Years from now, when Vincent Enyeama reminisces over his fine career, one game in particular will stand out: Nigeria vs Argentina at the 2010 World Cup.
The meeting at Ellis Park carried extra significance in a rivalry that began at the 1996 Olympics, a game the Dream Team won 3-2, and was resumed at the 2002 World Cup.
The South Americans had dominated the duel since that fixture in Atlanta in the mid-90s, and their 1-0 win in Japan courtesy of a Gabriel Batistuta header eight years before still rankled in West Africa.
History in the encounters between La Albiceleste and the Super Eagles shows how every game has been settled by one goal (the 3-2 result in 2014 and 2-1 outcome in 2018 continued the trend), but this encounter in Johannesburg was different: Argentina dominated the ball, bossed things territorially and carved open the West African giants as will.
A Gabriel Heinze header in the sixth-minute saw Diego Maradona’s side win 1-0, but the final score certainly flattered the Super Eagles who were spared an embarrassment by Enyeama’s heroics.
It felt like Argentina vs the shot-stopper, as opposed to the entire Nigeria side, with the two-time Caf Champions League winner making no less than six saves to deny Maradona’s troops from securing a bigger win.
Not everyone had the ability, nay the self-belief, some might even say effrontery, to step up to Lionel Messi at the time, yet a clearly motivated Enyeama did that on four occasions, and the nature of the stops were nothing short of amazing.
While Nigeria's most capped player made a sextet of stops in the game, five stood out; four to deny Messi and one to thwart Gonzalo Higuain.
First save : In the fourth-minute, a careless square ball from right-back Chidi Odiah handed possession cheaply to Carlos Tevez inside the Super Eagles’ half.
Rather than play the obvious through-ball to Higuain, the Manchester United forward instead played a short pass to the Argentina’s talisman to his left. Messi took a touch and tried to place his shot into the top corner, only to be denied by Enyeama who sprang to his left and got a big right hand to the ball.
Even though Maradona’s troops scored from the resulting corner through Heinze, the save to prevent the South Americans’ star player set the tone for Messi vs Enyeama.
Second save : After receiving the ball from Tevez wide-right, the Albiceleste ’s best player ran infield with the ball unchallenged, partly aided by the United forward whose run confused Taye Taiwo and Dickson Etuhu, skipped past Chinedu Obasi’s desperate last-ditch tackle before curling an effort from 20 yards which the Nigerian goalie saved low down to his right…he was winning the tussle and was the reason Lars Lagerback’s side weren’t two down inside the opening 18 minutes.
Third save : An out-of-sorts Nigeria side struggling to cope with Argentina’s all-out-attack strategy (Maradona started Angel Di Maria, Tevez, Messi and Higuain) lost a midfield battle and Messi released Tevez in oceans of space just outside the centre circle. Having spotted the space criminally afforded their opponents, Taiwo left his position to close down the forward on the ball, prompting Higuain to position himself in the space vacated by the left-back.
The Man United striker passed to the side’s primary frontman but he was smartly stopped by Enyeama who rushed out swiftly to narrow the angle and saved with his left thigh.
It was particularly disappointing for the striker as he’d failed to tap in from the edge of the six-yard box in the third-minute.
Fourth save : This was perhaps the best of the lot. Seven minutes before half-time, Argentina won a free-kick inside Nigeria's half by the right touchline and the West Africans expected a Messi cross.
However, in what seemed like a training ground routine, the Barca forward swiftly exchanged passes with Di Maria and Messi, now inside the Super Eagles' penalty area, cut inside and curled another effort on target but was unexpectedly denied by Enyeama for the third time, this time by the goalie’s left-hand fingertips.
Messi, for the first time, bellowed in frustration… his nemesis seemed unmoved.
Fifth save : Both players didn’t go head-to-head again until the final 10 minutes. Inside the Nigeria territory, the Barca star twice exchanged quick passes with Di Maria and found himself eyeball-to-eyeball with Enyeama but the in-form man between the sticks saved with his right knee to thwart the attacker for the fourth time of the afternoon.
Messi, sat on the turf, wore a wry smile and even took a quick glance at the Nigerian stopper…he knew it wasn’t going to be his day. The Hapoel Tel Aviv goalkeeper yelled at his defenders, clearly wanting more from them. Deep down, though, he probably gave his performance a nod of approval.
Enyeama had spared his teammates blushes and was deservedly named Man of the Match.
...also, is anyone else quietly hoping that Nigeria get Argentina, just so Vincent Enyeama HAS to come out of retirement for that one final battle...!? pic.twitter.com/MZbdFfyN1W— Ed Dove (@EddyDove) December 1, 2017
“It was a great night for me and to play against a team like Argentina was a fantastic opportunity for everyone,” he stated after the encounter. “I’m proud of the way we responded to their early goal.”
Four years later, Messi finally got the better of Enyeama when he netted twice in a 3-2 success for the South Americans. Nevertheless, the goalkeeper’s showing to stop the extraordinary maestro in South Africa will forever be remembered as one of the best-ever individual World Cup performances.