Diego Costa would have fainted on the spot. This summer Marcelo Bielsa took charge of Lille and quickly compiled a list of 11 players whom he did not plan to use – and then he relayed the news by text message. Between them the XI had 274 caps, with Nigeria’s Vincent Enyeama holding 101 of those.
He seemed unlikely to add to that tally but now, as the Super Eagles face a critical pair of World Cup qualifiers against Cameroon, the African champions, many of his compatriots wish they could call on a goalkeeper of Enyeama’s pedigree.
Technically Nigeria could still have called on Enyeama. The goalkeeper has suggested he is open to returning to international duty, from which he withdrew two years ago following a dispute with the then manager Sunday Oliseh. But as he is out of favour at his club and not match fit, Gernot Rohr reckoned the 35-year-old was not the man to help them out of their predicament.
Carl Ikeme had proved an accomplished successor over the past two years but the Wolverhampton Wanderers man has been rising to a more important challenge since a diagnosis of acute leukaemia in July. That left Rohr with a big decision to make for the double-header with Cameroon, which kicks off later today in Uyo, followed by the return match in Yaoundé on Monday. Of the three goalkeepers in his squad, none jumped out as an obvious No1.
“We have a local goalkeeper [Ikechukwu Ezenwa of Ifeanyi Ubah FC], we have a very young one [20‑year‑old Dele Alampasu] and we have another one who is more experienced [31-year-old Daniel Akpeyi], so we will see with our goalkeeper coaches to determine who starts the game,” said Rohr earlier in the week. Since then his options have been reduced, as Akpeyi suffered an injury in training.
Previously Rohr had plumped for Akpeyi’s experience. The Chippa United keeper started the last World Cup qualifier against Algeria, when Ikeme was unavailable and Nigeria took their record in a formidable group to two wins from two matches with a 3-1 home victory. But Algeria’s goal in that match was struck from 30 yards by Nabil Bentaleb and Akpeyi got nowhere near it; and in June he was redeployed for an Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against South Africa, with the fact that he plays his club football there (for Chippa United) considered an added advantage.
That would have been audacious. Alampasu has been much admired since excelling in Nigeria’s conquest of the under-17 World Cup in 2013 but he has yet to make a senior appearance and, indeed, has not made a start this season for his club, Feirense in Portugal.
Throwing him in against Cameroon would be a spectacular show of faith. Or of scepticism in the other option.
On Thursday Rohr announced a decision that he hopes minimises the risk: the goalkeeping mission has been assigned to Ezenwa, a 28-year-old who had been the regular No2 behind Ikeme but saw Akpeyi promoted ahead of him when the Wolves’ keeper was forced out of action. Friday is the biggest match of Ezenwa’s international career.
Alampasu may not have been picked this time, but Nigeria will field various other representatives of an exciting generation of Nigerian players.
Already significant impacts have been made by Leicester’s pair of 20-year-olds, Wilfred Ndidi and Kelechi Iheanacho, with the former one of the few players to come out of the South Africa defeat with credit.
The two outstanding players in the win over Algeria were Victor Moses, a senior player at 26, and Mikel John Obi, still influential no matter that he is now a China-based 30-year-old. That was made clear against South Africa when, without Mikel, there was a hesitancy about the midfield and then, after they fell behind, a headlessness as they pursued an equaliser with ruinous abandon. Ndidi looks certain to prove a fine replacement, probably even an upgrade, for Mikel in the long run, but he may be the one to make way for the veteran against Cameroon.
The visitors, meanwhile, arrive needing at least four points from the double-header, or six if they are to emerge on top of the group. They, too, are without a fine goalkeeper as Ajax’s André Onana is one of nine players, including Liverpool’s Joël Matip, to abstain from international duty because of the interminable machinations of various officials at the Cameroon FA (Fécafoot). Almost everything the truly Indomitable Lions have achieved in recent years, including January’s victory at the Africa Cup of Nations, has been despite the activities of their FA.
Last week Fifa appointed a “normalisation committee” in an effort to end four years of feuding at Fécafoot so that the decision to award the country hosting rights for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations ends up looking more sensible than it currently does. In the meantime, Cameroon players take on Nigeria in the hope that they can yet again triumph amid adversity. And Onana’s absence will not affect them because they have a wealth of talent in that position, with their regular starter, 21-year-old Fabrice Ondoa, an excellent goalkeeper. Nigeria hope that he is not the difference between the teams over the coming days.