By Cosmas Odoemena
On October 7, 2021, African minnows, the Central African Republic (CAR) did the unthinkable: they defeated Nigeria 0-1 in a football match! After the game, I had to thank my family that vehemently stopped me from honouring a VIP pass to watch it live. I can imagine how Lagos fans felt at the Teslim Balogun stadium. I feared for those who watched that match with an underlying health condition like hypertension — in this coronavirus era!
We know that there are no longer “small teams” in African football, but I’m almost certain that any Nigerian who saw such a result in a dream might wave it off as a “malaria nightmare.” What makes it all the more painful is that this is the first time Nigeria has met the CAR at this level. What’s more, they are ranked far lower than Nigeria. And the most annoying is that the Wild Beasts of the CAR devoured the Eagles on home soil. Not just on any home soil but in Lagos, the slaughter ground of the Super Eagles — the first time in 40 years Nigeria has lost a home game in a World Cup qualifier.
The first excuse given for the loss was the absence of Wilfred Ndidi and Alex Iwobi. But if the duo are no longer playing for Nigeria does it mean the Super Eagles will not fly? The Super Eagles themselves have won some matches even after playing below their level. But the Super Eagles played fairly well by my judgement, but it was a day luck deserted them. True, when a team loses, the team members take the blame. But there is more to Nigeria’s loss than meets the eye!
Perhaps, a seed for Nigeria’s loss was sown a few days before the match. According to reports, Gernort Rohr, the team’s gaffer was not happy with the first-choice goalkeeper, Maduka Okoye because he arrived late to camp. Rohr, in order to show he was in charge, decided he was going to leave the Sparta Rotterdam goaltender out. The player did two training sessions or so with the team, one less than others. Moses Simon too arrived late, yet he played the match. But for Okoye, Rohr stuck to his guns. That singular act may have caused us that match! The role of a goalkeeper goes beyond catching balls. It’s not for nothing that they often wear the number one jersey. They have a leadership role. Apart from the captain, the goalkeeper can marshall the team from where he is, especially the players in the defence. And Nigeria has traditionally been gifted with not just good goalkeepers, but those their reign brought glory to their country. Think of people like Emmanuel Okala, Best Ogedegbe, Peter Rufai, Ike Shorunmu, and Victor Enyeama.
However, when Carl Ikeme left the Super Eagles on health grounds, it was difficult to get a fitting replacement for him. And this was just a couple of months to the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Rohr eventually chose Francis Uzoho ahead of other goalkeepers who were more experienced and who helped qualify us for the event in the first place.
But in an article entitled, “Super Eagles’ goalkeeping dilemma”, published on 13 April, 2018, I warned against the choice of Uzoho as the first-choice goalkeeper at the Mundial. I sensed he lacked the experience, but I also doubted his luck because he seemed to be the one in goal in losses that mattered most. Nevertheless, I still conceded that with time he could mature and his fortune could change. But it seemed as if Rohr was fixated on taking a risk with Uzoho anyway.
Just before the tournament proper, I sounded the alarm again in another article, “Before Rohr ruins our World Cup”, published on 7 June, 2018. There, I said, “After several warnings from some quarters against the use of Francis Uzoho as the first-choice goalkeeper of the Super Eagles, the Franco-German manager, Gernot Rohr, seems hell-bent on using him.” The rest they say is history.
Now, as Okoye was not going to be used in the Lagos match, the lot fell on either Francis Uzoho or Daniel Akpeyi. Rohr went for the former! Uzoho has not kept for the Super Eagles in a long while, and Nigeria has been getting good results. But just the day he was given a chance Nigeria lost! It does not matter if Uzoho made some good saves. That’s his job as a goalkeeper. History will only judge him based on the final result on that day. Maybe Nigeria was destined to lose that match. But woe betides the person who stood between our goalposts on that sad day. Nigerians will never forget him.However, on October 10, 2021 Nigeria’s fortune changed! In the reverse fixture, the Eagles clawed the eyes of the same Beasts in their own backyard with a 2-0 victory. Don’t ask me what changed. Okoye just slid back into his position; the aura around the Eagles changed automatically. Whether some people agree or not, there are individuals who have luck, and there are those who are short of it. Great teams also need luck. There is always an element of luck in a game. It’s in the ball that ricocheted off the upright. It’s in the one that hit the cross-bar twice. It’s in an unintentional handball given as a penalty. It’s in an own-goal. It’s in that referee who makes the wrong calls that don’t favour your team. It can even be two of your best defenders miscalculating as happened on that awful day.
Talent, practice, and hard work are all important for a team to be successful. But they only serve to reduce the effect of luck, not to eliminate it. I don’t want a goalkeeper whose only “luck” is, “if not for him, we would have lost by a 6-goal margin.” I want one when he is in between the sticks for Nigeria, the lines fall unto him in pleasant places. It’s not only in football that an unlucky person can affect the whole team. Among sailors, the word or name “Jonah” is a long-held expression for a person who could be a sailor or a passenger that is considered to bring ill luck. This is based on the story in the Bible of the prophet Jonah.
Perhaps, it’s also time to review our contract with the coach. This was a World Cup qualification match and not a friendly. Rohr’s antecedents have been to take crazy risks. If we are thinking of a coach that will qualify us for the World Cup and take us to that seemingly elusive semifinal at least, he does not inspire much confidence. As for Uzoho, I feel very sorry for him. He had a chance to lay claim to the number one jersey and luck deserted him once more.
As we say it here, “na village people.” I am a scientist, but I know the world is deep. Just recently, Apoel FC his Cypriot club parted ways with him. Uzoho needs our prayers. But for now, he should be kept far away from the Super Eagles goalposts. Nigerian lives matter!
Dr. Odoemena, medical practitioner,
writes from Lagos