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Calvin Bassey's UEL masterclass a humbling lesson for Super Eagles fans

May 20th 2022, 8:43:00 am

Bassey came under fierce criticism following Marchs defeat to Ghana, but his spectacular performances for Rangers have exposed the folly of that response

ZUMA Press

Rangers' Europa League final penalty shootout defeat at the hands of Eintracht Frankfurt was a gutting end to an exhilarating European run for the Scottish giants.

However, amidst all the disappointment, there were relentless plaudits for the performance of one Ger in particular.

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Calvin Bassey, playing at centre-back, gave a bravura performance on the biggest stage of his career, earning acclaim for his aggression, timing and speed. Former Champions League-winning midfielder Owen Hargreaves labelled it an "astonishing" display, high praise for a player who, at 22, is playing only his second season of senior football.

More than the simple fact of the showing on the night though, in burning brightly under the lights in the heat of Sevilla, Bassey has also highlighted the folly of Nigeria's tendency to eat its own young.

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It has been a whirlwind 12 months for the Italy-born defender. His first season in Glasgow was a far from outstanding one: he only made seven appearances in total as Rangers won the title, deputising for regular left-back Borna Barisic.

However, the departure of Steven Gerrard and arrival of Giovanni van Bronckhorst in the dugout has seen Bassey blossom into a commanding presence in the heart of the defence, his physical prowess and technical ability with the ball shining through as the former Feyenoord boss has flitted from a back three to a back four.

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Despite standing at a relatively modest 6ft 1in, his natural athleticism and tenacity make him a superb fit for the stopper role, as he is able to step out of the defence to nip possession. When this fails, as it invariably will from to time, he nevertheless is able to recover his position rapidly, as he did to deny Rafael Santos Borre in extra time.

His burgeoning standing at club level has not gone unnoticed. In October 2021, Bassey earned a first international call-up from Nigeria, finally making his debut in March in a World Cup qualifier against Ghana.

Following the disastrous outcome against the Black Stars in Abuja, Bassey – as much as any other – found his performance heavily criticised.

The upshot of this regrettable, blinkered vitriol seemed to be that he lacked the heart and gumption to wear the shirt, with many questioning his actual footballing merits.

This same verdict, in various forms, is commonplace among fans of the Super Eagles. It is easy to see why: it plays up to the same mythic idea of Nigerian exceptionalism that pervades other sectors and professional pursuits.

AFP/AFP
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If one can make a success of himself here, the wisdom goes, that person will certainly be trebly successful anywhere in the world. It's a twisted version of the Superman story, with Nigeria being Krypton and the rest of the world being, well, Earth by comparison, with its nourishing yellow sun and weaker gravity.

It was against that backdrop that Bassey, a youngster in only his second senior season of professional football, making his debut on the international stage, was carpeted and hung out to dry.

The swerving Youssef Msakni shot that beat him at January's Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) was both the final straw and confirmation for a fanbase that had already decided he was not good enough anyway.

Never mind the fact that this is clearly a goalkeeper with a fair bit of potential, who is bound to make some mistakes as he garners experience. Or the fact that, less than two decades ago, Nigeria was in this same situation with a certain Vincent Enyeama.

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At the time based out of Enyimba, Enyeama was far from the player who would go on to become Nigeria's best-ever goalkeeper. The decision to make him the first-choice goalkeeper at the 2004 AFCON was a polarizing one: former Super Eagles coach Clemens Westerhof dismissed him as "too short... lacking the size to intimidate strikers", and Atlanta 96-winning goalkeeper Dosu Joseph publicly called for Ike Shorunmu to reverse his retirement and return to the national team.

By 2008, six years into his international career, there was still a reasonable debate as to who was better: Enyeama or Austin Ejide. Erstwhile Super Eagles coach Berti Vogts even pitched his tent with the latter. It really took until the 2010 World Cup, and that performance against Lionel Messi's Argentina, for Enyeama to attain total faith from Nigerians.

Of course, the notion that certain players struggle away from club comforts and with the added pressure that comes with representing their national teams is not entirely without merit.

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However, and this is important, that verdict cannot possibly be arrived at over the course of one match, especially when the player in question – in the case of Bassey – is young and, in truth, the actual performance was nowhere near as bad as was portrayed.

There are so many other factors at play: tactical, psychological and external alike. In addition, there is the blindingly obvious: people are different, and the ability to take to an environment immediately (as some will invariably do) cannot be the sole criterion for determining worth. Young players with upside should be allowed the room to grow, and the concomitant errors should be met with patience and equanimity.

In the midst of an irate crowd, this sort of nuance can get lost, however. All the worse if that crowd is Nigeria, where not even precedent is enough to temper anger.

The danger with this, of course, is the risk of losing the player altogether. Okoye opted out of the Ghana double-header, citing COVID; true or otherwise, there is no doubt that the mean-spirited criticism to which he was exposed has impacted him.

One can only hope that Bassey's Europa League heroics will spark some introspection on the part of the Super Eagles faithful.

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