By Ed Dove
In the current Super Eagles set-up, anything is possible. Stephen Keshi has founded his republic upon principles of meritocracy; this is a world where anyone can be anything. This is the American Dream where hard work and talent can lead you anywhere.
Bayelsa United and Manchester United are equal under Keshi; he is as likely to turn to Bendel Insurance as he is to Bayern Munich. The Big Boss has dispensed with the egos and has formed a squad littered with talented players, supported by young Nigerians and those that still play their football in the homeland.
The recent transfers of Sunday Mba and Godfrey Oboabona have shown the way for any ambitious Super Eagles; good performances in the NPL will lead to the national side, and good performances with the national side will lead to the Land of Milk and Honey, the fame and fortune of the European leagues.
The squad that is preparing to represent Nigeria in South Africa in the upcoming African Nations Championship is littered with players who have already forged a place for themselves in Keshi’s plans. A number of these men will have a keen desire to impress and keep themselves foremost in the Big Boss’s plans.
Egwuekwe’s performances during 2012, rather than 2013, are the reason that he is a squad regular. That was the year that the centre-back, along with Godfrey Oboabona, forged a competent defensive unit for the Super Eagles, earning Keshi’s trust in the process.
Despite this, and despite the fact that Joseph Yobo was unceremoniously dropped during the Cup of Nations, it was Kenneth Omeruo, rather than Egwuekwe, who rose to the occasion and claimed the starting berth.
The Warri Wolves man watched on as Omeruo became a Super Eagles hero. For all his sterling work alongside Oboabona previously, he never made it onto the pitch in South Africa.
This has left Egwuekwe as a firm back-up. He started four consecutive matches as summer turned to autumn, but was replaced as soon as Omeruo regained his fitness.
Of the eight Nigerians to have been called-up to every squad in 2013, only Chigozie Agbim has played fewer minutes than Egwuekwe. Despite this unfortunate statistic, the giant defender should expect to travel to Brazil. Ogenyi Onazi has talked fondly of his sense of humour and his contributions to the group off the pitch, while he could well be one of the CHAN’s finest stoppers.
Left-back Francis Benjamin began featuring in Stephen Keshi’s plans in 2012, but is yet to make a major impact on the senior side. The presence of Elderson Echiejile ahead of him is naturally a restricting factor but that’s not to say that Benjamin should give up hope of making the squad to Brazil.
At the Cup of Nations, Juwon Oshaniwa was the squad’s reserve left-back, but Keshi clearly had a change of heart after the finals. The Ashod player hasn’t been recalled, while Benjamin has featured in almost every squad since.
He received his chance to impress during the last game of 2013, the friendly against Italy at Craven Cottage. Benjamin played the whole contest and, ignoring some shaky moments, will have been content with his showing.
He is currently in pole position to head to the World Cup as backup to Elderson. He will, however, fear the name Taye Taiwo. A recall for the Bursaspor left-back (as some have demanded) would surely leave Benjamin on the bench.
A good performance during the CHAN, and Keshi will have little reason to pick up the phone to call Turkey.
Kwambe is an exciting right-back who will have learned a lot through his inclusion in the national side over the last 12 months. He impressed in a friendly ahead of the AFCON, prompting some to suggest that he would make the final tournament squad.
That privilege passed him by, but Kwambe, undeterred, has been a squad regular ever since, even doing enough to secure a spot on the plane to join the Confederations Cup squad in Brazil.
He has the potential to be one of the stars of the African Nations Championship…perform well here and the World Cup should be in sight.
Where did it all go wrong for Ejike Uzoenyi? 12 months ago, the winger was one of Keshi’s darlings, he was on the plane to South Africa keen to make a major impact on the continental stage.
At some stage along the way, the Big Boss seemed to lose faith in the diminutive wideman. The AFCON passed him by as, along with Juwon Oshaniwa, Nwankwo Obiorah, Nosa Igiebor and Reuben Gabriel, he ended the tournament as one of Nigeria’s forgotten faces.
For some reason, he then entered the abyss and hasn’t been called up to the full senior side since.
A failed loan stint at Rennes made for an incredibly disappointing year…Uzoenyi must have been delighted when New Year’s Eve brought 2013 to a close.
The CHAN, where he will be one of the squad’s most-experienced players, provides a perfect occasion to reassert himself in Keshi’s plans.
Injury may have cost Mohammed Gambo his place in the CHAN squad, but the Kano Pillars skipper will be hoping that this hasn’t completely eviscerated his World Cup chances.
The striker was a surprise call-up for the Confederations Cup, but was one of a clutch of strikers (along with Anthony Ujah and Joseph Akpala) that failed to take their chance to impress. Gambo enjoyed a few minutes against Spain, but missed a chance when one-on-one with Victor Valdes.
His failure to convert earned him a heap of bad publicity and unfortunately obscured the fact that Gambo is actually a fine forward who brings strength and presence to the Nigeria attack.
Were he to have impressed at the CHAN, Gambo might have fancied his chances to make Brazil, without this opportunity, I doubt he will find himself among Keshi’s elite.