February 06, (THEWILL) – In November last year, ahead of Nigeria’s crucial Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifiers against the Lone Stars of Liberia and the Blue Sharks of Cape Verde, former Coach of the Super Eagles of Nigeria, Gernot Rohr, who had been mulling over the idea of recalling Nigerian forward Odion Ighalo from retirement, finally made the call. The German included Ighalo in the list of 23 players invited for the fixtures in the November international break, dropping the name of Union Berlin’s Taiwo Awoniyi, who had been in superlative form in the Bundesliga since the start of the 2020/2021 football campaign.
The idea had not received consensual welcome in football discourse across the country and the debates about the wisdom or otherwise of the coach to actually effect it by including Ighalo in the list persisted long after the squad sheet had been made public. Yet, Rohr had his eyes beyond the qualifiers. Under his guidance, Nigeria’s senior men’s national football team had booked a ticket to Cameroon for the TotalEnergies 2021 Africa Cup of Nations in partial fulfillment of one of the terms of his contract.
Eager to do better than the third-place finish of the 2019 AFCON in Egypt, Rohr felt the compunction to rely on the tactics that worked in 2019 going into the AFCON of 2021. One significant pillar that saw to Nigeria’s qualification and the bronze finish was the goal-scoring qualities that Ighalo possessed and executed in the tournament. There were proven goal merchants in the squad that Rohr selected, including Victor Osimhen of Napoli FC in Italy, Ahmed Musa of Fatih Karagumruk in Turkey, Samuel Chukwueze from Villarreal FC in Spain, Moses Simon of FC Nantes in France and of course, the mercurial Paul Onuachu of KRC Genk in Belgium.
Nonetheless, Rohr felt the necessity to bring in Al Shabab’s Ighalo, who was playing outside Europe’s top five leagues in far away Saudi Arabia and who, at 32, had been away from the national team football for about two years after voluntarily retiring from international football at a relatively young age.
The rationale behind Rohr’s determination to have the striker back in his line up appeared to have a nostalgic appeal to it. Ighalo scored seven goals in the 2019 AFCON qualification campaign, the most by any player, to help Nigeria qualify for the finals in Egypt later that year and his goals were pivotal to the Super Eagles securing that third-place finish. He was prolific enough to have finished the competition with no less than five goals, the fifth against Tunisia in the final was enough to take third place. All these goals saw the 32-year-old emerge as the top scorer of the 32nd edition of the continental competition.
The fact that he had retired from international football was not going to stand in Rohr’s way. The German believed that if the Super Eagles made use of all the firepower at their disposal, the promise of a better outcome than third place was possible. Ighalo, for Rohr, had the potential to combine with Osimhen, who was in the form of his life in Napoli, and produce the results that would make Nigeria true contenders at the 33rd AFCON in Cameroon.
Rohr worked assiduously with the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) and, together with relevant stakeholders, they were able to pull off the feat of bringing Ighalo back into the Super Eagles squad. But, Ighalo was a no-show in the first of the qualifiers, where Nigeria needed two penalties to beat Liberia, and played an uneventful 78 minutes in the 1-1 draw against Cape Verde, three days later.
Rohr still believed in the player’s abilities and had pencilled him down for another AFCON outing to have him challenge again for the goal-scoring record before his appointment was terminated by the NFF, on December 12, for an underwhelming qualifying series. Nigerians who applauded the decision must have been taken aback to see his interim successor, Augustine Eguavoen, more or less stick to the same set of invited players, including Ighalo. While Eguavoen could be excused on the basis of the proximity of his appointment to the commencement of hostilities in Cameroon, there was no denying the need of the coaches for players who can provide goals that can make the difference between losing and winning. This was why Ighalo was being chased as one who had done so in the past for Nigeria, regardless of his current club performance in Saudi Arabia.
The fact that lack of goals denied a highly promising Nigeria team the chance of progressing beyond the knockout stage of AFCON may have demonstrated that the thinking behind forcing Ighalo out of retirement had some merit. Obviously, the team that Nigeria fielded had the capacity to beat all comers, yet the absence of striking options proved to be the bane of the Super Eagles at Cameroon.
Apart from the fact of Al Shabab’s refusal to release Ighalo, Napoli’s Victor Osimhen, Watford’s Emmanuel Dennis and Racing Genk’s Paul Onuachu were not available for different factors, while Feyenoord’s Cyriel Dessers was left out in the cold because Eguavoen did not have enough on him to warrant sending him an invitation. And Nigeria suffered for it.
While Ighalo was effecting a same-league transfer from Al-Shabab to Saudi Pro League rivals Al Hilal for a Nigerian record of €5.9m for a permanent transfer of a player aged 30 and above, his goal-scoring record was being shred in Cameroon. What could have been Ighalo’s stage was being filled in by the captain of the hosts Vincent Aboubakar. Two years off Ighalo’s age, the 30-year-old Cameroonian demonstrated from the opening day what he came back home to accomplish and, five games after, had not slowed down one bit. His prolificness in front of goal saw to Cameroon’s advancement and trophy-winning contention.
The contemporary of Ighalo in the Saudi Professional League outfit of Al Nassr, was in red-hot form in the tournament. By the competition’s Round of 16 stage, Aboubakar already had six goals to his name from four matches compared to the three Ighalo had managed at the same stage of the competition in 2019.
Aboubakar’s skilful positioning, resilient determination to find the goal and often clinical finishing all combined to make him a menacing presence for opposition defenders and a boon to the hosts.
Aboubakar, who has earned over 80 caps for Cameroon since his international debut in May 2010, was part of their squads for the 2010 and 2014 FIFA World Cups, as well as the AFCON competitions in 2015, 2017 and 2021. He scored the winning goal in the final of the 2017 tournament, when Cameroon took home the continental trophy for the fourth time, going one more than Nigeria at the Gabon-hosted event. On home soil, Aboubakar again played a very crucial role in the process of bringing Cameroon this far after five fixtures. He has grabbed the baton from Ighalo and is in no mood to relinquish it.
If there is going to be any challenge to Aboubakar’s charge towards the highest goal-scorer at the 33rd AFCON, it will be none other than teammate and strike partner Karl Toko-Ekambi, whose elegance and combined linkup play with Aboubakar made the the Cameroonian forward line a fearsome force for opposition defences. Toko-Ekambi, the Lyon forward, is second on the list of top goal-scorers at the competition after five matches, with five goals to his name. These goals, together with those of Aboubakar, have been highly instrumental to the challenge the hosts posed in the competition. Toko-Ekambi’s creativity and the intricate bonding he shares with Aboubakar make Cameroon a formidable attacking force as their goals demonstrate. 11 goals between them so far is a frightening attacking dexterity for five games of any competition much more for one where goals have been hard to come by. And, to Toko-Ekambi belongs the best and most realistic chance of stealing the highest goal-scorer baton away from his compatriot beyond match day five.
There are a few honourable mentions in the goal-scoring bracket of the competition so far. Liverpool’s goal-scoring duo of Senegal’s Sadio Mane and Egypt’s Mohamed Salah feature prominently, albeit underwhelming. Ahead of the tournament and based off of their sterling performances in the colours of the Reds of their Anfield side, they were both expected to lead the charge of their national sides and challenge for everything including the goal-scoring record. After a lacklustre start, they have played significant roles in seeing to the current berth of Senegal and Egypt respectively. Yet, of Senegal’s nine goals after matchday six, Mane’s name has been behind just three while Salah has fared poorly in an equally poor goal-scoring display of the Pharaohs of Egypt, who have managed to remain in the competition with a measly haul of four goals in five games.
It took all of four matchdays for Ighalo’s record of goals in the 2019 edition of AFCON to be superceded by Aboubakar and by matchday five Toko-Ekambi had five goals to match that Ighalo score. These two Cameroonians have banished all musings of a goal drought at the Cameroon competition with their form in front of goal. While it can be argued that they have fortunately had to contend with debutants, in Gambia and the Comoros, the consensus that there are no minnows left in the African game means they have as much bragging rights as others who made it was far as they have. And, if Aboubakar takes home the honour of highest goal-scorer based on his exploits in the initial five matchdays, he will have deserved the accolade.