As far as international careers go, Kevin Akpoguma has had a weird one.
We need to talk about Kevin: Is Gernot Rohr's Akpoguma project a failed one already?
Despite having been so keen on the defender, the German coach seems to have no clear idea what to do with him.
Nigeria coach Gernot Rohr first stated his admiration for the defender as far back as 2017, describing him as an “excellent match” after scouting him in person during a league match against Eintracht Frankfurt. That initial overture went unrequited however, as at the time Akpoguma, who represented Germany at various youth levels, still held out hope for a call-up to the Mannschaft.
Three years of return visits and gentle cooing in the ear of the Hoffenheim man would ultimately have an effect, as in September 2020 Rohr announced his success. In his words to the BBC, the German coach attributed Akpoguma’s change of heart to the unfurling of his Super Eagles vision.
“I presented our projects and I could speak about the team, about this incredible period in the Super Eagles and my vision for the team,” Rohr said. “He was sold on this and would love to be a part of the team and play in big international competitions like the Africa Cup of Nations or even the World Cup.”
A month later, Akpoguma was straight into the Nigeria squad for a pair of friendlies against Algeria and Tunisia in neighbouring Austria, and with just over 20 minutes left to play against the reigning African champions, he entered the fray for the first time in green and white.
All build-up, little pay-off
The implied promise of all that foreplay has yet to materialize a year on, however. Since then, the 26-year-old has made three further appearances (all of them from the start) for Nigeria; all four of his international caps coming within 39 days.
There is, of course, a caveat in the form of injuries and illness. For the June friendlies against Cameroon, Akpoguma was unavailable with a thigh problem - partly a complication of the left hamstring injury he suffered in January. For September’s qualifiers with Liberia and Cape Verde, he was out with coronavirus.
Still, even when he has been fit and available, as he was for last month’s matches with the Central African Republic, Akpoguma has been firmly rooted to the bench. This season, he has started seven of 11 matches for German club Hoffenheim, and has been one of the better performers for Sebastian Hoeness, so a lack of form would not justify his continued irrelevance.
Where has it all gone wrong for Kevin?
Of course, a starting spot for the national team is hardly a given for any player. However, it is worth considering here on account of the effort that went into winning him over and the fanfare that accompanied his conversion.
The implication of the three-year chase, and the hook on which Rohr’s winning pitch would have hung, would surely have been that there was a specific role in the team to which his profile was perfectly suited. Instead, it is starting to appear now that the 68-year-old, like a dog chasing cars or a wolf howling at the moon, had no real action plan at the ready in the event that his pursuit was successful.
This sense has only grown with Akpoguma’s deployment at right-back for all of his four caps. While it is a role he can (and does, at club level) play, he is naturally a centre-back, and his minutes at right-back - and right wing-back latterly - have come as a matter of expediency, with Czech international Pavel Kaderabek struggling with injuries for large portions of the past year, and no other available options in the Hoffenheim squad.
The Super Eagles, by contrast, have a number of natural right-back options in the squad, and this made crowbarring the former Germany youth international into the starting lineup a deeply unpopular enterprise, one against which the majority of Nigeria fans kicked against vehemently.
It was not, however, the incredulity of the fanbase that led Rohr to row back on his experiment. The German is no stranger to persisting in the face of public disapproval. No; perhaps the simplest way to understand Akpoguma’s bench duty is to look back on his performances when he was selected.
Akpoguma has paid the price for not pulling his weight
While practice has made him much more comfortable playing at right-back, at the time Akpoguma was still somewhat unconvincing in the role, and this leaked into his performance against Tunisia in his second appearance. It was, however, in the home leg of the double-header against Sierra Leone in Benin that things really came to a head, as curiously enough it was the defender’s speed in recovery that was exposed on a number of occasions. He was also partly to blame for Sierra Leone’s second goal, failing to close down the cross for Alhaji Kamara’s header.
While he started the return in Freetown, he has not featured again since.
There is an alternative theory surrounding the quality of playing surfaces - that Rohr is protecting him from the worst of it, while keeping him onside still by inviting him. It is worth a thought, but has one mark against it: even in electing to shift to a back three system against Central African Republic for the return leg in Douala last month, at no point did the German coach turn to his pet, and that on a better surface than was on offer in Lagos.
Come Saturday, it seems likely Akpoguma will, once again, play the role of unused substitute. If that is indeed the case, it would only add further intrigue to the mystery of one of the more bizarre international career trajectories.