By Lolade Adewuyi | Nigeria Chief Editor
On February 2, 2013 in the South African city of Rustenburg, a day before Nigeria were scheduled to play their quarter final game against Cote d’Ivoire, this writer presented the Goal.com Nigeria Fans’ Player of the Year Award to Chelsea’s John Obi Mikel.
In the thick of the Africa Cup of Nations tournament, it was a milestone for our site that the national team authorities allowed us to do the mini ceremony in order to honour one of the team’s main fulcrums.
As I handed out the award plaque to the beaming Mikel, coach Stephen Keshi stood by to witness the ceremony and said a few words of encouragement to the midfielder. “I would like to see you win the African player of the year award next,” Keshi said.
Inspired by Goal’s award and gingered by the words of his coach, the next day Mikel gave a terrific performance to silence Didier Drogba and Yaya Toure, both two time winners of the Caf African Player of the Year award, at the Royal Bafokeng Sports Palace.
In a game Ivorian defender Kolo Toure said was worthy of the tournament final, Nigeria’s squad shone brightly and showed all their inherent quality as they won 2-1. It was the turning point of their campaign, a tide which they rode to win the tournament a week later in Johannesburg against Burkina Faso.
Not since 1999 when Nwankwo Kanu won his second African best player award has Nigeria had a bright chance like they have this year to win the award courtesy of the performance of their team in South Africa. At least a top three finish is guaranteed this year, something they haven’t had the luxury since Austin Okocha finished on the podium in 2004.
Since the Afcon triumph, the stock of the Super Eagles has risen and is surely to be consolidated this year on the Goal 50, a list of the best players in the world chosen by the editors of Goal.com, the world’s largest football website.
From 2008 when Goal started making the list of deserving players from around the world, no Nigerian has had the honour of being named. However, things are set to improve for Super Eagles players this term courtesy of their performance in the past year.
Veritable challenge comes from the prior named Mikel who has shaken off years of criticism by taking his game with Nigeria to a whole new level. His command of the team’s midfield has revived collective nostalgia of the lad who dazzled the world at the 2005 Fifa U20 World Cup in the Netherlands. It is akin to a renegade prince who is ready to take his throne.
|"I would like to see you win the African player of the year award next."
- Stephen Keshi to Mikel
Mikel’s command performance at the Confederations Cup in Brazil in June where he scored a beautiful equalizer against Uruguay also serves him up as a contender for the Goal 50.
At the Africa Cup of Nations, fans also saw young Chelsea winger Victor Moses light up the tournament and make the team of the tournament after scoring two goals. His searing pace as well as incisive dribbles helped Nigeria on the way to their third continental title. Even though he missed the Confederations Cup through injury, Moses was key to his club’s run to the Europa League final triumph.
Two more players from the Nigeria Afcon squad who could make a showing on the Goal 50 list this year are Emmanuel Emenike and Sunday Mba who scored six of the Super Eagles’ 11 goals in their title triumph.
Heavily built and strong on the ball, Emenike powered Nigeria’s push to the final on the back of his four goals gotten against all opponents except Ethiopia. His powerful free kick stunned the Elephants in the quarter final and he was full of running and trickery as the Eagles walloped Mali in the semi final. Sadly, he sat out the sixth and final game against Burkina Faso after copping an injury which sidelined him for most of the half year.
Perhaps the revelation of the squad was Mba who scored key winning goals against Cote d’Ivoire and Burkina Faso in the quarter final and final. Based in the Nigerian league with Enugu Rangers, Mba has been a key part of Keshi’s revolution where focus has shifted from dependence on Europe-based players to the development of players from the domestic league.
Mba’s grace and composure at the Afcon earned Nigeria their victory on February 10 against the Stallions. A year ago, his name was hardly worth noticing in the media. Now he could be staking a place among the world’s biggest players.
Far from being overlooked, goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama also played a huge part in the squad’s Afcon triumph as he shut out opponents conceding just four. His experience helped to provide confidence for the young duo of central defenders Kenneth Omeruo and Godfrey Oboabona.
Even though goalkeepers are usually not as popular as forwards on the list of top accolades, Enyeama has shown he can stand his ground, on the pitch and off it.
Will there be a place for Nigerian players on the Goal 50 this year? It’s a tantalising prospect, and I hope to see as many as possible even though it is a tough call.
However, in a year that many of the regular African stars have seen their stocks fall, it might just be the year that the Nigerians get to rise, deservedly so. Since four-time Goal 50 veteran Samuel Eto’o and twice-named Yaya Toure have not had such great seasons both at club and country, the Goal 50 looks like it will receive some new Africans this year.
Hence, the Nigeria Afcon class of 2013 should definitely make a big splash as a precursor to the Caf African Player of the Year awards which they should dominate again.
It would definitely gladden the heart of their coach Stephen Keshi.