One of the more intriguing aspects of football is how certain nations tend to consistently produce quality footballers in certain positions. The flip side of that, of course, is that they are then less prolific in certain others.
Up until the late 80s, for instance, Brazil had a consistently clear weakness: the greatest World Cup team the world has ever seen could be counted upon to field a slightly hapless goalkeeper.
It is perhaps easy to theorize as to why this is so. Brazilian football has always had an ethos centered on expressionism, even though, contrary to popular belief, they did not always show it. Expressionism lends itself to attacking and confidence in being able to outscore anyone, and their capoeira culture (capoeira was a martial art disguised as dance, used by slaves to communicate surreptitiously) was adapted into a style of dribbling.
Dance being an active endeavor, it is easy to see how Brazilians were not immediately drawn to goalkeeping, which is essentially reactive, and offered little by way of leeway for self-expression (that, of course, has changed significantly – unsurprisingly one of those at the forefront of goalkeeping “protagonism” in the 90s was Brazilian Rogerio Ceni).
Indeed, there might be something to the idea that nations that had to grapple with the subjugation of slave trade (see: Africa and South America) might, on a preternatural level, balk at the natural status of a goalkeeper, essentially subservient to the flow of the game, and only influencing proceedings as he is allowed.
Conversely, European sides have tended to produce brilliant goalkeepers, Germany and Italy in particular excelling in this department. Indeed, it was only after Brazil’s 1982 team, crammed with playmakers, failed to win the World Cup that Brazil began to produce goalkeepers with real clout; a proud footballing nation essentially lost faith in its free-spirited roots, embracing a more disciplined, methodical style in keeping with Europe, and subsequently spawning the excellent Claudio Taffarel.
This situational peculiarity raises the question of just what it would take for Nigeria to conquer a deficiency that has persisted for the best part of the 21st century: a dearth of quality full-backs. This is particularly pertinent as, in the summer, the Super Eagles will compete at a sixth World Cup; a look back over the last two decades reveals a troubling trend.
The 2000s began with Celestine Babayaro still in office at left-back, but even as Nigeria reached the final of the Nations Cup in Lagos, there remained uncertainty over the opposite side: Jo Bonfrere’s side finished the competition with Godwin Opara tucked in very narrow, almost as a third centre-back, as Gbenga Okunowo underwhelmed.
Ifeanyi Udeze’s emergence, as well as his own indiscipline, hastened Babayaro’s exit, and Joseph Yobo’s evolution into a centre-back saw Abbey George, and then later Chidi Odiah hold sway for a while at right-back.
Not since 2010 has Nigeria had two proper full-backs at a World Cup. Some of that is incidental: Taye Taiwo, for all that an overly energetic game lent itself to rapid decline, should arguably still be relevant now, being only 32 (cough); while the unfortunate demise of Olubayo Adefemi robbed a nation of one of its brightest prospects.
In 2014, an injury to Elderson Echiejile meant Nigeria went to Brazil, the cradle of the attacking full-back, with Efe Ambrose, a centre-back, and Juwon Oshaniwa, a willing but decidedly inelegant left-back. As one might imagine, the exotic locales did not spontaneously morph them into fiercer reptiles.
With the 2018 World Cup just around the corner, the incumbents are Shehu Abdullahi, a rugged defensive midfielder, and Echiejile, finally getting his chance, but lacking any real dynamism in or out of possession.
It would appear that Nigeria always seems to make do in the position, and yet in modern football, it is one of the most important: most teams will tend to drop into two lines of four defensively, and so the full-backs will often have the most space to advance vertically. This room is also vital for acceleration, as they can arrive at full pelt in wide zones.
The recent unearthing of Tyronne Ebuehi and Bryan Idowu gives Super Eagles manager Gernot Rohr more offensive options, but both have only been capped once, and the German has a loyal bent, so it will be interesting to see just how much he changes.
Instructively, both are of mixed parentage—the core problem persists, and according to FC Barcelona Escola youth coach Sola Adegun, it is one that goes all the way down to academy level.
“Left-backs (in particular) are a Nigerian problem,” he tells me. “Almost always has been, I’ve seen it in the grassroots too. Very few left-footed, and most of them offensive players.”
I asked him what measure they take to address the shortage.
“We let them play where they want to mostly, but they all spend some time at left-back, some of them eventually fall in love with it. One told me, ‘I now prefer left back, I always have more space/time on the ball than in midfield, but it’s difficult attacking and defending almost equally’.”
While, even statistically, left-sided people are in the minority, it is easy to see precisely why full-back is so severely understaffed: the duality of the role exerts a huge physical tax that not all can pay.
Liverpool legend Jamie Carragher’s joke about full-backs being either failed centre-backs or failed wingers was pithy and amusing, yet in truth few are conscripted from central defence now; the kernel of the aphorism is that not many grow up idolizing a workhorse position, and even less so in a society like Nigeria that is intrinsically selfish.
Logically, it is easier to teach an attacker to defend, than it is to teach a defender to attack, and so, as Adegun hinted, wingers are often pulled back and taught to incorporate defensive tenets into their already bounteous attacking repertoire.
As one might imagine, this makes the role of coaches particularly relevant. And this is where, in Nigeria especially, it all falls down. As an instance, a particularly dynamite, young left-back at a certain top Nigerian club is having to get by solely on his wits defensively, having been converted from playing as a winger.
In spite of that, he is already earning rave reviews; one can imagine what he would be playing in a league where coaches are actually capable of rounding out players’ development.