The German manager wants Ighalo back, but his wish could come at the cost of unity within the national team.
Monday’s announcement of the Super Eagles’ squad for November’s 2022 World Cup qualifiers against Liberia and Cape Verde confirmed the worst-kept secret in Nigerian football.
Since retiring from international football following the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, Odion Ighalo has lived quite the adventure. He fulfilled a lifelong dream by spending a year on loan with boyhood club Manchester United, before swapping China for the oil-rich Gulf, where he is presently finding the back of the net with unsurprising regularity with Al Shabab.
By contrast, things with the national team have not been quite so rosy. There have been far more lows than highs, with poor results at home against Sierra Leone (4-4) and Central African Republic (0-1) being particularly embarrassing.
One might then cast Rohr’s desire for Ighalo to return as a hankering for better times.
However, there is quite a distance from desire to action, and while the 68-year-old had been vocal in his wish, it seemed unlikely such a scenario would actually play out, especially with the 32-year-old striker non-committal.
Well, play out it has.
While there are reasonable arguments on both sides of the divide for and against the decision, there is a more insidious effect to bringing Ighalo out of retirement — should the former Manchester United marksman accept.
If there is one thing that has largely gone for Rohr during his time in charge of the Super Eagles, it is the relatively harmonious dressing room atmosphere that has been fostered. The days of internal squabbling, outsized egos and allegations of mafia culture have been consigned to the past. By delegating to senior squad members and also as a consequence of a young squad overall, the German coach has been able to keep everyone in line.
The decision to bring Ighalo back may, however, introduce the first real fault line in the landscape of the team.
The most obvious effect would be on the Super Eagles’ current standard-bearer in attack: Victor Osimhen. It sends the wrong message entirely, the implication being that there is a lack of confidence on the coach’s part in his incumbent number 9.
It is a diagnosis that makes no sense in light of Osimhen’s sterling record in international football. The Napoli man is, at the moment, averaging a goal every other game, which is a superb return by any standard, and not compatible with any suggestion of underperformance. There would be a feeling of injustice, and an understandable one at that, were he to lose his place on account of Ighalo.
It is one that would no doubt spread too, potentially creating a rift in the wider squad. There remains still a sizable contingent within the team that is left over from the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, who played with Ighalo and would no doubt be torn in their loyalties, real or perceived.
The possibility of Ighalo starting on the bench does little to lighten a tense situation. If anything, it makes it worse: it is not be a stretch to imagine that, with the former AFCON Golden Boot winner on the bench, Rohr would be less inclined toward patience if things were going badly during a game, and that that fact would in turn ramp up the pressure on Osimhen to perform, adversely affecting the team’s cohesion and decision-making in attack.
In that event, how far away would we be from 1994, when by the admission of certain players, there was a reluctance to pass to the national team’s leading marksman in Rashidi Yekini? The circumstances are quite different, but the effect – the Super Eagles number 9 feeling alienated by the rest of the team – could be just as damaging.