By Ed Dove
Earlier in the month, I jokingly suggested that even Sunday Mba’s grandmother hadn’t heard of the Nigerian midfielder before 2013. Such has been his enormous impact however, that the Super Eagle star has now forced his way into the Goal 50.
Mba made himself a national hero during the Super Eagles’ run to the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations title; without his two crucial contributions, history might have looked very differently upon Stephen Keshi and his Nigeria collective.
I have written extensively about the transformation the side underwent during those six crucial Cup of Nations contests. After early struggles against Burkina Faso and Zambia, the Big Boss had the foresight and the courage to alter his team and specifically, the personnel, in order to strike a brighter balance.
Joseph Yobo, Fegor Ogude and Nosa Igiebor, laboured, clumsy and anonymous respectively, were replaced, while Kenneth Omeruo, Ogenyi Onazi and Sunday Mba were introduced. The difference was marked, and with the side managing a greater cohesion and a more proactive outlook, they began to look like genuine contenders.
Either side of the emphatic rout of Mali in the semi-final, Mba was the difference maker.
Mba: The Difference Maker
Against the ageing Golden Generation of Cote d’Ivoire, this young and precocious side came of age, containing and eventually overcoming their illustrious opposition.
Cheick Tiote cancelled out Emmanuel Emenike’s first half strike, but despite menacing for much of the contest, the Elephants failed to find a second goal. Eventually, Mba made them pay for their profligacy; after running boldly through the heart of the pitch, leaving defenders aplenty in his wake, his shot was deflected past Boubacar Barry.
There certainly was a hint of good luck about the goal, but fortune favours the brave, and it was Mba, rather than the likes of Yaya Toure and Gervinho, who truly sought the inspiration to succeed.
His impact, against such famous opponents, was all the more remarkable given his obscure reputation in footballing circles. Keshi deserves enormous credit for including six domestic-based players in his Afcon squad, and unperturbed by the ‘Golden Grandpas’ of the Ivory Coast, Mba rewarded his manager’s faith tenfold.
It was a watershed moment; the young, unfancied, raw Nigeria side overcoming—and eliminating—the much-feted Ivorians.
Years from now, maybe the Super Eagles’ own Golden Generation will look back on that victory, on that goal, and identify it as the starting point, the déclenchement.
The goal against Cote d’Ivoire guaranteed that Mba will always be greeted with a smile and an embrace in his homeland, his contribution in the final, however, will ensure that his name is remembered through the generations.
It was he that made reality of belief.
Mba takes Burkina Faso to pieces
Certainly, the Burkinabé defence possibly lost composure and concentration when it mattered most; absolutely, the opposition legs were wearied following a demanding run to the Johannesburg final; definitely, Victor Moses and the other forwards deserve great credit for their foresight and movement…but what a delicious finish that final goal was.
Again charging through the heart of the opposition, unable to contain his directness and urgency, Mba found some space, raised the ball over the bewildered Bakary Koné with his right foot and darted on to volley the ball home with his left.
It was the simplicity of playground soccer, but the ingenuity of the greats. Mba tore away, his face contorted in euphoric Elysium. He knew, surely he knew, that this goal secured his immortality.
It was a goal for Keshi, a goal for posterity, and a goal for all of Nigeria.
While this pertinent insertion into football history will never be erased from the minds of Nigerians, Mba has thoroughly failed to kick on from his triumph.
That his Goal 50 selection comes in a year when he has played only 11 times highlights not only the significance of his Afcon contribution, but also the catastrophic stasis of his club career. Only one of those outings has been domestically, for Enugu Rangers.
Like a few others of that famous Cup of Nations squad, Mba has endured misfortune and misadventure since that glorious evening at the FNB Stadium, Johannesburg.
Immediately after the final, the suggestion was that Sunday was on track for a very special future. Arsenal and Tottenham were just two of the major clubs linked with the player, and the perception was that this young man would soon be influencing contests in a major European league.
Instead, he became embroiled in a contract dispute between Warri Wolves—who claimed registration right over the player—and Enugu Rangers, who hoped to secure his signature themselves. A demoralising few months followed, with Mba prevented from taking to the field and those whispers of Europe floating further and further away.
Sunday Struggles at the Confederations Cup
Despite being a feature of the Nigeria squad that competed in both World Cup qualifiers and the Confederations Cup this summer, Mba was a shadow of his Afcon-self. He only managed an hour against Tahiti and Spain, and was dropped altogether for the Uruguay clash, finally coming on for an ineffectual cameo.
News that his short-term domestic future has been sorted out will come as a relief to both player and national selectors. While Sunday shot to the stars during the Cup of Nations, he has lost ground since those dramatic evenings in South Africa.
Speaking to Goal following his selection in the Goal 50, Mba expressed hope that his recognition will prompt renewed transfer talk. A move to Europe is the ultimate goal, with the midfielder a self-confessed Barcelona fan.
The anonymity of the last few months have almost made ridicule of the lofty expectations for the 26-year-old; Mba’s first aim should be to once again influence contests as he did so emphatically at the Afcon.
I doubt anyone else in the Goal 50 has made the list based solely on the contributions of two fixtures. That pair of games have guaranteed Mba a place in the heart of Nigerians for eternity, but the midfielder must go on to prove that he can earn a spot among such exalted company based on the performances of a season and the harvest of a career.