The goalkeeper broke into Lille's lineup and was one of the standout performers of 2013-14 with his match-saving efforts, earning him a spot in 2014's Goal 50.Vincent Enyeama’s inclusion in the Goal 50 for 2014 comes as no surprise given his performances over the past 12 months, but a year ago it would have triggered incredulous double-takes around the world.
The position of a backup goalkeeper is soccer’s most unwanted job. In any other position, rotation might be required because of the rigors of different competitions, but goalkeepers rarely pass the duties around. The only way a backup generally plays is if the starter gets injured or suffers a cataclysmic slide in form.
Sometimes, it takes a coaching change. Rene Girard, brought in as Rudi Garcia's replacement at Ligue 1 side Lille, set about evaluating the club's goalkeeping options, and it proved to be Enyeama's big break. A coach keen on defensive solidity, Girard chose to go with the Nigerian between the sticks ahead of erstwhile shot stopper Steeve Elana.
It was a gamble. Enyeama was signed by the club in 2011, but had only a single appearance: a group-stage Champions League loss to Inter. The rest of the time had been spent on loan in Israel.
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The Nigeria international took Ligue 1 by storm, revelling in the coach’s confidence. He grabbed the headlines across France as he piled up consecutive clean sheets in the league, a run that was only ended against Bordeaux by a deflected Landry N’Guemo strike after 11 games and 1,062 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.
That sequence made the world sit up and take notice, but in truth his excellence had been clear for over a decade at the international level. Already an African champion, he played a vital role in Nigeria’s qualification for the World Cup in Brazil, leading a defense that conceded only four goals and kept four clean sheets in eight qualifiers.
His stellar season with Lille was met with great acclaim, picking up the Marc-Vivien Foe Award as the best African player in Ligue 1, the first goalkeeper and the first player from Anglophone Africa to claim the prize. He also finished second for the Ligue 1 Goalkeeper of the Year Award, even though the consensus was that he should have won it ahead of Salvatore Sirigu.
And when the biggest stage of world soccer 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 after an attack against the run of play in the group opener against Iran; produced a priceless stop with his feet at the very end to earn three points against Bosnia-Herzegovina; and was blameless as Nigeria conceded three times against Argentina.
Without these monumental contributions, there is no way Nigeria would have equalled its best World Cup run by reaching the round of 16.
Enyeama is already arguably Nigeria’s finest-ever goalkeeper, and his magnificent showings over the past 12 months put him in world soccer’s top bracket. His 21 clean sheets in the league for Lille dragged the modest outfit to third place and Champions League qualification; no other goalkeeper bettered that tally in Europe’s top five leagues.
Enyeama has superb footwork and is a reliable passer over long distances, but what has really stood out 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 opposition player does not control the ball properly, he is quick to pounce and quell the danger. He amassed 82 saves 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 5 feet 11 inches, he is not always the most assured in a crowded penalty area, and can struggle when he comes off his line on set pieces.
But the appreciation and accolades are coming thick and fast for the 31-year-old Enyeama, and rightly so. 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 No. 1.