So close... The contrasting post-WAFU Cup careers of Ikechukwu Ibenegbu and Ahmed Musa
SENEGAL -- When Nigeria's Ikechukwu Ibenegbu clinched the top scorer award at the 2011 WAFU Cup of Nations, having won the tournament alongside current Super Eagles captain Ahmed Musa the year before, he appeared primed to enjoy a move to a lucrative European league.
However, unlike other African players who leverage the opportunity afforded them by the regional West African Football Associations tournament, or the African Nations Championship (CHAN) for local-based players across the continent, Ikechukwu's move abroad never came.
Instead, the 33-year-old attacker has remained in Nigeria's top flight for the entirety of his career, and while he's won admirers aplenty, nothing has quite matched the successes he enjoyed at the WAFU Cup, or stopped him from imagining the career he might have had.
"At the time, I was playing with Heartland," he told ESPN in Senegal at the ongoing WAFU Cup, where Nigeria lost their opener against Togo and are in the Plate competition.
"So after the tournament, I thought I would have continued my career abroad, but here I am today. I don't know the cost, and I don't want to blame anybody, but I don't have anything else to do but to play with my club.
"I eventually went from Heartland to El-Kanemi Warriors, from Warriors to Enyimba, and here I am now with Enugu Rangers."
Despite never getting the move abroad that the local-based stars who compete in the WAFU Cup dream of securing, Ibenegbu cannot be accused of not taking his opportunity.
In 2010, he was part of the Nigeria side who, inspired by a young Musa, clinched the title on home soil, defeating Senegal in the final, while a year later he top scored - netting four goals, including two in the final, where the Super Eagles were defeated by Togo.
"I travelled to Israel for a trial, and I succeeded," Ibenegbu remembered, acknowledging the regret of an opportunity missed. "We were negotiating with my club Heartland, but we were going to play in the CAF Champions League, and [the negotiations] didn't work.
"I came back again to play in the Champions League, and in the end, I didn't make it."
Despite not being able to 'make it' in Europe, unlike other players from the 2010 and 2011 generations, Ibenegbu has established himself as an NPFL stalwart in recent years, and did earn a call-up to the late Stephen Keshi's Nigeria first team on the back of his performances in the WAFU Cup.
"Daniel Amokachi [Nigeria's WAFU Cup coach back then] was among the senior technical crew, so he believed in what I could do on the field of play," Ibenegbu continued. "I think he was the one to tell Keshi to invite me, and I was playing well.
"They took me to Rwanda for a World Cup qualifier, unfortunately I didn't play, but at least I made it and I travelled with them."
While Ibenegbu did go on to play for Nigeria's home-based team in 2012, and again in the ill-fated CHAN 2016 campaign (they failed to progress past the group stage), his successes in the WAFU Cup remain his career highlight, topping even his 2007 league success with Enyimba.
"When I won it [was the best memory]," Ibenegbu continued, "because winning a trophy is something so amazing. It was so memorable.
"In 2011, I really enjoyed it, even though we lost the final, because I was the top scorer and I was starring, but in 2010 it was a great experience as we won it.
"I was playing in midfield alongside Reuben Gabriel and Solomon Okpako, and our defence was so tight. We were together, we had good players, and we worked for each other - we were united.
"Unity played a big role in the team, because we were always together," he added. "Coach Amokachi had good tactics, as we played with a three-man midfield, we were very mobile, and everyone worked for each other.
"If you saw us playing at that time, you would have enjoyed it; we played good football, because of the coach we had."
Of the 2010 winners, Gabriel went on to play in Scotland, Belgium and Portugal, was an Africa Cup of Nations winner in 2013 and represented the Super Eagles at the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
However, the major success story was Musa, who netted the winner in the semifinal victory over Burkina Faso, and would go on to feature regularly for the national side and in the Champions League with CSKA Moscow and Leicester City, having joined the then-Premier League champions for £16.6 million in 2016.
"Musa really helped the team [in 2010], because his speed on the ball was so amazing," added ibenegbu. "He made it easy for us, because when we got the ball we would just give it to him, he would just use his speed, pass everybody, and assist or score goals. He really helped us there.
"The quality of players we had in the team then [was such that] everyone believed that each one of us would go far and would play in the national team. Every one of us believed that we make it to the senior national team.
"Many of us failed, but Musa was the one, and up to now he's been so lucky, he's even been captain."
While Musa has become a permanent feature in the Super Eagles set-up -- and became Nigeria's highest scorer at the World Cup when he netted twice against Iceland during the 2018 edition -- the other hero of the 2011 WAFU campaign, Ekigho Ehiosun, never realised the potential he demonstrated as a youngster.
Ehiosun top scored alongside Ibenegbu at the 2011 edition, and subsequently secured a move to Turkish side Samsunspor on the back of his performances on home soil.
While Ibenegbu acknowledges that the two men have drifted apart and are no longer in contact, the memories of their spell conquering the region together in 2011 -- when they scored eight of the Super Eagles' nine goals en route to the silver medal -- remain undimmed.
"I really enjoyed playing with Ekigho," Ibenegbu concluded. "He was playing as a No. 9, and I was supporting him.
"He's a very strong player, and when you laid it off to him, you knew he could hold the ball, block defenders, shoot, launch attacks, score and assist goals. It was amazing playing alongside him.
"However, I've not been following Ekigo at all. I knew he was in Turkey, but I've not been following his career to date. I don't know how far he's gone since then."
While success or a star turn at the WAFU Cup is no guarantee of senior international recognition, or of a move to Europe, Ikechukwu's testimony serves as a reminder of the enduring significance, bittersweet or not, that the regional showpiece can have in the lives of West African footballers.