By Solace Chukwu
Here’s a fun activity for anyone to try: a vox-pop centered around Ahmed Musa. Is there a more divisive Nigerian footballer active today?
Just this weekend, he hit a brace for CSKA Moscow in a 6-0 demolition of Arsenal Tula, bringing his tally to five in his last five league games. In that span, he has also assisted twice. It would appear he is peaking at just the right time, with the World Cup just a month away.
What has changed then?
Barely six months ago, it seemed Musa has altogether forgotten how to play football. The 25-year-old looked bereft of confidence and ideas, failing to bring even his best quality – a considerable turn of pace – to bear on a Premier League that fetishizes precisely that.
By the time he returned to Russia on loan in March, he had not played any kind of competitive football for almost two months, and had failed to make a single league appearance all season for Leicester City.
That was it then: he had been found out, exposed as a substandard, one-trick player, and was now scampering back whence he came.
Except it’s never that straightforward, of course.
There has evidently been something of the haphazard about Leicester’s transfer policy since that shock title win in 2016, with a lot more misses than hits. It is less a reflection on the players themselves than it is on the club’s diligence in the transfer market, as well as the managerial instability that has ensued.
Add to that the fact that Musa never really looked comfortable in England, and was rarely trusted, and it is clear to see why it never worked. If that does not convince, then witness the return to something approaching his best football in recent weeks.
In spite of that, and the fact that he is one of the more experienced players in the squad, there is no great sense of excitement about his inclusion in Nigeria’s World Cup party. Not that it will necessarily make much of a difference—the double-edged consequence of Gernot Rohr’s Project Youth is that the few experienced heads, for better or worse, are practically immune from culling.
As like as not, Musa will be a part of the provisional 30 when it is announced next week, and he will be a part of the final 23 when it is selected. However, rather than see it as something to be endured, there is surely more to be excited about.
This has been acknowledged in some quarters, but the fact that he does play his club football in Russia counts for something.
Call it emotional value, or simply the fact that he seems so eminently comfortable within its borders; even when the Super Eagles stunned Argentina in Krasnodar last November, there was enough time in his cameo appearance to assist Alex Iwobi’s second goal of the game.
If that comes across like some sop, then consider this rather surprising stat: there is only one Nigerian footballer who has scored more than once in a match at a World Cup. His name is Ahmed Musa. The opposition: eventual finalists Argentina, four years ago.
There is something to be said for the ability to produce on the world stage after all, whatever reservations one might have about his decision-making at times.
It is why, even allowing that it is unlikely he starts, his presence is imperative.
There may be many knocking on the door, many flavours of the month who Nigerians would rather see, but if you’re a goal down in Russia, would you rather have yet another youngster who might make a difference, or someone who has already previously shown he can?
It cuts to the heart of that debate centering on form vs. ability; Musa is not everyone’s cup of tea, and while that can be explained, it should not detract from his positives: devastating pace, and the ability to surprise everyone, himself included sometimes.
In a side with a clutch of strikers that do not convince, one cannot sniff at a player who has scored 13 times for the national team, while playing out wide, based on purely aesthetic misgivings.