lying playmaker (usually Fernando Gago), he could be vital in denying space.
Uchebo | Growing into the Team
It is perhaps an indication of how highly Ramon Azeez is rated by Nigerians that his place in the squad raised no eyebrows, in spite of the fact that he has amassed a grand total of one cap for the Super Eagles. If you are good enough, you are old enough. Azeez has had a splendid season playing with lowly Almeria in Spain and helping the Andalusian side avoid relegation, while weighing in with two vital goals (both winners). His versatility and range of passing means there is no limit positionally to Azeez, and do not be surprised to see him re-ignite his rivalry from the U-17 days with Ogenyi Onazi.
All the above are surprise inclusions that could go on to play major roles in Brazil, but let us not be coy. The real points of interest are the returns handed to team captain Joseph Yobo and Stoke striker Osaze Odemwingie.
Yobo overcame fitness concerns and poor form to snag a move to Premier League strugglers Norwich on loan. Amid concerns over his advancing years, he helped the team to a clean sheet against eventual Premier League champions and division top scorers Manchester City in February on his debut, demonstrating that class is permanent. He will be expected to provide leadership off the pitch and back-up on it to the young duo of Godfrey Oboabona and Kenneth Omeruo.
The real difference-maker in Brazil however, will be Odemwingie.
Odemwingie | The long-awaited return
Rewind to the Africa Cup of Nations in 2004, and the second group game for Nigeria against South Africa. There, the then 22-year-old Russia-born forward announced himself to the world. His celebratory dance on scoring a brace was a show of identification with Nigeria and its rich culture, and so began the love affair between a football-crazy nation and the talented Odemwingie.
The country has never quite fallen out of love with the dashing forward, evidenced by the outcry for his recall into the national team set-up. Never mind his insubordination and falling out with Keshi in 2012, for which the forward has apologised, accepting that he “...shouldn’t have taken it (being substituted early on in a Nations Cup qualifier against Rwanda) in the way [he] did”; never mind his subsequent derisory tweet(s) ridiculing his exclusion from the squad to Afcon 2013, which the Super Eagles would go on to win.
When you go green, you don’t go back. Nigeria fell in love hard.
All is forgiven now, and the ‘prodigal son’ of Nigerian football is back and has a point to prove. Now 32 he is keen to make up for lost time. He stated recently that he regrets not being a part of the team that made history in South Africa last year.
“I wish I was part of the squad because I’ve played in four Africa Nations [Cups] and got three bronze medals, never gold,” Odemwingie said wistfully to The Guardian.
“But I can’t look back. This is another opportunity for me.”
Indeed it is, and on the back of a refreshing half-season with Stoke, the pacy attacker will hope to provide a clinical edge to a team that struggled for goals all through World Cup qualifying. Rapier-quick, full of tricks, capable of playing anywhere in the front three and with a knack for scoring important goals at crucial moments, Odemwingie is poised to go from team pariah to messiah in Brazil.