AFCON 2023: The Talented Ola Aina – Nigeria defender overcomes fourth match hoodoo

AFCON 2023: The Talented Ola Aina – Nigeria defender overcomes fourth match hoodoo


The Nigeria international was sublime against Cameroon, posting his first error-free tournament knockout performance for the Super Eagles

Success, the saying goes, has many fathers. True as that is, it also has many children, so much so that, in the aftermath of Nigeria’s victory over Cameroon on Saturday night, to single out any one of the 11 that set their stall out on the turf of the Felix Houphouet-Boigny Stadium in Abidjan has come to feel almost like favouritism. 

And yet, spare a thought for Ola Aina. For all that Victor Osimhen’s roadrunner exuberance brought Cameroon’s worst nightmares to sardonic, whirring life, it was the diligence of Aina, alumnus of the Cobham Way Station for Gifted Kids, at right wing-back that ensured the same was not true going the other way. Georges-Kevin N’Koudou, earmarked prior as the primary threat for the Indomitable Lions, was barely a consideration, confined to the fringes of both pitch and match.

Do not let the title of this article fool you; the only truth to be gleaned from it is a literal one. There is little, beyond the quick-witted daring of them, to connect Aina to Patricia Highsmith’s anti-hero and famous identity thief Tom Ripley, first glimpsed in the 1950s. With Aina, there is no faking whatsoever. Only searing, unmissable talent. 

If anything, he is so resoundingly himself that, for a time, it seemed to doom him: in the eyes of Super Eagles fans, diffidence can often be mistaken for casualness or, even worse, indifference. There is no greater sin. The fact that, until the ongoing edition of the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON), the Nottingham Forest man had yet to convince for Nigeria in a tournament knockout match only served to heighten that perception. 

The pattern, although stemming from a limited sample size, was entering the realm of the uncanny. Preferred from the start, he would impress over the first three matches, only to throw in a glaring error in the first knockout round. As in 2019, so in 2021. The former, on account of the heroics of Odion Ighalo, did not prove fatal – only his pride and place were lost, as Jamilu Collins came back into the side in his stead. The latter did, as the Super Eagles exited the competition despite impressing in the Group Stage.

Even the manner of the errors were similar, both the consequence of a stumble, remarkable for the fact that Aina is so clearly the consummate specimen. One got the sense that, had his missteps been of a less obvious nature – positional, perhaps? – they may have been forgiven more readily. But if being bested by Cameroonian Clinton N’Jie was poor in the circumstance, tripping and losing a test of strength with a then 31-year-old Youssef Msakni seemed almost perverse in light of his physical gifts.

Contradiction, however, is the curse of the precocious. This is, after all, an individual who was a star athlete as a youngster – playing rugby and trying his limbs at both athletics and gymnastics before settling on a career in football – but whose favourite subject in school was art (he draws and paints still). He is at once a free spirit and a unit, a composite of varying percolating energies that perhaps simply needed to sediment. At 27, on Saturday’s evidence, it finally looks to be coming together.

For all the impassable steeliness with which he shackled N’Koudou (the former Tottenham man was unsuccessful with three separate dribble attempts, and Aina won both his attempted tackles), there were still flourishes, most notably his rabona. 

There was both freedom of spirit and presence of mind, the artistic married to the pragmatic, a glove of iron. In its uncompromising nonchalance, it recalled the late, great Dean Yisa Sofoluwe.

Most pleasing is that it is not a one-off, merely a continuation of the form the Nigeria international exhibited throughout the Group Stage. His detusking of Jeremie Boga was most masterful, one of the slipperiest wingers in European football reduced to writhing in the almost certainly salted, crumbling turf of Ebimpe as Aina came away, time and again, with the ball.

That he was capable of that was no great surprise. When CAF, via their Technical Study Group, revealed their Group Stage XI, it would have displeased no one had Aina been included, even allowing for the brilliance of Achraf Hakimi. However, the fact that he has found the consistency to sustain that level when faced with higher stakes, thereby overcoming the curse of the fourth match, is worthy of note, as well as unreserved acclaim.



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