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Slow football restart and its casualties

The Nigeria Professional Football League (LPLF) was suspended in February in the wake of COVID-19 and, till date, there is uncertainty over when domestic football will restart. We recall that the Point Per Game system was used to dramatically determine the country’s representatives in continental football.

However, there is no template to keep the Plateau United, Enyimba, Rivers United and Kano Pillars players in shape for the challenges ahead in the continent. Super Eagles Manager, Gernot Rohr, on September 23, released a 25-man list of players expected to file out for Nigeria in the two friendly encounters billed for October.

The Super Eagles, now ranked 29th in the world and third in Africa, will take on the Desert Warriors of Algeria on October 9 and on October 13, will engage the Carthage Eagles of Tunisia, who are second in Africa according to FIFA rankings. Both games have been arranged by the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) to prepare the Eagles for the next rounds of 2022 AFCON qualifiers, home and away against Sierra Leone in November.

It shocking that Ikechukwu Ezenwa was not on the list, apparently because he is match rusty and to win back his place might be difficult with number one goalie, Francis Uzoho, now back from injury, while vastly improved Daniel Akpeyi is certain to be in the best three for any call-up.

The best of these current invitees will make up the number for the competitive games in November, but it is of note that Ezenwa is the first major casualty of the slow restart to football. The new invitees are expected to put in their best if they want to be in the team in November for the competitive AFCON qualifiers.

Rangers of Scotland defender, Leon Balogun and former junior international goalkeeper, Dele Alampasu, midfielder Mikel Agu and Kelechi Iheanacho are the players staging a return to the team. Captain of the most recent Nigeria U-17 squad, Samson Tijani, is one of the surprise call-ups along with Portugalbased wingback Zaidu Sanusi. The goalkeeping department is the most intriguing with a fresh call-up extended to Matthew Yakubu of SKF Sered, Slovakia, due to his current form with his team. Alampasu and Maduka Okoye are the others. Frank Onyeka (FC Midtjylland, Denmark) and Chidera Ejuke (CSKA Moscow) are entirely new in the team like keeper Yakubu.

Regulars like Ahmed Musa, Kenneth Omeruo, William Troost-Ekong, Victor Osimhen, Moses Simon, Samuel Kalu, Wilfred Ndidi and Samuel Chukwueze are also in the 25-man list. Ndidi is, however, out due to injury. We are aware football is about form. Iheanacho and Balogun have been out of the team and now have a big opportunity to reclaim their places in the regular list for competitive games.

It is nice that the entire list is a blend of new and experienced regular players. Osimhen, Chukwueze, Samuel Kalu, Moses Simon and Ndidi are hot on current form and one expects them to replicate their respective club forms in the two friendlies.

Osimhen and Simon emerge the best players for Lille and Nantes respectively last season and so much is expected from them. Musa, Ekong and Omeruo are expected to provide the leadership roles in the team as national team football returns.

The list released by Rohr was greeted with mixed reactions. A former Eaglets coach and winner, Nduka Ugbade, was not happy with the inclusion of Tijani in the team. He noted that the former Eaglets player should have been allowed to developed better before any senior invitation. Interestingly another former international, Friday Ekpo, showered praises on Rohr for the list released for the October games.

Ekpo said that the list was a reflection of the scouting system entrenched by the coach as it shows the scouts have done very well in monitoring Nigerian players abroad. He noted that it was in the best interest of the national team to have some youngsters introduced into the Super Eagles at this stage. We hereby charge Rohr and his technical crew to double their efforts to get the best from these youthful stars.

The talents in Nigeria are enormous and there must be good coaches to take them to the next level. We can boldly say Rohr’s game reading ability is suspect because of his substitutions in matches.

He must work on this as he gradually prepares a bunch getting set to be the next golden generation of the Super Eagles. The manager should also make discipline a key element in the camp, especially with the young ones, so that football- loving Nigerians will witness good results in the coming weeks and months. It is important to stress that the effects of Nigeria’s slow return to sports and football, which affected Ezenwa and other domestic league players, might also take its toll on the country’s representatives on the continent as they battle to be competitively fit.

These teams are still far from being ready for a restart and urgent steps must be taken to raise their level of readiness because Nigerian teams have not been impressive over the years in African club competitions.

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