By Ed Dove
Ahead of the Cup of Nations clash between Nigeria and Ethiopia back in January, there was an atmosphere of concern and nervous trepidation among Super Eagles fans.
In our first two group games, against Burkina Faso and Zambia, we remained unbeaten, but had thrown away leads, suffered damaging suspensions and had looked stodgy and uninspired in the final third. Ethiopia, on the other hand, had looked brave and proactive, if naive, unfettered by expectation and buoyed on by their partisan travelling support.
Nigeria were there to be slain and humiliated, Ethiopia there to make history.
For 80 minutes such an outcome might well have been realised. Eventually, however, class told, and a new star was born.
Victor Moses had been slow to get into the rhythm of the Cup of Nations, and had previously delivered subdued, forgettable performances.
Here, however, he was primed to reveal his glorious ability, in a vivid multicolour, before the watching world. After not featuring too prominently in the opening stages, he came to life as the game gently petered out. His direct running and searing pace clearly terrified the Ethiopian backline and twice he was brought down, twice winning crucial penalties, and twice showing the composure of a much more experienced player to convert.
Perhaps, history will remember those final ten minutes as a turning point; for Moses, they were the moments that catapulted him firmly into the hearts of a nation, identifying him as one of the continent’s elite forwards; for Stephen Keshi’s Super Eagles squad it provided the confidence, the platform and the foundations to go on, to challenge Cote d’Ivoire and the others, and to bring him the top prize.
Moses vs. Ethiopia: Welcome to Africa
For Nigerian football in general, taking a broader perspective, that ten minutes of devastation prevented the traditional post-disappointment meltdown and bought Keshi the time and the opportunity required to develop the various, young, talented strands of this excellent Super Eagle generation.
Looking back on that fixture, on the eleven figures who stepped onto the Royal Bafokeng Stadium, on the fortunes and euphoria that have touched them all since, it is fair to say that they, we, all of us, have come a long way.
The personnel hasn’t changed all that much, only Ike Uche and Joseph Yobo, of those who featured that day, haven’t been seen since the Cup of Nations. Fegor Ogude and Kenneth Omeruo, both of whom have suffered recent injury, are also absent for this weekend's clash, but both will be confident of making the World Cup squad should we make it.
One of the many sub-plots that preceded Nigeria’s return to the continental high table in 2013 was the tangle between two goalkeepers, both keen to prove their worth to Keshi and justify their spot in the starting line-up. It wasn’t exactly Bell and N’Kono, but both Vincent Enyeama and Austin Ejide were sturdy stoppers keen to guarantee their place behind the side’s back four.
In the end, an injury to Ejide before the tournament ensured that Enyeama would continue as the side’s Number One. There have, naturally, been a few stuttering performances between then and now, but heading into this international weekend, the Lille keeper has kept more clean sheets than any other gardien in Europe’s top five leagues so far this term.
Enyeama: Leading the Pack
His inspirational performances during our run to the Afcon title, not least the way he kept out Saladin Said in that group stage clash with Ethiopia, have seen a reassessment of his worth to the side. Enyeama is one of the continent’s finest custodians and will be looking to affirm this reputation next summer in Brazil.
John Obi Mikel is another who played that evening in Rustenburg and whose reputation has improved tenfold since that 2-0 triumph.
In my review of that fixture I suggested that unlike his Chelsea teammate Moses, Mikel was still to find his niche within the national side. I argued that Mikel was still caught in an unhappy compromise between being the side’s defensive rock and its creative maestro, he was trying to do too much, to straddle the inspired play of his youth and the conservative play of Stamford Bridge, ultimately achieving neither and failing to live up to his name and the expectations bestowed upon him.
Step forward Ogenyi Onazi.
Anyone who has kept even a cursory eye on my writing over the last six months will know that I am in utter adoration of Lazio’s defensive midfielder. Indeed, I don’t believe that he has received enough credit for the way he altered the course of our Afcon sojourn.
Onazi: Changing the Complexion of Nigeria's midfield
Following that performance against Ethiopia in January, and the imbalance of our central midfield, Ogude was jettisoned and replaced with the youngster, Onazi. The midfielder’s discipline, tactical nous and energy provided the perfect platform for Mikel to work from; knowing that Onazi was covering the defence, Mikel was allowed to let his creative wills flourish—to such memorable effect.
That Ethiopia game represented, therefore, a turning point for Mikel—it was the last time that the Chelsea man was torn between two stalls for Nigeria. The subsequent introduction of Onazi has set John Obi on his way to finally realising his potential influence with the Super Eagles.
Once again, as fate would have it, the time for turning points and thresholds brings us back to Ethiopia, one of African football’s great fallen giants, gently rising once more to prominence, and a World Cup place, glistening and gleaming before us both.
Following that clash back in January, reviewing the game for this website, I wrote the following: “I, for one, hope that 2013 marks a permanent end to the Walias’ exile from international competition, and that this talented, underrated collection of players are soon gracing our screens once more.”
I still hope that some of these hopes are realised. Just not quite yet.