Peter Osaze Odemwingie was recently featured on the cover of his Russian club Lokomotiv Moscow’s magazine under the words ‘Odem-Wingman’ and a picture of the player dressed up like Superman.
It was Lokomotiv’s way of celebrating the 28-year-old forward, who will be their only torch bearer at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, but it was also a fitting tribute to the player who is surely key to the lofty ambitions of 150 million Nigerians. If the Super Eagles are to go far in the first finals on African soil, surely it will take a superhero effort from the fast and daring ‘Osas’.
But Odemwingie, who most frequently lines up on the wing but can also play through the middle, plays down any star talk, insisting on the need for collective work. “Playing for the Eagles is like going to the battle front, you are like a soldier and you just have to be determined to represent your country,” he recently told FIFA.com. “We finished top of our qualifying group thanks to the commitment and discipline of all those involved. We all know that the Super Eagles are full of stars, but we really need to put our reputation behind us if we are to forge ahead.”
It is six years now since the son of a Nigerian father and a Russian mother first burst onto the international scene, becoming an all-action real-life hero courtesy of two well-taken strikes against South Africa. Proven strikers Yakubu Aiyegbeni and Victor Agali had been dramatically dropped for violating team rules at the 2004 CAF Africa Cup of Nations in Tunisia, so up stepped an unfazed Odemwingie to fire a brace against Bafana Bafana in a key group game.
As a 20-year-old, Odemwingie had shown enough promise to be one of four players put on standby for the Super Eagles 2002 FIFA World Cup squad after a goal-scoring debut against Kenya in Lagos. “It was a massive thrill to see the little boy who I remember giving my club jersey to on the promptings of his mother, now become part of our World Cup training camp,” recalled former Nigeria international star Garba Lawal. “Even then, he showed he could play. But his lack of experience, and the fact that he was then playing in the local league, worked against him making the final squad.”
Despite all that early promise it was not until about two years ago that Odemwingie really established himself in a star-studded Nigerian team overflowing with exciting attacking talent, from Aiyegbeni to Obafemi Martins. Last year, the former Lille star was named Nigeria’s best player by a leading local television station on the back of his goals and whole-hearted commitment to the Nigeria cause on the road to South Africa.
At South Africa 2010, the Lokomotiv star will again come face-to-face with Argentina two years after he clashed with the South Americans in the final of the Olympic Football Tournament at Beijing 2008. Nigeria also lost to Argentina in the final of the 2005 FIFA U-20 World Cup and at both the 1994 and 2002 FIFA World Cups to further raise the stakes when the west Africans clash again with their old adversaries in a Group B showdown on 12 June at Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg.
For his part, Odemwingie now relishes the prospects of the Eagles avenging those defeats. “We need to take our own pound of flesh against Argentina. There was something lacking in our game before, but this time around I hope we can do better,” said the striker now closing in on half a century of international caps. “I hope we can give them a good fight and hopefully score some goals. Football is a team sport, and I think lately we have seen a lot of teams who have big stars but have failed to win games. I sincerely believe we have the players to now beat Argentina.”
‘Osas’, who has a year left on his contract at Lokomotiv and has remained the subject of transfer speculation, is a man for the big occasion and they do not come any bigger than the World Cup. At the 2008 Olympics, he insisted to coach Samson Siasia that he could play a bigger role in the team and then went out and backed up the plea with a lesson in clinical finishing as his strike inspired Nigeria to a 2-0 victory over talent-laden Côte d'Ivoire in the quarter-finals.
“It was great to be involved in such a major tournament like the Olympics and end up with a silver medal,” he said. “But I’m still not fulfilled because I also wish to shine at the World Cup.”