Gernot Rohr may have Nigeria knocking on the door to the finals of the 2018 World Cup but he has not yet debuted an impressive talent in any critical position for the Super Eagles. For nearly 12 months and counting, he has depended on players previously debuted by previous coaches. Sure, he has debuted a few players but none has claimed a major starting or impactful role. That inability to unearth special talent in critical positions will now present a challenge for him in the upcoming and crucial games against Cameroon, barely a month away.
First team goalkeeper, Carl Ikeme, was diagnosed with Leukemia a few weeks back and the hope of all Nigerians is that he recovers from it, football aside. Ikeme has been very good for Nigeria and whether he is available in the future for the country is not the focus for him or well wishers. The focus is his recovery.
However, his absence remains a huge challenge for Rohr. It is a challenge that has always been there since Rohr took over as manager because Ikeme was often injured. Rohr has coped with makeshift substitute Akpeyi but Akpeyi's instability in goal has run the ire of the public and a new face is needed. Unfortunately, Rohr has not shown the ability to hurriedly find suitable replacement not just at the goalkeeping position but elsewhere. Table 1, below, shows that several previous coaches were able to debut an impactful player within one year of appointment but Rohr has not been able to do this in his 12 months stay on the job. Now, a replacement in goal is urgent.
This is not to state that the absence of a suitable substitute for Ikeme means a loss to Cameroon. After all, Nigeria won an important qualifier against Algeria without Ikeme. Historically, the team has also done reasonably well when a starting goalkeeper has gone down. In 1998, Ike Shorunmu was the overwhelming choice as starter but he went down injured just before the World Cup. The international friendlies that followed exposed a big hole at the goalkeeping position (0-3 loss to Yugoslavia and 1-5 to Holland). That forced the recall of a barely-fit Peter Rufai. Rufai was at his worst at the World Cup and yet the team reached the last 16 where Rufai's problems became a major factor in the team's collapse. Table 2 shows that the team was conceding about two goals per game in the next 10 games, after Shorunmu went out injured. Quite an atrocious statistic (see Table 2).
However, it was a different story in 2002 because of better preparation in the player substitution area. Coach Onigbinde benched Ike Shorunmu (Again, the overwhelming starter at the time) in the last group game at the World Cup. Behind Shorunmu were a bunch of inexperienced goalkeepers but one of them, Enyeama, was up to the task in the game against England and went on to, arguably, become Nigeria's best ever goalkeeper. Table 2 shows results of the national team's games after Shorunmu was benched. The stat shows that Nigeria found a capable substitute in Enyeama.
So what does that history tell us as Cameroon looms? The absence of Ikeme does not mean the end of the road for Nigeria in the quest for World Cup qualification. However, it means that if Nigeria aspires to accomplish something much bigger, then Rohr must work harder in finding a reliable goalkeeper just as Enyeama emerged after Shorunmu was benched in 2002. The search for such a goalkeeper has been over due for some time now.