Africa’s Finest

by Segun Odegbami © Segun Odegbami (January 7th 2015)

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Prestigious African Footballers

Football without super stars is like tea without sugar. We are in the season of celebrating the super-stars of African football – the players whose light has shone brightest in the football constellation. Tomorrow the Confederation of African Football (CAF) will elect its winner of the prestigious African Footballer of the Year Award for 2014.

The event, which takes place in Lagos has become very significant for the players because it shoots their status and profile sky high onto a new pedestal of respect and prosperity. It can earn players moves to glamorous clubs, or in some cases boost their wages and prestige. It also raises the profile of African football outside the continent.

Surprises

Vincent Enyeama 1

In the final list of five players for the 2014 award there are a few surprise inclusions. The first is Nigeria’s Vincent Enyeama. It is not common to find goalkeepers listed for the African award. If it were not so, there is no reason why Vincent should not have been listed, or have even won the award, in 2013.

His stellar performances in the French league for Lille FC, and for Nigeria during the African Cup of Nations, leading the Super-Eagles to only their third triumph has earned him more than enough credit to merit an indisputable place amongst Africa’s best players. But goalkeepers tend to be overlooked. Just look at what happened last year.

Vincent Enyeama Smiling

The belated observation made by a few of us – myself included – who commented on his omission last year may have precipitated the present attention on him (and possibly on other goalkeepers in the next few years).

Keepers

Goalkeepers occasionally used to be nominated, but their contributions have been neglected in awards. Unfortunately, it’s been a long time since the last one was even nominated, let alone won. Before Enyeama’s recent nomination the last goalkeeper to be considered – and he did not win it – was Joseph Antoine Bell of Cameroon in 1989.

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And before Bell, the last keeper to be nominated was Zaki Badou – recognised by CAF in 2006 as one of Africaʼs best 200 players over the previous half century. Badou is the current manager of Morocco. It is his second spell in charge of the Atlas Lions. Sadly Moroccoʼs decision to refuse to host the African Cup of Nations has denied him the opportunity to shine.

Badou is one of Moroccoʼs greatest ever players. In 1986 Badou won the African Footballer of the Year Award, then by France Football Magazine. CAF organised its own award in 1992, which competed with the France Football Magazine award for two years (from 1994 onwards only CAFʼs award remains).

Badou played in Spain for RCD Mallorca and proved that his 1986 award was no fluke. He moved to Spain that year. Badou won the prestigious Zamora Trophy – the award for the La Liga goalkeeper with the lowest goals to games played ratio – for the 1988-89 season. As a manger he had success with his former club Wydad in Morocco and took the Atlas Lions to the final of the 2004 African Cup of Nations. Badou has pedigree.

Zaki Badou at Press Conference

Shamefully Overlooked

However Cameroonian great Thomas Nkono showed that goalkeepers who excel can be rewarded. Nkono won the African Footballer of the Year Award twice – 1979 and 1981. Sandwiched between his triumphs was my best year in this competition. I came second to his Canon Yaoundé team-mate and strangely unheralded (outside of Africa) Cameroonian great Jean Manga-Onguéné.

I canʼt complain as he led his team to the Cameroonian League title and African Champions Cup. Badou was not the first Moroccan keeper to win the award. Chabab Mohammédiaʼs Ahmed Faras beat African legend Roger Milla into second place in 1975.

Segun at Wembley

The good thing is that Vincent Enyeama’s nomination has reawakened interest in the performances of African goalkeepers, which has often been overlooked in favour of strikers or midfielders.

That may also explain why all of the players that have won the award since its inception (except for the goalkeepers listed earlier) have been goal scorers (strikers and midfielders). No defender has ever won the award despite the whole army of absolutely brilliant defenders in the continent’s history. If Enyeama wins it could therefore produce a change of attitude and appreciation of the finest exponents of other positions.

Surprise

Enyeama is not the only surprise on this yearʼs list. Gabon’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has been one of the most underrated African players in Europe. He has been around the football circuit in Europe ‘quietly’ plying his trade and honing his goal-scoring skills and instincts. He is the son of another neglected African great. Pierre Aubameyang played for Gabon 80 times. Unlike his son he was a defender. He was the first Gabonese footballer to play in France, including for Toulouse and Nice. He is now a scout for AC Milan.

Pierre Aubameyang Snr

Pierre-Emerick came through AC Milanʼs youth structures, but was laned to various clubs in France, eventually signing for Saint-Étienne in 2011. Having established his credentials in France and when Gabon co-hosted the African Cup of Nations in 2012 he moved to Borussia Dortmund FC last season.

That transfer has changed not only his profile, but also the quality of his football, providing him the platform to showcase his immense striking prowess and nose for goals. This past year, particularly, he has matured into one of the deadliest strikers from Africa playing in the Bundesliga and in the European Champions League.

His speed and deadliness in front of goal have been phenomenal. Playing for one of Europe’s best teams along with other world class players has surely sharpened the edge to his game. He is attracting raving reviews, lots of attention, respect and accolades.

Coming from a small African country that does not win anything in the continent surely has reduced his direct impact in Africa, but that didnʼt stop Liberiaʼs George Weah and Maliʼs Frédéric Kanouté winning in 1995 and 2007, it would not surprise me if, purely on the strength of present performance, he is acknowledged in a year that few Africans have really been exceptional.

Surely, in terms of ability and his contribution to the ongoing success of his Borussia Dortmund – despite the wretched start to this seasonʼs Bundesliga that Jürgen kloppʼs team are enduring – week in week out, he stands shoulder to shoulder with any of the other nominees.

Another Surprise

My compatriot Ahmed Musa is another surprise inclusion. He is a regular in CSKA Moscowʼs team. Musa showed his talent in the Under-20 World Cup in Colombia in 2011 – a tournament graced by several talents on their way to becoming important names in football. West Bromwich Albionʼs Saido Berahino made that trip too. Joel Campbell hasnʼt delivered for Arsenal, although he has impressed on loan and is a mainstay of Costa Ricaʼs national team also appeared in that tournament.

Real Madridʼs James Rodríguez and Isco, Atlético de Madridʼs Koke and Antoine Griezmann, Liverpoolʼs Philippe Coutino, Tottenham Hotspurʼs Erik Lamela, Benficaʼs Nelson Oliveira (just loaned to Swansea City for the rest of this season and Chelseaʼs Oscar and Mohamed Salah, among others. Musa held his own in this company even then and he has developed since then.

He is one of the fastest footballers in the world with the uncanny ability to outsprint defenders. His finishing and crosses could be inconsistent and that has often reduced his overall impact. His performances for Nigeria during the 2014 World Cup and during the AFCON 2015 qualifiers stood out as one of the more consistent in a field of erratic strikers in the Nigerian team. However, his chances of winning the 2014 African award are slim considering that the next two players in the list may be just ahead of him in terms of impact for their club and country.

The Lifetime Achievement Candidate

Ghana’s Asamoah Gyan could have won the African Best Player award already if he had not been playing his football in the same era as Didier Drogba, Samuel Etoʼo and Yaya Touré. One after the other, these three players have completely dominated the African football scene in the past decade.

Samuel Eto'o

It is clear that a player had to be exceptionally gifted to break their grip on the title. That’s the reason why even extra-ordinarily talented players like Nigeriaʼs Jay Jay Okocha and the Black Starsʼ Michael Essien did not win it.

Asamoah Gyan has resurfaced again in CAF’s list even as he has moved in the past three seasons to establish himself as one of the best players ever in Asian football history. But Asia is not Europe. Gyan held his own in England at Sunderland before forcing a move to the Middle-East. Playing in an obscure league for a completely unknown club called Al Ain in the United Arab Emirates does not help his cause. It may cost him the award again.

Nevertheless, some people think he played some of his best football during the 2014 World Cup, scoring two goals and becoming the African player with the highest number of goals in the history of the World Cup, one goal ahead of the legendary Roger Milla. Another factor in Gyanʼs favour – perhaps the most important this time – would be because selectors may already be developing Yaya Touré fatigue.

Dominant

Yaya Touré has been so dominant in the midfield where he plays for his Club and for his country that it will surprise no one should he get the award for the fourth consecutive time. Without question he is the most gifted African player of this generation – tall, powerful, elegant, graceful, skilful, deceptively quick, technically proficient and masterful on the ball. He is the only African player in FIFA’s list of the world’s best 20 players in 2014.

This season he has not played quite up to the level of the previous season but he is still dominating every midfield, dictating and controlling play, and delivering deadly ‘poison’ of goals whenever he finds himself in the periphery of the oppositionʼs goals. Also he has returned to form for Manchester City at just the right time for the selectors to notice.

CAF and its President Issa Hayatou may sentimentally want a new face to adorn the award and to break the monotony of another Yaya Touré victory, but on form and achievement he is the best of the candidates. He deserves to clinch the title of Africa’s best footballer again.

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Les Bleus France Advance to Quarter-Final

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (June 30th 2014)

Super-Eaglesʼ Jinx Continues 

With just over ten minutes remaining a tight match turned decisively in Franceʼs favour. Lilleʼs Vincent Enyeama flapped at Mathieu Valbuenaʼs corner and palmed it to Paul Pogba. Juventusʼ midfielder nodded it in to give Didier Deschampsʼ team the lead. It was a pity that the last keeper to concede a goal in the first round and jointly led keepers throughout Europe in clean sheets and made important saves in this match made the mistake that cost the Africans champions dear.

Two minutes into injury a different corner routine also involving Valbuena led to the second. A short corner to the Marseille midfielder caught the Nigerian defence out. Valbuena squared it for substitute Antoine Griezman. Enyeama was beaten by a deflection off Super-Eagles captain Joseph Yobo. Shortly after the Fenerbahçe defenderʼs error, Deschamps allowed Valbuena to receive a well earned ovation from French fans and waste a bit of time.

Deserved

On the balance of play France deserved to continue Nigeriaʼs last sixteen jinx and put the horrors of their wretched campaign four years ago firmly behind them. Deschamps chose to deploy Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema on the left and Arsenalʼs Oliver Giroud in the striker role. Both proved ineffective. The introduction of Griezman proved to be the turning point.

Nigeria had been the better side in the first half. After 18 minutes CSKA Moscowʼs Ahmed Musa – the first and so far only Nigerian to score two goals in a match at the World Cup Finals – crossed for the much touted, but so far ineffective Emmanuel Emenike to score his first goal with a deft flick past Tottenham Hotspurʼs Hugo Lloris. Sadly for Stephen Keshi and his assistant Daniel Amokachi it was ruled offside and it was – just.

Turning Points

A mistimed but reckless tackle by Paris Saint-Germainʼs Blaise Matuidi ended Lazioʼs Ogenyi Onaziʼs afternoon. Matuidi was shown a yellow card by American referee Mark Geiger. Matuidi was genuinely apologetic to Onazi, but the midfielder was stretchered off. He would not return.

Enyeama made a couple of important saves, but could do nothing when former Newcastle United favourite Yohan Cabaye picked up the pieces of John Mikel Obiʼs clearance and shot from outside the area. He was very unlucky that it beat Enyeama, but struck the crossbar.

Midway through the first half Pogba surged through the centre, playing a neat one-two with Valbuena before volleying. Enyeama denied him. With just over twenty minutes remaining Benzema and Griezman combined on the left to create a golden opportunity for Benzema. Enyeama took the pace off it and Victor Moses scrambled back to clear.

Eventually the pressure told. France got the goals to take then through to the quarter-final and a tie against either Algeria or Germany.

Messi Shines as Argentina Top Group

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (June 25th 2013)

The Messi Show

Inspired by the great Lionel Messi Argentina beat Nigeria 3-2 to match Colombiaʼs feat in topping their group. Within two minutes Messi opened the scoring, achieving something Iran and Bosnia-Herzegovina combined could not – beating the exceptionally gifted Super-Eaglesʼ goal-keeper Vincent Enyeama. Enyeama went two months without conceding a goal in Ligue Un. Just over a minute later CSKA Moscowʼs Ahmed Musa equalised. Michael Babatunde set him up for a splendid goal.

With almost the last kick of the first half Messiʼs second free-kick in quick succession restored Argentinaʼs lead. Up and over the wall it dipped sufficiently to beat Enyeama whose heroics had proved a formidable barrier to Argentinaʼs ambitions. Less than a minute into the second half Musa equalised again. Emmanuel Emenike got the assist.

The winner as it proved to be came shortly afterwards. Paris Saint-Germainʼs Ezequiel Lavezziʼs shot was saved by Enyeama at the expense of a corner. Lavezzi took the corner which glanced off Ezequiel Garay Gonzálezʼ head onto Marcos Rojoʼs knee and in, leaving Enyeama with no chance.

A Formidable Final Barrier

Lilleʼs keeper enhanced his growing reputation with a string of excellent saves. With less than ten minutes played Messi slotted it through for Gonzalo Higuaín, but Enyeama stayed big, forcing Higuaín wide enough to make him put his shot wide of the near post. With quarter of an hour played Sergio Agüeroʼs cross was claimed on the ground by Enyeama at his near post, preventing a tap-in.

Real Madridʼs Ángel di María Hernández had a wonderful match, orchestrating chances and testing Enyeama himself. Just under half an hour into the match di Maríaʼs 23 yard shot was tipped round the post by Enyeama. Chelseaʼs John Mikel Obi was caught in possession by Lavezzi and fouled him. Messiʼs 30 yard free-kick was acrobatically saved by Enyeama, but another free-kick was quickly conceded and Messi gave no chance with that one.

Resolved

Less than 5 minutes into the second half di Maríaʼs shot resulted in Enyeama saving at the expense of the corner that he was unlucky to concede from. Messi put Higuaín through with less than ten second half minutes played, but Enyeama saved again. With just over a quarter of an hour remaining Enyeama denied Lavezzi.

Nigeria contributed to an entertaining match. Efe Ambroseʼs effort hit the side-netting and the Super-Eagles, despite losing, showed how to play Argentina. The freak injury to Babatundeʼs arm notwithstanding, it was a good performance in a tournament that has been disappointing for the African nations. Iranʼs defeat by Bosnia-Herzegovina meant the defeat didnʼt matter.

After a string of first round failures Nigeria has reached the last 16. They will most likely play against France who play Ecuador tonight. Honduras and Switzerland still have hopes of qualifying as do Ecuador. It will take a freakish set of results to deny France a place in the last 16.

 

Super-Eagles Soar Again

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (June 21st 2014)

Resurrected

African Champions Nigeria resurrected their hopes of qualification with an impressive performance against World Cup Finals débutants Bosnia-Herzegovina. Stoke Cityʼs Peter Odemwingie scored the matchʼs only goal, although Manchester Cityʼs Edin Džeko had a perfectly good goal ruled out for offside.

Replays proved that the officials led by New Zealander Peter OʼLeary were wrong. Both the referee and his assistant were in perfectly good position to see that Džekoʼs goal should have stood – yet another poor decision by the officials.

As the match was drawing to a close Džeko, who had been profligate, especially by his high standards, turned and shot. Lilleʼs Vincent Enyeama saved with his leg onto his post. Replays established that OʼLeary had missed a blatant hand ball by Džeko to control it when turning to shoot. It was a bookable offence.

Historic

Nigeriaʼs victory was their first at this stage for 16 years and its was deserved – they were by far the better team. Emmanuel Emenike – anonymous against Iran was galvanised to justify his tag as potential star of the tournament. Targeting Bosnian captain Emir Spahić, Emenike out-muscled the Bayer Leverkusen defender and pulled it back for Odemwingie to shoot between Asmir Begovićʼs legs for the only goal of the match – the one that condemns Bosnia-Herzegovina to elimination at the group stage.

While Begović excelled and Romaʼs Miralem Pjanić pulled strings to supply Džeko, the Manchester City forward found Enyeama equal to his efforts. Musa was denied by Begović twice and John Mikel Obi hit the side-netting from 20 yards out. Pjanić brought a smart save from Enyeama.

Meanwhile, Spahić was proving to be a liability. His dreadful pass after just 6 minutes gave possession to CSKA Moscowʼs Ahmed Musa. Haris Medunjanin was booked for hauling Musa back. Odemwingieʼs free-kick went close, but a clear deflection for a corner was missed by the officials. Spahić would later be out-muscled by Emenike for the goal.

Nigeria in particular chased more with efforts by Emenike, Michel Babatunde and Lazioʼs Ogenyi Onaze thwarted by Begović. Enyeama proved to be an effective final barrier too with his second clean sheet afte, r denying Pjanić and Džeko after the break. Only a Iranian victory over Bosnia-Herzegovina can deny the Super-Eagles a place in the last 16. With a likely clash against a rampant France in store for the second placed team in Group F, Stephen Keshi knows that a victory over group favourites Argentina would be welcome, providing an extra incentive if one were needed not to settle for a draw.

 

 

Bore Draw

By Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (June 16th 2014)

Poor

Carlos Quierozʼ Iran are hard to beat as Stephen Keshiʼs African champions found to their cost. Emmanuel Emenike was said to be likely to be one of the stars of the World Cup, but the he had a terrible outing – his team-mates didnʼt do much better. This was supposed to be the weakest side, but chances were few and far between.

Shola Ameobi started on the bench, but replaced Victor Moses 7 minutes into the second half, but his glancing headers did not require Haghighi to make a save. Another substitute Peter Odemwingie was wrongly penalised for handball as his shot flashed just wide. He correctly pointed to his shoulder, but it made no difference.

Chances

Ahmed Musaʼs 31st minute free-kick showed the creativity required, but there was too little of it. Shaping to cross Musa shot instead leaving Haghighi to make the scramble to deny him at the expense of a corner. Moses had the first opportunity just two minutes into the match as he drove forward on the left flank before cutting inside and shooting. Sadly it summed up the match – a weak toe-poke straight at the keeper, who gathered the ball gratefully. Five minutes the officials got it wrong denying Nigeria and the game the goal that it desperately needed but never got. Haghighi came for the ball and failed to get it. After the scramble Musa scored from close range, but it was disallowed.

The best chance fell to Charlton Athleticʼs Dutch-born Iranian Reza Ghoochannejhad. His header from a corner won by Fulhamʼs Ashkan Dejagah required an acrobatic save from the Super-Eaglesʼ captain – the record-setting Vincent Enyeama.

 

Unconvincing Draw

by Satish Sekar © Satish Sekar (May 28th 2014)

Honours Even

An unconvincing display by Stephen Keshi’s World Cup bound Nigeria, resulted in Gordon Strachan’s Scotland being pegged back to 2-2 in injury time. It was harsh on the Scots who took the lead within 10 minutes through Charlie Mulgrew. His subtle back-heeled flick from James Morrison’s shot was no fluke. It gave Nigeria’s second choice goalkeeper Austin Ejide no chance.

Scotland created the better chances in the first half but Keshi’s blushes at half time were spared as Michael Uchebo who had been profligate previously was put through by Reuben Gabriel and shot from 22 yards out,”It was a great goal”, Uchebo said with his tongue firmly in his cheek. It took a wicked deflection off Grant Hanley, giving Scotland’s keeper Alan McGregor no chance.

7 minutes into the second half Azubunke Egwuekwe’s attempt to clear Morrison’s cross as he was posed to shoot was sliced into his own net. Scotland’s captain Scott Brown had found Morrison on the right flank. Strachan’s improving team deserved to win the match, but in the first minute of added time Uche Nwofor grabbed another equaliser after being found by another substitute Nnamdi Oduamadi just outside the 6-yard box after a weak tackle by Morrison. It was barely deserved.

Referee Lee Probert had shown a thoroughly deserved yellow card for a cynical foul on Oduamadi a couple of minutes earlier. With the World Cup fast approaching it was the last thing Nigeria and Oduamadi who has problems with such tackling previously needed. Nevertheless, at times it seemed that Scotland rather than the Super-Eagles were playing like the team going to Brasil.

Slippery Brazuca

Scotland were the better team on the night, but to some extent they should have been. Anya exposed right back Kunle Odunlami’s lack of pace within the first five minutes. He really should have scored – tight angle or not. Nigeria’s reserve keeper Austin Ejide’s performance was bizarre. He is far better keeper than was seen tonight. His effort to deny left winger Ikechi Anya consisted of sticking out a leg and being relieved to see it go wide.

After 32 minutes Scotland should have seen their lead doubled. Shaun Maloney’s corner resulted in Ejide coming to punch, but under pressure he managed to catch and throw it into his own net. Was the ball playing tricks? First choice goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama prefers it to the ball used in South Africa’s World Cup. He also said,”I don’t comment on individuals”, when asked about Ejide’s performance.

Controversies

In the second half Scotland had another goal disallowed. That looked a harsh off-side call by the linesman. Before the match had even started it was shrouded in controversy as allegations of match-fixing surfaced. Chelsea’s John Mikel Obi said he didn’t know where they had come from. Keshi’s decision to start a weak team raised a few eyebrows.

Enyeama whose form has been winning awards in France was not even in the squad for this match. Nor were Mikel Obi, Brown Ideye and Ahmed Musa among others. Keshi gave chances to fringe players to play their way onto the plane to Brasil. But was there even a remote chance that some of the players seen tonight would be going to the World Cup?

Playing out of position – he’s normally at centre back – Odunlami was frequently embarrassed by Anya’s pace. The quality of Anya’s crosses and shooting left a bit to be desired, but Nigeria’s opponents will have noted Odunlami is vulnerable against pace if he makes the trip – he appears to be in Keshi’s plans.

Shola Ameobi barely starts for Newcastle United, yet started for Nigeria tonight. Why? Is it really likely he’ll go, especially after snubbing Nigeria for the African Cup of Nations last year, preferring to miss out on a medal and history for a regular place on Newcastle’s bench. And if he doesn’t go – he shouldn’t, both for the snub and more importantly because he is not good enough – what was achieved by him playing tonight rather than a more likely option.

So close to the World Cup it’s hard to believe that African Cup of Nations winning coach Keshi doesn’t already know the squad he intends to take to Brasil. Does Keshi really think that Ameobi has a chance of making the trip and if so why? Keshi has not named his squad yet. There were some in the 22 – starting eleven as well – who have little if any chance of going to Brasil. Why were Nigeria’s fans seeing them? Only Keshi knows.