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African All Stars

Odion Ighalo retires from Nigeria on a high, with Afcon Golden Boot and vindication

00:19 GMT+3 22/07/2019
Ighalo - Super Eagles
After a receiving criticism for much of his international career, the 30-year old finally has the last laugh as he hangs up his boots

It’s been a topsy-turvy few years for the Super Eagles under Gernot Rohr, with a large portion of the Nigerian fanbase not always approving of his methods and squad selections.

Indeed, personnel issues have been one of the areas that German tactician has been criticised, with the coach's sustained faith in Odion Ighalo a particular bone of contention among supporters.

With his final act, however, Ighalo, who has called time on his national team commitments after finishing as the Africa Cup of Nations' top scorer with five goals, has finally vindicated Rohr's faith and repaid the coach's unswering trust. 

The Shanghai Shenhua forward’s international career has never been plain-sailing, and he started slowly, with only two goals in his first 10 matches.

When Rohr came on board, Ighalo was retained as the starting striker, despite his less-than-stellar goalscoring record to that point, although by late 2017, he had begun to rediscover his goalscoring form in China following a slump in England with Watford.

He hadn't scored in the six matches leading up to the 2018 World Cup, where he reached his nadir with a poor showing - and a horror miss - against Argentina as the Super Eagles fell at the first hurdle. What followed was intense criticism of Ighalo, to the point where he received threats to his life and family.

It had appeared, at one point, like the pressure might have prompted him to call time on his international career, but Ighalo soldiered on for another year.

He returned with a bang in the latter part of the 2019 Afcon qualifiers, netting crucial goals against Seychelles and Libya, which were good enough for Nigeria to take top spot.

He ultimately finished as the top scorer in the whole of the qualifying programme, with seven goals.

Competition proper kicked off in Egypt, and Ighalo was the match-winner in theGroup B opener against Burundi, receiving Ola Aina’s sublime back heel. The former Udinese man was ineffective against Guinea and Madagascar, which culminated in the Super Eagles finishing second in the group behind the latter.

Rohr was blamed for not utilising his other attacking options in Henry Onyekuru and Victor Osimhen, and there was outrage again as the former Burkina Faso boss started Ighalo against Cameroon. Just when it seemed the Super Eagles were on the cusp of elimination, Ighalo struck a brace and provided a decisive assist for a memorable 3-2 win. He would go on to score the equaliser against Algeria in the semis, and the lone goal in the playoff against Tunisia.

Reports of his imminent retirement began circulating after the semi-final defeat, but once the tournament was over, Ighalo promptly made his exit official.

It has to be said that Ighalo is a man of steel. To have withstood much criticism, only to rise above it and dazzle, is extraordinary.

It’s very easy for Nigerian stars to fall off the radar after heavy backlash for poor performances. Yakubu Aiyegbeni, after his open miss from close range against South Korea at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, and Sani Kaita for his red card against Greece in the same competition, are just two examples.

Ighalo’s five goals at the Afcon ties him with Rashidi Yekini’s record at the 1994 Afcon in Tunisia. He is also the sixth Nigerian after Segun Odegbami, Yekini, Julius Aghahowa, Jay-Jay Okocha and Emmanuel Emenike, to win the continental top scorer gong.

With 11 goals in his last 13 international appearances, all in less than a year, and as the first player to finish as top scorer in Afcon qualifiers and the tournament proper, Ighalo can retire a happy and fulfilled man.

He can now continue his prolific exploits in China, where’s he found the back of the net 43 times - finishing second highest scorer in the top flight last year, without any unnecessary pressure.

The next step is to find a replacement for Ighalo, but it’s not going to be easy. 

Osimhen and Onyekuru are yet to really show their worth, despite doing well for their clubs, likewise Paul Onuachu. Kelechi Iheanacho was axed from the final squad that made it to Egypt, and it might be a long way back for him unless his club form improves.

There’s also no sign that Tammy Abraham is close to switching allegiance from England to Nigeria.

Rohr has been vindicated in sticking with Ighalo, with the forward's performances this month thoroughly justifying his faith.

The 30-year old forward is having the last laugh now, and fans who dismissed, criticised and abused him before have definitely been made to eat their words.