Ardent desire to gain places in Nigeria’s 23–man squad for the 21st FIFA World Cup finals in Russia will be the key incentive for Nigeria’s home–based professionals, who begin campaign for glory in the 5th African Nations Championship in Morocco on Monday.
Mr. Gernot Rohr, Technical Adviser of the A squad, has made it known that outstanding individuals would be considered for the showpiece in the Russian Federation in the summer, leaving the fate of the home boys lucky to make it to Morocco firmly in their own hands.
Nigeria will open her account against 2016 hosts Rwanda on Monday in Tangier, which is on the Strait of the Atlantic Ocean, but the focus will be more straight and direct on the actors from the Nigeria Professional Football League, who have an opportunity to stake claims for places in Mr. Rohr’s ensemble.
Franco-German tactician Rohr must name his 23 –man team for the World Cup finals 48 hours after the prestige friendly with England’s Three Lions at Wembley on June 2.
The race therefore begins furious and fast on Monday and Rwanda’s Amavubi, who have been victims to Nigerian teams on several occasions in decent memory, are on the firing line at the Stade Ibn Batouta, from 7.30pm Moroccan time (8.30pm Nigeria). The match comes up after the Group C opener between 2014 champions Libya and Equatorial Guinea, which starts at 5.30pm Nigeria time.
At the same venue, four days later, the Eagles file out against 2014 champions Libya, and Morocco’s Ambassador to Nigeria, His Excellency Moha Ou Ali Tagma already warned the Eagles to beware of a team that is actually the A team of the North African nation.
“You see Libya could be difficult because not many of their players go outside the country. So, in truth, it is practically the A team that is coming to the CHAN,” Tagma said last week.
Equatorial Guinea will be the opposition in the Eagles’ final match of the group phase at the Stade Adrar in Agadir on the evening of 23rdJanuary.
Head Coach Salisu Yusuf told the NFF website: “The players know what is at stake. We are not here just for the CHAN. Everyone is thinking of the World Cup as well. For the players, they have a massive opportunity to play their way into the A team for the big one in Russia.
“However, at every opportunity, myself and my assistants have made it clear to the boys that they must work as a team. If they win the tournament, the chances of several players making the team to Russia will be high. No man can clap with only one hand. Team work is key in this business.”
Incidentally, Yusuf is deputy to Rohr in the A squad, and the latter will watch the matches from the stands in Morocco.
Rohr said: “The CHAN is a major competition and opportunity for us to take another look at the home boys. There could be some of them who will convince the technical crew that they can fight for places in the A team.”
Of the 16 teams taking part in the 23 –day tournament, only players of hosts Morocco and Nigeria are inspired by the possibility of being drafted into their main teams for the FIFA World Cup.
Certainly, Morocco’s players showed what that kind of motivation could amount to, when they hammered neighbours Mauritania 4-0 in Saturday’s opening match in Casablanca. Ayoub el Kaabi scored two of the goals.
Africa’s three other Russia 2018 flagbearers, viz Tunisia, Egypt and Senegal are not in Morocco. Egypt qualified but forfeited their slot and that enabled Rwanda (Nigeria’s opponents on Monday) to sneak in ahead of Ethiopia via a play-off.
Tunisia won the 2011 competition, beating Angola in the final in Sudan. But the team that would be missed the most is the Democratic Republic of Congo, who won the 2009 and 2016 championships, but were rendered ineligible for Morocco 2018 on the away goal rule by neighbours Congo Brazzaville.
For Nigeria, goalkeeper and skipper Ikechukwu Ezenwa already has a stead in the A team, as he won applause for performances against Cameroon home-and-away in the race to Russia, and was also in goal for the away tie to Algeria in Constantine on the final day of the series.
Oladele Ajiboye, number one goalkeeper of reigning Nigeria champions Plateau United, won the World Cup with Nigeria’s U17 team 11 years ago and has featured for the U20 and U23 teams. Defender Osas Okoro, midfielder Rabiu Ali and forward Anthony Okpotu impressed at the WAFU Cup of Nations in Ghana in September 2017.
Enugu Rangers’ full back Kalu Orji Okogbue has been in the A team camp previously, and defender Stephen Eze and midfielder Ifeanyi Ifeanyi have also sniffed the oxygen in that territory.
Plateau United’s Daniel James, Enyimba’s Augustine Oladapo and Emeka Atuloma of Rivers United are capable of springing surprises.
New boys Sunday Faleye, Ifeanyi Nweke and Dayo Ojo also have the ability to rise to the occasion in North Africa and give Mr. Rohr pleasant problems.
Goalkeepers: Ikechukwu Ezenwa (Enyimba FC); Oladele Ajiboye (Plateau United); Theophilus Afelokhai (Enyimba FC)
Defenders: Osas Okoro (Rangers International); Daniel James (Plateau United); Kalu Orji Okogbue (Rangers International); Ikouwem Utin (Enyimba FC); Abdullahi Musa (Wikki Tourists); Timothy Danladi (Katsina United); Ifeanyi Nweke (Kano Pillars); Stephen Eze (Kano Pillars)
Midfielders: Ifeanyi Ifeanyi (Akwa United); Rabiu Ali (Kano Pillars); Augustine Oladapo (Enyimba FC); Ekundayo Ojo (Sunshine Stars)
Forwards: Emeka Atuloma (Rivers United); Anthony Okpotu (Lobi Stars); Eneji Moses (Plateau United); Ibrahim Mustapha (Enyimba FC); Emeka Ogbuh (Rivers United); Sunday Faleye (Shooting Stars); Nur Muhammed (El-Kanemi Warriors); Okechukwu Gabriel (Akwa United)
GROUP A (CASABLANCA)
GROUP B (MARRAKECH)
GROUP C (TANGIER)
GROUP D (AGADIR)
Vs Rwanda (15 January) – Tangier (7.30pm Morocco; 8.30pm Nigeria)
Vs Libya (19 January) – Tangier (4.30pm Morocco; 5.30pm Nigeria)
Vs Eq. Guinea (23 January) – Agadir (7pm Morocco; 8pm Nigeria)