The rise of Juwon Oshaniwa and Michael Babatunde for Nigeria
supporters, but few could argue with the contributions of two unheralded
Ahead of the 2014 World Cup I led the calls of indignation following
the rise to prominence of Juwon Oshaniwa and Michael Babatunde.
There were no real qualms about Oshaniwa being named in the Super
Eagles squad; Elderson Echiejile needed a backup, Francis Benjamin had
done little to suggest it might be him and the differences between
Stephen Keshi and Taye Taiwo had been well-documented.
Similarly, it wasn’t a major surprise to see Michael Babatunde make
the cut for the preliminary World Cup squad of 30. The midfielder is
young, versatile and energetic—three of the criteria held close to the
Big Boss’s heart.
However, as the tournament approached, the two began to move worryingly close to the Super Eagles’ starting XI.
Elderson Echiejile was injured in the pre-tournament match Greece and
was ruled out of the summer showpiece in Brazil. In the immediate
aftermath of the injury, Keshi assessed Efe Ambrose at left-back and
shoehorned Kunle Odunlami into the right-back berth.
The centre-back was uncomfortable here and, with Keshi unwilling to
remove Kenneth Omeruo from the heart of the defence, Oshaniwa was
returned to the side.
I watched, first-hand, as Babatunde started for the Super Eagles
against Scotland at Craven Cottage. Following the match, some friends,
who were new to Nigeria and unfamiliar with Keshi’s personnel, asked
about the anonymous Number 29.
“Don’t worry,” I assured them, “it won’t be like that in Brazil.
“Don’t expect to see Babatunde featuring on the grandest stage of them all.”
How wrong I was.
Keshi’s decision to overlook wide forwards such as Victor Obinna, and
midfielders such as Joel Obi, Nnamdi Oduamadi, Sunday Mba and Nosa
Igiebor meant that, as Brazil drew near, Babatunde found himself
occupying a spot in a particularly undermanned portion of the squad.
Surely Keshi hadn’t decided that the FC Volyn man was suddenly to be
called upon beneath the glare of the watching world in Brazil?!
Regardless of how things worked out, it’s important to reaffirm my
conviction that Keshi handled things badly. Like during the 2013 Cup of
Nations, the Big Boss’s Plan A unravelled so evidently that he was
forced to turn to a Plan B.
Some coaches, such as Algeria’s erstwhile manager Vahid Halilhodzic,
had a cultivated Plan B. If certain circumstances were to come about,
then the team would resort to a different approach or a different skill
With Keshi, there was no such premeditated assessment of peripheral
options. Perhaps he has seen the potential in Babatunde ever since the
middle of 2013. Perhaps he thrust the midfielder into the fray this
summer with complete confidence that he would rise to the occasion.
The fact is that, beyond a blind belief in Keshi, Nigeria fans and
observers had little reason for optimism when it became apparent that
Babatunde would play a pivotal role in Brazil.
The Big Boss deserves credit, certainly, but he also ought to be
criticised for heading into the summer’s tournament—the biggest of his
career—without having assessed his peripheral options ahead of the
Many feared the worst when it became apparent that Oshaniwa would be playing a pivotal role for the Super Eagles in Brazil.
Partly, this was because of the evidence of the 2013 Cup of Nations.
The left-back made a cameo as a substitute in the final against Burkina
Faso and looked bewildered when asked to deal with Jonathan Pitroipa and
Admittedly, it’s not easy to make a debut tournament appearance as a
substitute in the final, particularly as a defender, but Oshaniwa did
little to suggest to fans that he would be well-placed to rival Elderson
for the starting berth.
Keshi seemingly agreed, choosing to use Francis Benjamin as the squad’s reserve left-back through the rest of 2013.
When Oshaniwa was arguably at fault for the United State’s opening
goal in a pre-tournament friendly, Nigeria fans had every right to fear
To his credit, however, Oshaniwa played his part in Nigeria’s fine
defensive display this summer. Some rough edges may have been exposed
against Argentina and France, but the left-back was an important
component in a patched-up defence (following Godfrey Oboabona’s injury)
that kept clean sheets against Iran and Bosnia-Herzegovina (and for
nearly 80 minutes against Les Bleus).
Even more of a revelation, however, was Babatunde.
The youngster replaced Ramon Azeez for Nigeria’s second match,
against Bosnia, and helped the Super Eagles to their first victory over
European competition for 16 years.
It wasn’t a vintage showing and indeed, the Dragons could have won
had the arbitrage been a little more tuned or Vincent Enyeama a little
less so, but the Super Eagles did enough to all but book a spot in the
Babatunde brought energy and intelligence to the centre of the pitch.
Many had anticipated that he would be stationed on the left, allowing
either Peter Odemwingie or Ahmed Musa to play as a Number 10.
Instead, it was Babatunde who linked the midfield and the attack,
brought balance to the team, and flattered others with his intelligent
He contributed against Argentina before a typically lethal Ogenyi Onazi broke his wrist and ended his tournament.
Amazingly, Babatunde (like Sunday Mba before him) went from
lightweight, peripheral figure to key man in the space of a handful of
Remarkably (and who expected this at the beginning of the summer)
Nigeria actually missed Babatunde for the second-round match against
Following Sunday Mba’s fade from prominence, and the false starts of
Nnamdi Oduamadi and Joel Obi, I am reluctant to proclaim Babatunde as
the ‘Future of Nigeria’ at such an early stage.
It is worth noting, however, that at 21 (and with rumours of Premier
League interest) the midfielder can be considered an exciting component
of Nigeria’s future for the challenges to come.