Efe Ambrose Nigeria great Glasgow Celtic
Posted: 5 October 2013 Time: 21:23
In any conversations about Africa’s finest defender, past or present, Efe Ambrose rarely gets a look-in.
Of those still playing, the likes of Kolo Toure, Joseph Yobo and Wael Gomaa typically claim the honours, while the game’s history throws up exalted names such as Lucas Radebe, Sammy Kuffour and ‘Tonton’ Rigobert Song.
The continent can boast a fair few celebrated stoppers, but Ambrose is often overlooked. Still only 24, however, there is plenty of time for the Nigerian to develop his reputation to a level comparable to those aforementioned superstars.
He hasn’t started badly and is already considered as one of the elder statesmen – one of the more experienced heads – in youthful Nigerian and Celtic sides. The other evening against Barcelona, for example, he was joined in the Buoys defence by Virgil van Dijk (22) and Adam Matthews (21).
Despite his youth, Ambrose has already racked up honours almost everywhere he has played. During a loan spell a Bayelsa United (from Kaduna), he picked up a Nigerian Premier League winner’s medal. This was succeeded by a Nigerian Challenge Cup triumph back at his parent club in 2010.
Time in Israel, with Ashdod, didn’t yield anything in the way of silverware, but having been picked up by Scottish giants Celtic in 2012, the glory has flown like birds escaping from the fowler’s snare.
Last year, his first season at the club, the Glaswegian team secured a domestic double, picking up both the Scottish title and the Scottish Cup.
While the aforementioned Kuffour and Toure achieved success at club level without being able to back it up with international honours, Ambrose has already enjoyed a successful career with the Nigerian national side. He picked up a silver medal at the 2008 Summer Olympics and also represented the team at the Under-20 World Cup in 2007.
The crowning glory, however, is undisputable.
At the Africa Cup of Nations tournament earlier in the year, Ambrose, as part of Stephen Keshi’s youthful and widely unfancied Super Eagles team, stormed through the knock-out rounds to claim the continental crown.
It was the first triumph for West Africa’s powerhouse in 19 years, and cemented the reputations of a generation of nascent superstars.
Of all of that miraculous collection of youngsters, few seem better prepared to make a career for themselves at the truly elite end of the sport than Ambrose.
Last year he enjoyed his maiden season in the Champions League, surely the aspiration for any semi-ambitious footballer in Europe (if not the world).
The highlights, of course, were the two outings against Barcelona.
At the Camp Nou the Scots may have succumbed to two late goals, but back in the bubbling cauldron of Parkhead there was no mistake. Some say that Celtic’s performance that night, the powerful midfield, the resilient defence, the brave, mature defiance, represented the club’s finest outing since their European Cup triumph in 1967.
Ambrose was a rock in the heart of the backline. It was a career result surely bettered only by Nigeria’s victory against Burkina Faso three months later.
The Super Eagle came under heavy criticism as Celtic reached the end of the road following two defeats against Juventus in late February, early March. In truth, he was probably rushed back to Scotland too soon after the Afcon triumph in South Africa. Only one night separated the joy of Johannesburg and the collapse at Celtic Park.
I do not doubt that there will many more opportunities for Ambrose to right the wrongs of that double-header with Juventus over the course of a career destined to intertwine heavily with Europe’s grandest club competition. He recently signed a near four-year deal with Celtic, one that will keep him at the club until the summer of 2017.
As a pivotal part of a young team, one that is likely to only improve over the coming seasons, Ambrose should have further chances to redeem himself.
This year, however, with Celtic drawn – most unfortunately – into the Group of Champions (along with Milan, Ajax and, again, Barcelona), it may be that a more realistic ambition might be for Nigeria to realise their potential, as Africa’s Champions, in the World Cup next summer.
Within the current evolution of the Super Eagles, Ambrose is almost exclusively used as a right-back. It was a decision that, at first, invited derision from Nigerian fans, many of whom couldn’t understand why a player capable of playing anywhere down the defensive spine of the team was being forced into a full-back berth.
Keshi’s decision also appeared strange considering Ambrose’s relative lack of pace and the presence of Kenneth Omeruo, Godfrey Oboabona and even the youngster, Solomon Kwambe, all of whom could potentially have offered more of a threat down that side and not taken away from the defensive strength in the heart of the pitch.
It is to Ambrose’s credit that he has acquitted himself superbly in his new role and excelled on the right. No one talks about his pace, or lack thereof, any more, and along with Elderson Echiejile on the opposite side, have forged one of Africa’s most threatening pair of full-backs.
Ambrose may not yet have a resume glistening enough to belong in that absolute top echelon of African defenders, but if his success with Celtic and Nigeria, as a pivotal part of two young teams, can continue, then there’s no reason why – as he steadily reaches his potential – we can’t whisper his name in similarly exalted tones.
@EddyDove on Twitter