The announcement on Wednesday night that Oghenekaro Etebo would spend the 2020/21 season on loan at Turkish side Galatasaray was simultaneously surprising and true-to-type.
Few Nigerian footballers in the last five years have made more moves that seemed to belie their own momentum and trajectory (performance-wise). When the former Warri Wolves man elected to sign a deal to join relegated Stoke City on the eve of the World Cup, it seemed a hasty, ill-advised decision.
That the Potters were in the English Championship was hardly the problem – the popular sentiment at the time, after all, was that they were favourites for a swift return to the top flight that season.
No, what seemed odd was the timing of it: coming just before the tournament, it robbed him of the opportunity to parlay his performances in Russia into a better destination. He had spent the previous six months in La Liga with Las Palmas, posting eye-catching performances – most notably against Barcelona – even as the Canary Islanders slipped out of the division, and was arguably Nigeria’s most outstanding performer, but that counted for little as he had already been spoken for
As it happened, Stoke did not bounce back up straight away, and it seemed Etebo was in danger of disappearing into the oblivion of the English Football League. Then came a lifeline in the form of a loan to Spanish side Getafe, who were in the thick of a European push, in January 2020. He would make 10 appearances for the club, scoring once and impressing with his energy and aggression, both hallmarks of Jose Bordalas’ ethos.
His decision to then move to Turkey seems counterintuitive.
On the face of it, Galatasaray are a top side, and will compete in the Europa League this term. However, Nigeria national team manager Gernot Rohr has made no secret of his lack of respect for the Turkish Super Lig: he has steadfastly ignored Anthony Nwakaeme despite his solid goalscoring record there, and shoved Henry Onyekuru down the pecking order during his time there.
This is a choice that may well spell the end for Etebo’s Super Eagles prospects.
It also, regrettably, deprives Stoke of a classy Nigerian double-act in midfield.
The Potters caused a stir with their signing of Champions League winner John Obi Mikel this summer, and in Etebo they had the perfect partner for the former Chelsea man in more ways than one. Not only have they dovetailed very well at international level, but stylistically it seemed a good fit: Mikel the composed conductor, Etebo the energetic ball-carrier; mind and matter, beauty and… you get the message.
This separation of powers is particularly important as, increasingly, former Super Eagles captain Mikel has struggled with the physical demands of high-level football.
Hardly the most intense at his youngest and best, his last spell in England, a six-month loan in 2019, saw him impress at Middlesbrough, playing 18 straight matchdays and leading them to the very cusp of a promotion play-off place, before breaking down physically at that year’s Africa Cup of Nations—ironically, the very reason he took the loan deal in the first place.
The 33-year-old started just two matches in Egypt, and Nigeria did not score a single goal in his combined 117 minutes of action.
Having a willing partner to do his running for him seems absolutely imperative to getting him to perform to any appreciable level for a sustained period. Who better then than Etebo, with their ready-made understanding and his boundless reserves of energy? It feels like a missed opportunity.
To be clear: in no way is a move from the Championship to a European campaigner a downgrade for Etebo.
There is a tendency to overlook the monetary aspects of a transfer, and there is no doubt that he will earn handsomely with the most successful club in Turkish football.
As a matter of fact, in an alternate timeline, he and Mikel would even be going up against each other in the Super Lig; it was the latter’s courage in speaking up in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak that contributed to the league ultimately grinding to a halt, but it also effectively cost him his contract at Trabzonspor.
However, it is difficult not to feel slightly underwhelmed by it.