Super Eagles and Afcon 2019

THE 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON), officially tagged Total 2019 Africa Cup of Nations, presents yet another opportunity for Nigeria’s senior national team, the Super Eagles, to cover lost ground in African football and assert Nigeria’s credentials on the continental scene. The 32nd edition of the Afcon, the biennial international men’s football championship organised by the Confederation of African Football (CAF), will be hosted by Egypt between June 21 and July 19. This was sequel to the decision of the CAF Executive Committee which, on July 20 2017, voted to move the tournament from January/February to June/July for the first time. In addition, the tournament has been expanded from 16 to 24 teams, meaning that more teams now have the opportunity to compete for honours. The tournament was initially scheduled to be hosted by the current title holders, Cameroon, but the five-time winners were stripped of the hosting rights on November 30, 2018 because of their delay in delivering the requisite infrastructure, the corollaries of the Boko Haram insurgency and the crisis in the English-speaking part of the country.

For the Super Eagles, who have been drawn in Group B with Burundi, Guinea and Madagascar, this year’s Afcon presents a complex web of challenges. In the first instance, this is the first edition of the tournament they will be participating in since being crowned African champions in South Africa in 2013. Bogged down by administrative, technical and attitudinal problems, the Eagles missed the 2015 and 2017 editions of the tournament, causing football-loving Nigerians palpable distress and depriving the tournaments of the elegance that football fans across the continent have come to associate with Nigerian football, particularly since the 1990s when a golden generation of Nigerian players took the continent and to some extent the global footballing world by storm, ultimately earning the country the highest ever ranking of an African team by the Federation of International Football Associations (FIFA) at fifth position.

Secondly, the team is currently under a climate of pervasive doubt because, on current evidence, many of the regular names are hardly fit for purpose. For instance, with the exception of Liecester City midfielder Wilfred Ndidi, none of the England-based Super Eagles players has been a force to reckon with in recent times. Sadly, the situation in England is replicated in the big leagues and barring the brilliant displays of players like Samuel Chukwueze of Villareal in the Spanish LaLiga, it would be quite fair to say that Nigerian footballers are facing perilous times. Against the backdrop of the absence of a ready cast of players featuring on the global stage, some  football fans in the country have repeatedly called on Coach Gernot Rohr to consider ‘proven’ home-based players in his team selection for the forthcoming AFCON. However, while it is true that Nigeria won AFCON 2013 in South Africa with superlative displays by home-based players like Sunday Mba of Warri Wolves and Godfrey Oboabona of Sunshine Stars, the issue at the moment is the selection of players who can deliver the goods in Egypt and it is ultimately the decision of the Eagles’ gaffer to determine which players will don the country’s colours. In any case, as he himself has admitted, the Eagles are not going into the tournament as favourites, although this need not be a drawback.

And yet another pressing issue is the planned inclusion of Middlesbrough midfielder, John Obi Mikel, who has not played for Nigeria since the Eagles’ exit from the group stage of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, in the team. Although Coach Rohr described his recent meeting with Mikel in England as successful, it is necessary to have the inputs of his Super Eagles colleagues. For instance, is the veteran midfielder coming into the AFCON 2019 team as a squad member or as captain? This question has to be addressed decisively in order to avoid rancour among the players. On the part of the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF), it is necessary to ensure that the Eagles get all the resources needed to ensure a successful outing in Egypt. Time and again, issues of bonuses, allowances and logistics have hampered the team’s progress. Such issues must not recur this time around.

On March 23, the Eagles scraped a 1-0 victory over the Pharaos of Egypt in a friendly match played at the Stephen Keshi Stadium, Asaba, Delta State. But they have ample opportunity to stage better performances in the forthcoming friendlies against The Warriors of Zimbabwe and the Terenga Lions of Senegal. We expect the technical crew to make maximum use of the opportunities presented by the matches. The Super Eagles are a big brand in Africa and they must live up to their billing in Egypt.