Nigeria has always been blessed with a clutch of fantastic safe pair of hands between the goalposts so often that we take it for granted.
Best Ogedengbe was an IICC Shooting Stars hero who was between the sticks when Nigeria lifted her first significant honour at the Nations Cup in 1980.
Then there was Emmanuel Okala. That giant of a goaltender whose sight alone made strikers grow wobbly legs.
But the Nations Cup feat ensured Ogedengbe was Nigeria’s best until a certain Peter Rufai burst on to the scene.
Young, confident, and physically just as imposing as Okala, Rufai sealed his place in history by helping the country win the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) in 1994.
In so doing, he had matched the legendary Ogedengbe and later that year would surpass him by standing proudly for the Green-White-Green at the FIFA World Cup at USA ’94
And when ‘Dodo Mayana’ defied the odds and old age to also appear at the 1998 World Cup in France, it seemed that no other Nigerian goaltender would ever be mentioned in the same breathe as the Lagos-born gloveman.
That was until Vincent Enyeama arrived.
He didn’t have the giant-like figure of an Emmanuel Okala, or the boyish charisma of a Peter Rufai. Yet, Enyeama was no less talented, and he set about re-writing history in the grandest of ways.
First, he won three league titles in as many years with Enyimba, but very few people took notice of him. He made no fuss about it and kept on working hard.
Then on his World Cup debut against England, he saved a Paul Scholes thunderbolt that was destined for the top corner to earn Nigeria a goalless draw, in one of the positive highlights of a disappointing 2002 World Cup performance for the Super Eagles.
That was when his countrymen started blinking in his direction and asking, “Vincent Who?”
Two consecutive CAF Champions League triumphs followed (the first of which was also the first of any Nigerian club side), placing him miles ahead of the likes of Ike Shorunmu and within touching distance of Best Ogedengbe.
Vincent continued to shine at the club level even after departing the Nigerian league and soon became a household name in Israel.
Unlike Peter Rufai, never was he a back-up keeper at any of the teams he played for, bar his first season at Lille. And by the time he sealed his place as Lille’s Numero Uno, Europe was compelled to take notice as he kept one clean sheet after another.
Yet, it was all not enough to displace Peter Rufai from his elevated seat, even after Vincent Enyeama appeared at his second World Cup, the same number of times as Rufai.
Everything would change in 2013.
Against bookmaker’s predictions, Vincent skippered Nigeria’s Super Eagles to her third AFCON title in South Africa. That was the last remaining medal left in his cabinet that Rufai, Ogedengbe, and Okala could boast of.
And that was the moment he moved ahead of the phenomenal pack. It was an incredible achievement from one so humble in the pursuit of it all.
A decade earlier, it had seemed impossible and unachievable. It was even a taboo even to murmur it.
Enyeama finally showed that it might take time, a lot of hard work and a bit of luck, but nothing is impossible.
Still, he was not done.
Forward he marched to 2014 and his third World Cup finals, a feat that may never be matched again or even surpassed in a country of over 100 million men, any of whom could be a great goalkeeper.
Finished? Not Enyeama.
Recently, the Lille stopper notched his 100th game for his fatherland at only age 32. The Akwa Ibom-born gloves man is not even considering quitting yet. And who wants him out anyway?
They always say you wait till the end of a footballer’s playing career before you judge his place in history. That observation is faulty in the case of Enyeama. He is already the best Nigerian goalie of his era.
Best Ogedengbe may have been the most influential goalie Nigeria ever had. Peter Rufai was undoubtedly the finest of his generation.
But let history proclaim it to the hearing of the beautiful ones yet unborn: Vincent Enyeama is the greatest goalkeeper Nigeria has ever had.