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Cyriel Dessers: Underappreciated At Home, Desired Abroad

Cyriel Dessers

May 09, (THEWILL) – In January, THE interim handler of the Super Eagles, Augustine Eguavoen, was faced with a selection decision for the squad to take to the TotalEnergies 2021 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) in Cameroon. He had picked a class of players that suited his game plan, strategy, tactics and formation for the continental competition and invites had been sent out to these players after the stamp of approval from the football governing body, the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF). What should have been a smooth process of welcoming all invited players and getting down to the business of preparing for the preliminary rounds of AFCON was scuttled with a striker shortage. Napoli’s Victor Osimhen contracted COVID-19, Racing Genk’s Paul Onuachu was injured, Watford and Al Shabab refused to release Emmanuel Dennis and Jude Odion Ighalo respectively. It was in this fix that a story about Belgian-born Super Eagles’ forward Cyriel Dessers made it to the headlines.

At the time, Dessers was on loan at Feyenoord, one of the Eredivisie league’s top sides, from the Belgian club Racing Genk. He had made the summer move to afford himself more playing minutes than he was getting at Genk, where the form of his compatriot, Onuachu, often relegated him to the substitutes’ bench. Confident in his capacity to offer more than simply delivering as a “Super Sub” for Genk, Dessers moved to Feyenoord in August last year and by January, his sterling displays for the Dutch side had seen his goal contributions climb to 14, with 12 goals and 2 assists in his first 28 outings in the season 2021/2022 season. He was not immediately slotted into the starting XI of Feyenoord, as he desired when he left Genk. These goals came from starting as a sub in 22 of his 28 appearances for the Rotterdam based side. Yet, there was no denying his efficiency in front of goal.

However, by his own admission, Eguavoen was oblivious to all of these. This was most apparent when he elected to fill in the vacant slots in his squad after the inability of Osimhen, Onuachu, Dennis and Ighalo to honour their invitations was official. Dessers form more than justified being given an opportunity to get more caps for his country of choice and, at a time when the country sorely required a clinical striker, it seemed a no-brainer to let him reprise from club goal-scoring with the national team. Instead, Eguavoen went shopping for striker reinforcements elsewhere, settling for the duo of Peter Olayinka of Slavia Prague and Henry Onyekuru of Olympiakos, to whom he issued late call-ups. Understandably, for a player born to a Dutch father and Nigerian mother and who chose to play for Nigeria but has only ever managed to be selected once, this did not sit well. Dessers took to social media to vent his frustration before thinking better of his action and deleting his post. The early exit of the Super Eagles from Cameroon 2021 bore evidence of the fact that they could have benefited from Dessers form.

When queried about the choice of leaving a talent like Dessers out in the cold, when he could have potentially made a difference, especially in the absence of several first-team forwards, Eguavoen’s defense was cold and untenable. Eguavoen explained that he had spoken to the President of the NFF about inviting Dessers but that he was yet to witness the former Heracles attacker in action and that he would like to get a better look at him before including him in his selection. Since there was no time to get on a train to Holland to observe his performance, Dessers was not getting a call-up. He then used that reasoning to defend picking Olayinka and Onyekuru instead. He watched Olayinka feature in the Champions League game against Inter while Onyekuru was included in the team because Onyekuru had always been around with the team going back to the previous coach, Gernot Rohr. Bringing up the 40-man list that Rohr picked before it was parred down is important as Eguavoen relied mostly on it for selection due to the proximity of his appointment with the start of the AFCON in Cameroon. And, like Rohr did before him, Eguavoen, who was presented with a better chance of giving Dessers a second cap, was excusing himself with rationales that are porous.

In the first instance, the 21st century application of technological advances presently remove the constant need to physically travel for the purposes of monitoring player performances. Eguavoen, in his capacity as Nigerian coach, even in an interim capacity, can liaise with Feyenoord to obtain performance data, which teams currently capture using several Artificial Intelligence algorithms. This will afford him a much more in-depth look and detailed indices on the player’s attributes, capacities, potentials and form to enable him decide how best Dessers will fit into his squad for the AFCON. Furthermore, there are online sources that offer video compilations of every player’s contributions to matches they play on request. There are also data sources that breakdown a player’s game to the most precise figures from ball touches, pass accuracy, goal attempts to shots on goal, shots on target, dribbles attempted and completed to ball recoveries, fouls, expected goals, every other detail a coach will ever need any much more. These can be used as a substitute to physically watching a player perform, when that is not available. It therefore cancels out Eguavoen’s excuse outrightly and makes him out as not grounded on modern coaching attributes.

A proof of this mistake that Eguavoen made to leave out Dessers from AFCON is the current form of the forward. Feyenoord’s participation in the maiden UEFA Europa Conference League has been a blessing for Dessers. The form of goal-scoring that earned him the joint-top scorer award in the Eredivisie in the COVID-19 affected 2019/2020 season with 15 goals for Heracles, which drew the attention of Rohr to invite him for the only game he featured in the Green and White for Nigeria, appeared to have suffered with his move to Genk. There, behind the imposing Onuachu, he failed to shine for the Belgian side until Feyenoord came for the loan-move. Dessers rediscovered his scoring boots, especially in Europe. With that has come acclaim and record-setting. Currently, he has scored 10 goals in 11 matches to leave Feyenoord just a point away from reaching the final of the Conference League. These 10 goals also shot him into Feyenoord’s record books, as no striker has ever scored that many for the Dutch side in any European competition. Ever. For a club boasting a historical pedigree of some of Europe’s excellent strikers as Pierre van Hooijdonk, who had the previous record of nine, Dirk Kuijt, Harry Bild, and Robin van Persie, it is extra significant what Dessers has accomplished.

The 27-year-old forward scored a brace against Ligue 1 side Olympique Marseille in the first leg of their Conference League semi-finals to better their chances of reaching the final, which will be the club’s first European final in two decades. His spectacular match-winning performance earned him the UEFA Conference League Player of the Week award to add to his growing accolades. His double made him the first player in the newly formed Conference League to score 10 goals. Dessers is also the competition’s all-time leading scorer, having previously shared the lead with AS Roma’s Tammy Abraham, who has scored eight goals. Dessers is favoured to win the Conference League Player of the Tournament at the end of the season. It will crown a glorious season as it will be deserving of the player, who also was voted Player of the Month for November and took him the prize for Goal of the month for the same month. All these could make Dessers one of the most sought-after players when the next transfer window opens in July. Which is why the fans swung into action to keep the Nigerian in Rotterdam.

A clause in his loan contract requires Feyenoord to pay €4 million to sign him on a permanent deal before the end of the season. However, because Feyenoord cannot put down such a large sum unless another key player is sold in order to keep the books balanced, a group of the club’s fans have taken matters into their own hands and have already crowd-funded over €50,000 to help the Pride of the South seal the deal for their new hero at De Kuip. In reaction to an optimistic statement attributed to club manager Arne Slot, a Dutch businessman and multimillionaire Dennis de Roo stated his desire to cooperate with Feyenoord in supplying the money for the acquisition. This is unprecedented for a Nigerian player. The Rotterdam supporters recognise his value, which cannot be said of his countrymen, and took it upon themselves to keep him with money from their own pockets. Although there are as yet unconfirmed reports that FIFA is against such unconventional crowd-funding plans and has banned the move outrightly, it was a beautiful experience to witness the irony of a player that is underappreciated at home, in Nigeria and Belgium, but desired to be retained by all means in Netherlands.