by Legheri Onyamom
The countdown to Nigeria’s first player to win a century of caps begins with Wednesday’s friendly against Scotland in London, writes Legheri Onyamom.
With so much attention on Vincent Enyeama keeping a string of clean sheets in Ligue 1, he remained virtually unnoticed as he joined Joseph Yobo in the race for the first Nigerian footballer to win a century of caps.
For sometime the focus had been on Yobo after he broke the record number of caps held by the legendary Nwankwo Kanu in last January’s friendly against Cape Verde in Faro, Portugal. Yobo played his 88th match for Nigeria that night.
At the time, Yobo was not just the captain, but also a regular in the Super Eagles and it seemed only a matter of time for him to notch up 12 more appearances to join the ranks of distinguished footballers around the world to have achieved this feat.
However, Yobo lost his place during the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) to Kenneth Omeruo, who coincidentally only made his international debut in the game against Cape Verde.
Yobo still played five games in South Africa, though he was mostly used as a late substitute.
Yobo’s influence in the side had begun to wane and Stephen Keshi did not call him up for the Confederations Cup and World Cup qualifying matches after the Afcon.
With the issue of Nigeria’s first 100-cap player one of the most discussed in the days and months that followed the 2013 Afcon, there was a lot concern about Yobo’s absence from the team, but Keshi insisted the former Everton defender was still his captain. He said there was no need to invite him and put him on the bench.
Yobo had fallen out of favour at Fenerbahce, and knew his situation had to change to have any chance of making it to Brazil. He made it clear he wanted out at the Turkish club and on deadline day of the January transfer window, Yobo joined Norwich City on loan till the end of the season.
Yobo was impressive in his first couple of games for the East Anglia side and was called up for the friendly in March against Mexico. Unfortunately, he took a knock in Norwich’s 4-1 defeat at Aston Villa and was replaced in Nigeria’s squad by Leon Balogun.
His fitness remained an issue towards the end of Norwich’s troubled season, but he had done enough in the few appearances he made to convince Keshi to include him in the 30-man preliminary squad to the World Cup.
Yobo’s last cap, the 1-0 defeat of Burkina Faso in the Afcon final, was his 93rd (often wrongly reported to be his 95th by other sources).
Enter Vincent Enyeama, who had 78 caps at the time, into the picture.
Always quick to point out Yobo is still the Super Eagles captain and still relevant in the team, Enyeama has played 12 more times since then to bring his appearances to 90, just three behind Yobo.
He is the second most capped player in the history of the Super Eagles, and from the active ones, John Obi Mikel is a distant third with 56 caps.
Like Yobo, Enyeama has also suffered periods of estrangement from the national team that may have prevented him from reaching the milestone a little earlier.
He was frozen out of the entire 14 matches Berti Vogts reigned as coach.
Vogts came to Nigeria with a goalkeeper trainer, Uli Stein, who adjudged Austin Ejide the best among the trio of regular goalkeepers invited to camp that also included Dele Aiyenugba. In fact, Enyeama literally became the third choice.
He won his place back after Shuaibu Amodu replaced Vogts, but lost out again in bizarre circumstances under Samson Siasia.
Siasia relegated Enyeama permanently to the bench after he, along with some other players, strongly objected to flying in a military plane provided by the NFF to Madagascar for an Afcon qualifier.
He remained on the sidelines for five matches before Siasia got his marching orders for failing to qualify for the 2012 Afcon.
Like a cat with nine lives, Enyeama regained the No 1 shirt when Keshi took over. Keshi’s goalkeeper trainer, Ike Shorunmu, who Enyeama understudied and ultimately displaced at the 2002 World Cup, wasted no time in reinstating him as the undisputed first choice.
Enyeama has played in 27 of the 35 matches under Keshi, a remarkable tally considering five of the games were restricted to home-based players. It is even more remarkable that a keeper in the class of Ejide has been restricted to 30 caps in about 12 years because they both belong to the same generation.
With Yobo back in the frame, the big question is who among them would reach the milestone first. Once an active player reaches his 90th cap, the countdown inevitably begins. With both players in the squad to face Scotland, the focus would be on them for obvious reasons. Enyeama has 10 games to play while Yobo needs just seven to reach the history making figure.
Nigeria will be involved in three friendlies before the World Cup, where they would, at least, be involved in another three group games. After the World Cup, there are six Afcon qualifying matches between September and November.
This means the Eagles would at least be involved in 12 more matches before the end of the year. Enyeama, being the undisputed number one, stands a better chance of playing in all of these games than Yobo, who is now a reserve for the younger duo of Omeruo and Godfrey Oboabona.
Enyeama is most likely going to continue with his international career after the World Cup, while Yobo might just call it a day. Therefore, if it is not settled by the end of the World Cup then Yobo might just miss out.
Whichever way it goes, the race for Nigeria’s first player to win a century of caps seems set to go right down to the wire.
Culled from www.supersport.com