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It’s time up for Super Eagles ‘shareholders’

After a long wait, the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) on Friday, May 24, released the list of Super Eagles players invited by coach Finidi George…

After a long wait, the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) on Friday, May 24, released the list of Super Eagles players invited by coach Finidi George for the two 2026 World Cup qualifying matches against the Bafana Bafana of South Africa and the Cheetahs of Benin Republic in June. The list has no doubt caught the attention of many because it is a strong statement of intent by the new gaffer.

Although most of the usual suspects made the 23-man list, some are conspicuously missing. Prominent among the players excluded from the two matches are the substantive captain of the team, Ahmed Musa, his deputy, William Troost Ekong, the man who stood in for him at the 2023 AFCON, Kenneth Omeruo, Ola Aina, Taiwo Awoniyi, Joe Aribo, Jamilu Collins, Sanusi Zaidu, Francis Uzoho and Bruno Onyemaechi. Among the omitted players, only Awoniyi and Collins weren’t at the 2023 AFCON with the Super Eagles.

Even as they will not play any role in the matches against Bafana Bafana and Cheetahs, Aina, Awoniyi as well as Ekong, Moses Simon, and Sanusi are certain to return to the fold once they recover fully from the injuries that have sidelined them. However, there is no such guarantee for members of the 2013 AFCON winning squad, Musa and Omeruo, who are advanced in age and are right now struggling to cope with top flight football. Therefore, they can start planning for their retirement from international football. For Musa, the handwriting on the wall is clear enough.

Well, I must confess that Finidi has won my respect for having the courage to keep to his earlier promise to invite players to the national team on current form. He had pledged that only those players who turn out regularly for their clubs will be called to come and represent Nigeria. By giving preference to players who have been very active in the European season that is about to end, Finidi is emphatically saying there is no more space for ‘shareholders’ in the team.

In the past, some of the players were invited just to come and motivate others. In the process, the ‘emergency psychologists’ took the places of other players who could have added value to the team. For instance, even when former coach of the team, Jose Peseiro, knew quite well that Musa wasn’t in his plans, he still listed him among the players for the 2023 AFCON. Musa ended up not featuring for even a second in the seven matches the team played in Cote d’Ivoire. Well, he motivated the team throughout from the bench.

However, while I commend Finidi’s bold decision to leave out some of the ‘shareholders’ who made the team in the past no matter their physical conditions, I am equally worried about the central defence that will be paraded in the two crucial World Cup qualifiers. I don’t know how the team is going to cope without the highly experienced Ekong who is still recuperating from the surgery he had after the last AFCON, where he emerged as the MVP. In Cote d’Ivoire, he was clearly the stabilising force in the defence.

Ekong coordinated what turned out to be one of the best defences at the 2023 AFCON. Without taking anything away from the other defenders, Ekong made most of the crucial and timely interventions that kept the team going. Unfortunately, in the final, he failed to quickly close down Sebastien Haller, who reacted fastest to score that backbreaking goal. So, considering the important role he played in the success of the Super Eagles in Cote d’Ivoire, many are wondering how the team will cope without him.

Unfortunately, Omeruo, who was the most experienced defender in Cote d’Ivoire, is also not available. The responsibility will certainly fall on the shoulders of Semi Ajayi and Calvin Bassey. The duo did very well at the last AFCON but can’t be trusted completely. While Ajayi can easily switch off, Bassey is exuberant and fond of wayward movement on the pitch. The heart of the defence is highly sensitive and can’t be entrusted in the care of suspects. Like other Nigerians, I am also waiting to see how he will rejig the central defence to cope with the absence of the hard-tackling Ekong and Omeruo.

Again, the invitation of the only on-field home-based player, Ismail Sodiq of Remo Stars is no doubt a fulfilment of Finidi’s promise to inject Nigeria Premier Football League (NPFL) players into the Super Eagles but it is doubtful if the young defender will be played immediately. The presence of Bright Osayi-Samuel who shared the right-full back role with Ola Aina at the AFCON makes it obvious that the Fenerbahce star will be the first choice in the absence of Nottingham Forests Aina. And apart from Osayi, there is Chigozie Awaziem in the list. Unless he is deployed to the central defence, Boavista man will naturally come in before the Remo Stars player who is so good that fans compare him with the legendary Dani Alves of Brazil. Well, even if he does not get a look-in this time, Sodiq’s invitation is a positive sign and an indication that a Pharaoh who knows NPFL players is on the throne.

Another thing of interest that emanated from the 23-man list is the return of ‘fine boy’ Maduka Okoye who went on a self-imposed exile for two years. Most of us are aware that after his howler at the 2021 AFCON which caused the exit of the Super Eagles in the Round of 16, he was trolled by some Nigerians on social media. Consequently, he turned down subsequent invitations.

However, after an impressive season at Udinese in Serie A, Okoye is back to fight for the number one shirt which is now in the firm grip of Chippa United’s Stanley Nwabali. It promises to be an interesting contest because, going by what Nwabali did in Cote d’Ivoire, it will be difficult for Okoye to stroll in and reclaim the same shirt he willingly discarded. At the same time, Nwabali knows he can’t afford to rest on his oars because he needs no seer to tell him that the man who is after his shirt is eminently qualified to take it. In all of this, it is Nigeria that will ultimately benefit because whoever is given the nod will try to justify the confidence reposed in him.

So, as we continue the countdown to the June 7 clash with Bafana in Uyo and the encounter with Cheetahs on June 10 at the Stade Felix Houphouet-Boigny in Abidjan, we must remain prayerful that Finidi who is saddled with the responsibility of leading the team is not overwhelmed by the enormous task. Of course, he is neither Pep Guardiola nor Jurgen Klopp but Finidi seems so sure of himself. He may be underrated by many but having listened to him lately, it appears he came prepared to wear this crown of thorns. And his body language suggests that the days the Super Eagles’ camp served as rehabilitation centre are finally over.

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