Odion Ighalo was one of the slew of attackers invited by Austin Eguavoen ahead of the World Cup playoffs games against Ghana
Criticisms make football a delightful spectacle. The allure of analysis is immense and every football fan knows one thing or the other that a player doesn’t know about himself. It’s surreal to imagine. And some of the conclusions drawn are very exquisitely delivered that one may lose track of the factual.
Twice in the last three months, one of Nigeria’s best attackers in recent times, Ighalo has divided opinions on his importance to the Super Eagles. Some objections to his name have been about his quality which is laughable considering what Nigeria possess at the moment.
Victor Osimhen is the indisputable champion in Nigeria’s attack. Young, strong, fast and effervescent, he has a combination of attacking traits that puts him at the summit of Nigeria’s attacking discourse. Three years ago, Osimhen wasn’t at this level. He played understudy to a man who Nigerians seem to disrespect a lot, in a manner typical with history.
Look at a certain Yakubu Aiyegbeni and you have your answers.
Nigerians like who they like, and it will take great conviction for them to think otherwise. If the fans of the Super Eagles do not respect you, or you give them a moment or memory to linger on, then it’s a done deal. Have the wind in your sails and you’ll be blamed for cockiness.
The year was 2018, and Ighalo was leading the line for Nigeria at the World Cup. As a team, the Super Eagles struggled at the mundial, with Musa stepping up against Iceland to cement his place as Nigeria’s World Cup star, the only moment of pure bliss.
Against Argentina, who have become a bogey team for the Super Eagles at international tournaments, Ighalo was the culprit for missing what many believe would have seen Nigeria scale through. That’s a bad memory given to Nigerians on the global stage. Difficult to erase.
The qualifiers to the 2019 AFCON perhaps struck a chord in the attacker and something previously unseen was triggered. With seven goals, he emerged top scorer at the qualifiers and if that was a fluke, he made a statement at the tournament, also emerging top scorer there with five goals.
Between the 2019 AFCON qualifiers and the tournament proper, he had racked up 12 goals for the Super Eagles, three times more than he managed to score in his first four years in the national team. Ighalo has been on the up ever since and the numbers are there.
When he moved to China, critics blamed the soundness of the move, citing the quality of the league as a factor, but that was when Ighalo was in his best element with the Super Eagles. He won the AFCON top goalscorer award while he played in the Chinese league.
Leading into the 2021 AFCON held this year in Cameroon, some fans of the Super Eagles asked the coaching crew to look farther away from Ighalo who plies his trade in Saudi Arabia, a league believed to be stronger than China’s. A player from the Saudi League emerged top scorer of the same competition and Ighalo is currently the top scorer of the same league with 19 goals in 24 games.
Now at Al Hilal, the attacker left Al Shabaab over their failure to release him for the AFCON and that is a proof of his desire to always represent Nigeria. He’s faced a flurry of insults, has been disrespected and compared to players who probably respect him more than their strongest proponents, but he’s stayed on course.
When the list of players for the World Cup playoffs games against Ghana was released, it wasn’t surprising to see Ighalo’s name there. He’s still one of Africa’s best attackers and easily one of Nigeria’s best two. When a player of Ighalo’s quality still wants to play for a national team like the Super Eagles, he has to be invited. He’s a known element, and one who has delivered when needed. He has played at the top level, has years of struggles and experience in the bag. Call Ighalo a late bloomer and you may not be wrong.
Sixteen goals in thirty-six games count for something in the life of a national team attacker and when one compares to the attackers Nigeria parade and can parade, it’s a no-brainer to invite Ighalo if he still wants to be in the mix. His eighteen goals and two assists in twenty-five games in the Saudi League this season is still one of the best statistics of any Nigerian attacker in any league.
When compared with every Nigerian attacker, only Osimhen seems better as an out-and-out, stick-a-leg-in-the-rubble number 9.
Ighalo still has the wind in his sails; his morale is still high and he has a lot of people to prove wrong at the biggest stage of international football. That’s an advantage. That hunger may mean something. Beware the bandwagon.