When an alcoholic beverage maker in Nigeria initiated a campaign to have Nigerian football fans vote for an all time selection for the national team, Finidi George was erroneously selected as the right winger in a 4-4-2 formation. That spot should have gone to Segun Odegbami.
Odegbami, who was nicknamed, mathematical, in reference to his day job as an Engineer, was the peak of the bunch in the first golden age of Nigerian football. A combination of pace, power and a sublime touch made him one of those players whose style was most pleasing to the eye.
An early incarnation of Cristiano Ronaldo, he played in a very advanced position for a winger and was able to contribute a magnificent 24 goals in just 48 international matches for Nigeria. He had the uncanny ability when in possession at full speed, to slow down almost to a halt, put a foot on the ball like a typical No 10-ala Requielme- does, look his marker straight in the eye and go past him, without breaking a sweat. He was that good!
Like Austin Okocha, he was unlucky not to have won the top individual honor in African football, the footballer of the year award. But unlike Jay Jay, when he left the Nigerian international set up in 1981, there was no national search for his replacement.
In the summer of 2005, as Okocha’s international career wound down, the belief was that John Obi Mikel, who was having an excellent tournament at the FIFA U-20 championships, will step in when he retires the following year. But a decision by Jose Mourinho to convert him to a holding midfielder put all that in the back burner. The search continued.
Christian Obodo, Kalu Uche, Kanu and even Mikel, dispite an obvious lack of practice, have been used in what is now called “the Okocha role”. Youngster Rabiu Ibrahim after an impressive turn at the FIFA U-17 championships two years ago is the latest to be mentioned in the long list of potential candidates. But the fact is that none of them is Okocha and neither plays like him.
At the root of this search is the desire for the Eagles to return to their “traditional” way of playing - a defensive midfielder with an eye for the pass screening a back four, while giving free rein to the other central midfielder to control proceedings from behind the two strikers, with two flying wingers in support on either side. This system, inherited from the British, was the basis of Eagles modest successes at both the CAN and the World Cup.
Unlike the British who play two box-box battlers in the middle with each taking turns to go forward, the second central midfielder in the “Nigerian system” is of the South American breed. A good passer with an eye for goal always given a free role with little or no defensive duties and often, as was the case with Okocha, supremely gifted, technically.
He excelled in the role, and gained enough freedom to unleash some of those outrageous skills and smile that charmed us for the 13 years he played for Nigeria, the skills we still pine for, three years after he left the scene.
Due to the globalization of football, players move to Europe at an earlier age than they did, say 20 years ago, thus learning their trade under a culture that places a lot of emphasis on tactical and technical discipline. As a result they miss out on the prevailing local football traditions and style. So when the artist Mikel, suddenly became an artisan, he may not have had a problem with it as long he got the chance to play regularly in West London, but a shocked nation arose in protest.
Credit to the current national team selector, he has not been burdened by the lack of personnel to play the “Nigerian system”, but is working with the players available to him, without stifling their flair. This is a departure from the past where players were more or less forced to play within the system instead of adopting a tactics that will get the best out of them.
Case in point, Garba Lawal, he was seen as the replacement for Emmanuel Amuneke simply because he was left footed and a midfielder! But Lawal, the best tackler of his generation, was happiest playing in central midfield. In fact some of his best matches in the Nigerian green were as a deep laying central midfielder.
While all the national team coaches since Jo Bonfrere, who first picked him in 1996, recognized his versatility and picked him in the squad to every tournament he was eligible to participate in until he retired from international football in 2006, they almost always played him out wide where he inevitably put in performances that left most fans wondering why he was selected in the first place!
To the delight of most Nigerian fans, despite the fact that Rabiu has been in Europe since he was sixteen, he never seems to lose the instincts to play “the Okocha role”, and many can’t wait to see him at senior international level. While we all look forward to that day, if we want to do well at the next CAN in Angola, we need to focus on getting the best out of those available at moment.