Nigeria’s greatest ever goalkeeper

Happy birthday, Vincent Enyeama.

As far as goalkeepers in the national team go, there is no equal for the Lille goaltender. I wrote this piece a year ago, on the occasion of his birthday, urging him to reconsider his decision to quit the national team. He was 34 at the time, he is now a year older and his estate has changed somewhat — excommunicated at his French club following the arrival of the manic new broom that is Marcelo Bielsa — but the sentiment holds.

While no one could have foreseen the unfortunate diagnosis of Carl Ikeme, it had been clear long before that the goalkeeping position is one which needs resolving. The Wolves man has been a pleasant surprise since making his international debut for the Super Eagles, and may his recovery be swift. However, now that the path has disappeared into the shrubs, what next?

I thought he was good for one more go — Vincent, that is — and should seize the opportunity to leave in more savoury circumstances. I am not, however, privy to whatever politics is playing behind the scenes that keeps his conviction strong. At the same time, I recognise that, for all his sacrifice, he definitely deserves to dictate what the terms are. And I can respect that, we all can.

But let us be clear: it is not because we are weaned off him. The situation in goal for the national team is murkier than ever, and while any of the selected goalkeepers could pull out a top-drawer performance over both legs against Cameroon this weekend, we have no evidence to suggest this will be the case, beyond our own optimism. As a matter of fact, going strictly by what is objectively available to us by way of (admittedly limited) sample size, it is far more likely that we play two different goalkeepers over the two legs.

We have to point the finger us-ward to a degree, but the truth is that the comedown from such a great goalkeeper is rarely easy, unless he has been usurped or his replacement groomed while he was incumbent. In this case, neither of those things happened. Barring two brief spells under Berti Vogts and Samson Siasia, Enyeama has been undisputed number one for the national team since he fingertipped Paul Scholes’ shot onto the post in the blinding sunshine of Osaka.

That it is so hard to move on from him is a compliment to his abilities, and testament to his status. We went from Okala to Ngodigha to Agu/Agbonavbare to Rufai to Shorunmu (rough timeline, bear with me) pretty quickly, but moving on from Enyeama has proved problematic. He has featured in three World Cups (two as a starter) and five Africa Cup of Nations, captain as Nigeria belatedly claimed a third crown in 2013. No national team player has earned more international caps. Also, rarely mentioned but just as impressive, he was in goal for Enyimba when they created history in 2003 in becoming the first Nigerian clubside to lift the CAF Champions League trophy.

There will be those who will disagree that he is the greatest ever. They fall into three categories. The first are those who, advanced in age, will remember the players who were active in their youth as superior (I am aware that this can be used to explain my own stance, so fair play to them). The second are those who remain in thrall to 1994 nostalgia, somewhat understandably so, and perhaps I will be minded to do a proper post on why I think Peter Rufai does not come close to Enyeama sometime soon.

The third are those who, for the sake of contrarianism and a sort of ageist snobbery, will refuse to acknowledge this, simply so as to appear more sagely. You see, ours is a gerontocratic society, and while I agree that the younger generation can be found lacking in profundity, to dismiss them out of hand is just as shallow a viewpoint.

I know there are some who might scoff and call up the likes of Inua Rigogo, but he simply lacks the volume, and there is little footage to judge objectively on. As oral tradition is not exactly a reliable source, we are left with what we do know. Or, you could read this very interesting statistical analysis by Professor Chuka Onwumechili, if figures are your thing.

Once again, happy birthday, Vinny. Nigeria’s greatest ever goalkeeper.