Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Applying Some Measurables: Nigeria's G.O.A.T Players (Vol. I)

From time to time, the media select the Greatest Of All Time (G.O.A.T) players of Nigeria but often this selection is based on recollections and subjectivities. Frankly, it is difficult to select such teams without relying on subjective factors and I do not deny such reliance, on my part, to select the team. To be sure, I have been privileged to watch most Nigerian national team players in action. The only set of players that I have not watched were the set that wore Nigerian colors prior to the explosion of multiple international games in the 1960s but even then I have researched the national team from its inception in 1949 till date. This reality, I believe, puts me in an important position to pass subjective judgments beyond the statistics.

However, for this particular exercise, I will do something unique in the sense that I do not solely rely on subjectivities but also use available statistics in selecting the G.O.A.T. 

The Subjectivities
Before I commence, I state below some key points to explain additional measures:

1. The fact that a player plays in Europe does not immediately make the player better than one that did not play outside Nigeria. For instance, it is laughable for someone to claim that Azubike Egwuekwe and Godwin Savior are better players than Christian Chukwu and Segun Odegbami respectively, simply because both Egwuekwe and Savior are playing in Europe and Chukwu and Odegbami did not. Playing in Europe can be largely explained by opportunities provided in a different era. Those opportunities should not blind nor distract from selecting a truly G.O.A.T. team.

2. Playing a few national team games can be explained by the era in which a player played. For instance, Nigeria did not begin to play multitude of international games until the 1960s and that should not deny a player who played before then a consideration as part of the G.O.A.T. However, if a player featured in an era when his colleagues played far more games, then such a player cannot be considered part of the G.O.A.T.

3. The G.O.A.T requires that the player was indeed considered one of the best among his colleagues during the era that he played. Thus, a player considered one of the best of his era is to be selected over a player that is not considered among the best of another era, in spite of the statistics.

4. The G.O.A.T is restricted considerably to those players who featured prominently for the senior national team. A player's overall accomplishment for his club, Nigerian or foreign, does not override that factor. After all, this is the G.O.A.T. of Nigerian players which essentially requires eligibility based on playing for a Nigerian national team.

The Statistics
Here we use the only available statistics drawn from a database of national team appearances. We believe that a player considered for G.O.A.T. is one who significantly affects the team statistics of that period. This assumption allows us, therefore, to use some team statistics to gain insight on these players. There are three major calculations that we undertake as follows: (1) we look at team performance in the games played by the player and use that to calculate the team efficiency to which the player is considered a primary contributor, (2) we look at the goals conceded, a key measure of the effectiveness of a team's defense (including goalkeeping), and (3) we look at how many games (and percentage of games) in which the defense/goalkeeping is able to prevent a goal (clean sheet).

The G.O.A.T. Selection
Given the above, the first of four volumes of this exercise focuses on selecting the goalkeeper and the defense along with those who failed to make the all-time starting team but are deserving of honorable mention. The other three volumes will focus on midfielders, forwards, and then the coaching position.

There are five goalkeepers that were considered -- Sam Ibiam, Inuwa 'Rigogo' Lawal, Emmanuel Okala, Peter Rufai, and Vincent Enyeama. Each is considered a dominant player in the era that he played. Okala was for long considered the all time best until the arrival of Vincent Enyeama and Peter Rufai. However, his major glory was at the All Africa Games in 1973 but was a reserve when Nigeria won its first Nations cup in 1980. For me, the starter on the G.O.A.T. goes to Vincent Enyeama who was a key at the 2013 Nations Cup won by Nigeria and had three great performances at the World Cups of 2002, 2010, and 2014. Rufai had a good World Cup in 1994 after winning the Nations Cup the same year but his performance at the 1998 World Cup was forgettable. Importantly, on the three statistics, Enyeama is first in rate of conceding goals at the lowest of 0.73 per game and second in the other two categories. Rufai had the best percentage in clean sheets but his efficiency is low. Okala is first on efficiency but third on the other two categories.

Nigeria has not produced very strong right backs historically. At least not the ones that were considered top defenders of the team during their era. There was one exception, Anthony "World 2" Igwe. Igwe was barely out of school in the mid-1960s when he began playing for Nigeria on the back of tremendous play for the Nigerian Academicals. For the senior team, he started as a right half back but was switched further back where he excelled in both defending and joining the attack for over a decade. I considered Patrick Ekeji who was in the same mold but he played far fewer games than his contemporaries. At the left back, I considered Augustine Ofoukwu and Yisa Sofoluwe. My preference is Yisa who was solid throughout his career for Nigeria and was one of the best of his era. But Yisa's efficiency is quite low (0.50) and four others edge him out on clean sheets. Ofoukwu captained Nigeria to the 1968 Olympics but was on top for a shorter period of time.

The central defense is where Nigeria has produced its best defenders historically except for a drought that began upon the retirement of Taribo West. Here, it was difficult to select a final group as many central defenders were among the best players in their era. Eventually, I went with Godwin Achebe, Segun Olumodeji, Christian Chukwu, Stephen Keshi, Uche Okechukwu, and Taribo West. I first eliminated Olumodeji despite his outstanding status at the 1968 Olympics. Reason? He was considered less a player to Achebe before 1968 and Achebe's absence was due to the war. Yet, after failing to play actively for three years of the war, Achebe returned to the team to take the starter position from Segun and was on the team that won Nigeria's first continental level competition in 1973. Further, his statistics (Table 2) are quite inferior to other players. Chukwu, Okechukwu, and Keshi won the Nations Cup and going by their stats on Table 2, I select them in a 3-person defense with Yisa Sofoluwe and Taribo West listed under honorable mention. 

Summary Selection
GK:  Vincent Enyeama
D:    Uche Okechukwu
D:    Christian Chukwu
D:    Stephen Keshi

Honorable Mentions
My choice, admittedly subjective, are Emmanuel Okala, Yisa Sofoluwe, and Taribo West.