When Tunisia shockingly dumped the Super Eagles out of the 2021 African Cup of Nations in Cameroon, it left bitter pills to swallow.
Nigeria had gone into the competition with very minimal expectation at home. That proved to be a strength as the team finished the group as leaders with nine points. It wasn’t an experience all too familiar for Nigerians, considering the last time that happened was sixteen years ago. The hype that greeted that performance was expected. Nigerians love a good outing.
Previously underwhelming for the Super Eagles, Moses Simon rose to the occasion and parted seas at will. His excellent runs, daring directness and trickery became Nigeria’s major leeway to creativity at the competition. That proved to be a risk the team could not afford.
Against the Carthage Eagles of Tunisia in the Round of Sixteen, Nigeria huffed and puffed and failed to muster any moment of allure, in a reversal of what they showed in the group games. The much-vaunted wing play became predictable and setting up against it looked an easy task for the North Africans. Nigeria endlessly ran into cul-de-sacs and finding an exit became a difficult adventure. The team begged and cried for a creative outlet but hardly got one. With Samuel Chukwueze hardly coming to life on the right, the worry on the Nigerian bench that night spread round the entire nation.
Kelechi Iheanacho has long been the favourite man to play as a nine-and-a-half – a role that pits him between the midfield and the attack, taking the creative hole directly behind the forward but hardly committed to the hustle and bustle expected in a midfield. On his day, Iheanacho is a deadly element in that role. That, however hasn’t come often in his time with the Super Eagles. At Leicester, he showed flashes of this devastation last season, finishing the season strongly as he racked up goals and assists. Against Egypt, he showed what he could be in that role scoring a beautiful effort with technical aplomb. His assist to Sadiq Umar against Guinea Bissau further spoke volume of his creative instinct. But he’s not one to trust for the permanence needed in the job and Tunisia proved that.
Since Giovanni Van Bronckhorst took over the reins at Rangers, he has unleashed Joe Aribo’s freedom as a creative link in the team. At the AFCON for Nigeria, he played in a more reserved role, playing as the man to bring some level of calm to the midfield alongside Wilfred Ndidi. The creative runs and channel-opening movements he showed in his early days in the Super Eagles are yet to be replicated and that could be an issue of deployment than ability. Aribo’s early days saw many compare his creativity to Jayjay Okocha, a man whose name has now become a staple for every issue around midfield creativity in Nigeria. He’s proven he’s not the former Frankfurt man or anything like him.
Interim coach of the Super Eagles, Austin Eguavoen experimented Alex Iwobi as a winger at the AFCON and the Everton man showed glimpses of what he could be when he’s in his frame. What Iwobi lacks however is the consistency Nigeria need.
Another player made out of the English football setting is the man being tipped to help lift Nigeria’s creative burden and that road seems crooked, yet well travelled.
Eberechi Eze Is Good Enough But Has His Eyes Elsewhere
Former Super Eagles coach, Samson Siasia said the team needs a midfielder in the mould of Okocha and he’s advised his former teammate and current Technical Adviser, Austin Eguavoen to go for Eberechi Eze.
“We don’t just have a number 10, that is a creative midfielder in the mould of Jay-Jay Okocha that can distribute accurate passes to the strikers,” Siasia told the Sun.
Eze’s first year in the Premier League saw him come to the full attention of Nigerians. The simplicity of his game is eye-catching and he shows a technical content and mastery that makes one forget his age. Fitness and deployment notwithstanding, he’s shown a great level of decency and ability when he has the ball. What he hasn’t shown, however, is the desire to play for the Super Eagles.
Nigeria has charted a road too familiarly disingenuous about trying to convince foreign-born talents about their prospects with the Super Eagles. For a player like Eze, there’ll be voices in his head telling him to dig a little deeper and find the dream England senior representation every local Briton like him desires. While his ancestry points to Nigeria and his future may be with the Super Eagles if he can’t make it with the Three Lions, that the three-time African Champions are a second choice is loud and clear. And that’s bordering on the first reality.
The second reality is that Eze is not Okocha. He is still work in progress and has shown immense potential required of the modern midfielder. With some little elements like grit and better awareness to add to his game, he looks like a player potentially going to be a midfield star in the Premier League but Siasia like most Nigerians, has modeled the identity of a creative midfield behind the Okocha mould. It’s an antiquated proposition, wrapped in nostalgia than recent events.
The modern midfielder isn’t made like Okocha. They are less skillful but a lot more effective than the former Bolton Wanderers star. While Okocha has a great entertainment value and was on his day a real joy to watch, players like Eze and those with his level of potential offer a little more. What they don’t however have is the consistency required to make the most of their appearances all the time.
The Iwobi experience has taught Nigerians many lessons about the early ecstasy experienced by fans. It is as heartwarming as dangerous especially in a country where fans’ patience vanishes fast.
Nigeria needs a creative channel very urgently and a player like Eze may fit the bill, but Nigeria can’t and won’t get another Okocha.