Lagos - With aching inevitability, the question of Peter Odemwingie’s potential return to the Nigeria national side ahead of the World Cup has risen in the minds of fans and to the fingertips of journalists.
Admittedly, all of the pieces are in place for the issue of Odemwingie’s persistent exclusion from the Super Eagles set-up to be a relevant and engaging subject.
First of all, the Nigerian attack has struggled to convince, despite Stephen Keshi’s assessment of numerous different options.
The triumphant semi-final victory, back in early 2013, against Mali made it easy to forget the struggles Nigeria had had in the AFCON group stage. Against Burkina Faso and Zambia the Super Eagles looked toothless, while Ethiopia were only dispatched, late on, due to an inspired contribution from Victor Moses.
In subsequent World Cup Qualifying bouts with Kenya, Namibia and Malawi, it took goals from the likes of Ahmed Musa and (centre-back) Godfrey Oboabona to secure the narrowest of victories. While Egypt (16), Ghana (18) and even Guinea (12), for example, accrued convincing results, the Super Eagles struggled to find the killer touch against palpably inferior opposition.
Even goal-shy Cameroon found the net eight times in their opening group—which was markedly tougher than Nigeria’s.
The Confederations Cup could easily have been an exercise in frustration. The struggles of Mohammed Gambo, Joseph Akpala and Anthony Ujah left Keshi with no illusions as to the importance of Emmanuel Emenike and Moses, both of whom missed the tournament through injury.
I have written enough about the short-comings of Nigeria’s attack during that competition to go through it all again here, but when one considers, also, the likely-reduced impact of Moses, following his year on the side-lines at Anfield, it’s clear to see why Keshi has sought to reconfigure his attacking line-up.
Ideye Brown was the first victim although, at the time of writing, it remains to be seen how permanent his exclusion will prove to be. For all his endeavour, the Dynamo Kyiv man simply wasn’t delivering in front of goal.
Keshi, to his credit, hasn’t been hesitant to introduce new options into the fold.
Victor Obinna, who, at one time, had looked like he was ‘done’ with the national side, has been brought back in and applied himself well. Michael Uchebo and Imoh Ezekiel were also given their international debuts against Mexico. Had either man made a lasting impression—and Uchebo came close during the frenetic opening stages—then they could have felt quietly confident of making the plane to Brazil. Such is the paucity of Keshi’s chosen resources.
At this point, Odemwingie emerges into the narrative.
Ahead of the AFCON, the striker wasn’t perceived to be an option. However, following the end of his (partially self-imposed) isolation at West Bromwich Albion, and his fruitless toils at Cardiff City, the former Lokomotiv Moscow man has been as a man reborn at Stoke.
His recent form, five goals and one Man of the Match display since the beginning of February, have seemingly offered a ready-made solution to the Super Eagles’ deficiencies. I know that many of you who contribute here, as well as those who I correspond with by e-mail and on Twitter, certainly think so.
I sympathise, of course. Odemwingie is experienced and versatile; he may well be hungry as well (2014 represents, surely, his final chance to make a lasting impression on the world stage) and, as we saw with Moses in early 2013, an inform striker can be worth his weight in gold.
Trust me; however, a recall for Odemwingie would represent a negative move for Keshi.
To illustrate why, I turn to the example of the Netherlands at the last World Cup. Although the Dutch made the final, their first since 1978, the grand master of the nation’s football, and one of the greatest players and thinkers in the history of the sport, Johan Cruyff, lamented their progress.
Cruyff, speaking to El Periodico, lambasted his countrymen for their negative, brutal tactics and their resort to ‘anti-football’ in order to advance in the tournament and try to unsettle Spain in the final. Bert van Marwijk’s side didn’t use Holland’s traditional, fluid 4-3-3 formation, employed two ‘destroyers’ in Nigel de Jong and Mark van Bommel in the heart of the midfield, and also selected Dirk Kuyt as a hard-working defensive forward.
Holland had out-performed 30 other nations, but in doing so, they had sacrificed their style, their key qualities and, most-importantly in Cruyff’s eyes, their principles. They had forgotten everything that made them, everything that, at one time, transformed them into the darlings of European football and, following their showing against Spain, in which they picked up nine yellow and one red card, disgraced Dutch football.
Stephen Keshi’s success with Nigeria has been built upon his fidelity to the team and the group, rather than a preference for individuals. The 2013 Cup of Nations triumph was born from the Big Boss’s bravery in ignoring the big names and the big egos, and putting his faith in the young and the un-feted.
Things may not be easy at the moment, but solutions can be found without resorting to Odemwingie, a player who, as much as any other, fits the profile of the kind of figure that Keshi axed in his (successful) quest for a positive Nigeria.
In South Africa, Keshi proved that the Odemwingies of this world are not conducive to a team that strives to be, once again, the pride of a nation.
Here is a man who has clashed with the manager in the past, here is a man who once drove to another club (without permission) in order to seek a move away from his current employers, here is a man whose departure from Lokomotiv was celebrated wildly by fans (albeit with despicable racial undertones).
Maybe he will score a goal or two and—in the short term—that might be enough for some of you, but the idea of welcoming him back into the national side would, for me, be like the Trojans dismantling their city’s fortifications to let in the wooden horse.
A ‘gift’, with many caveats, could destroy everything that pushed Nigeria to the pinnacle of Africa.
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