Nigeria or do we say the Super Eagles are blessed when it comes to producing world class defenders. From the era of Christian “Chairman” Chukwu to Stephen Okechukwu “Big Boss” Keshi, Uche “Gentle Giant” Okechukwu and Taribo “Pastor” West we have given the world, world class defenders who have held their own anywhere and anytime.
Our defenders are robust in tackles, ruthless in marking and very powerful in one on one situations. They have always given great cover to the goalkeepers hence, we have also had top quality goaltenders like Peter Fregene, Emma Okala, Best Ogedegbe, Peter Rufai, Willy Agbonavbare, Alloy Agu, Christian Obi, Willy Okpara, Ike Shorunmu and Vincent Enyeama to mention a few.
At some point in the history of Nigerian football, defence used to be the strongest department or strength of the team. Penetrating the Super Eagles defence then was a huge task for opposing attackers. This was the major reason, Eagles defence was nicknamed the GREEN WALL in USA ’94 World Cup. From Austin Eguavoen to Uche Okechukwu, Chidi Nwanu and Ben Iroha….with the likes of Stephen Keshi, Uche Okafor and Mike Emenalo present on the bench.
But before the coming of Gernot Rohr, Super Eagles defence has been suspect. It is either the wingbacks are creating problems by not covering well enough or returning to defend after launching a counter attack or the central defence is leaking as a result of poor communication between the pair. The major reason for poor communication between the central defenders is lack of continuity. Each coach comes with his own ideas or agenda of how the defence will look and choice of players to anchor it.
When Sunday Oliseh took over, he found some players difficult to work with. Most of these players were seen as Samson Siasia’s boys. One of them is William Troost Ekong. Oliseh said, the fair skinned defender was clumsy in his tackles and lacked the required confidence of a central defender. Under Oliseh, Ekong was a fringe player.
Then came Rohr. He saw what Oliseh could not see in the defender and moulded him to his taste…. to be the anchor of today’s Super Eagles defence.
Ever since, Ekong has grown in confidence. He is trying to be more cautious and calculative in his tackles. He attempts to win balls and launch attacks with them…but, most importantly, he tries though with difficulty to organize the defence line. The reason for finding it difficult is because aside Leon Balogun his pair in the central defence who he has played with from their days in Rio 2016 Olympic Games, he has had to play with different sets of players as wingbacks and defensive midfielders from the qualifiers for the World Cup till present international friendlies in preparation for the mundial.
However, it has not been bad news for Nigeria, Eagles, Rohr or Ekong, as the player has continuously asserted himself in each game. He has brought his presence to bear on the team. He is no doubt a mainstay in Rohr’s squad and with few more games leading to Russia, he would have been fine tuned to the class of World Cup defenders who Nigerians will trust and look up to in Russia.
Against Argentina which was a big game even with the absence of Lionel Messi he kept an eye on the likes of Sergio Aguero, Dybala and Di Maria. Against Poland, he kept Robert Lewandowski, one of the best strikers in the world away from making any major attempt at Francis Uzoho’s goal post. We are waiting to see what Ekong will do in tomorrow’s game against Serbia.
In the words of Rohr, “William has grown in confidence. He is our best at the moment. He is also enjoying himself. He will continue to improve as we take on the world in Russia. He is one of the players that brings immense bond and confidence to the team.”
One good quality I noticed in Ekong as displayed in the game against Poland is leadership. It was not for nothing that Rohr handed him the captain’s armband with senior players like Victor Moses and Odion Ighalo on the pitch coupled with Ogenyi Onazi , Ahmed Musa and Kenneth Omeruo on the bench.
Perhaps, Rohr has succeeded in telling Nigerians that a new Super Eagles leader has been born….and he is William Troost Ekong. This may be the next captain of the Super Eagles after the likes of John Obi Mikel and Ahmed Musa. In the game with Poland, Ekong did not only marshal the defence line, he performed his duty by “pocketing” Lewandowski and of course, he dished out instructions to the rest of the team while the game lasted organizing the team from behind. He reminds me of those eras that we had central defenders as skippers of the Green or Super Eagles like Chukwu, Keshi and Uche. Of course, it is not yet celebration time for Ekong as he has more to learn but perhaps after the World Cup in Russia we may say, a world class defender has been born.
After a good outing in Russia, Ekong may leave Turkey for either England, France, Germany, Spain or Italy. He is sure showing signs of hope. I pray he keeps his head low to learn more.
By Desmond Ekwueme