At the start of the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations, one country that is notably absent from the continent’s premier club competition is the country of my homeland, Nigeria. To say that the absence of the six-time African champions makes the competition a little poorer would be somewhat of an understatement.
Then again, the actions of Nigerian football, its federation and the government over the past few years have done little to draw sympathy from football supporters across the country and the globe. In 2014, after the Super Eagles were knocked out of the World Cup Round of 16 against France, the Nigerian government usurped the power of its own soccer federation, firing all executives from the federation and placing the federation’s chief, Aminu Maigari, under arrest upon his return from Brazil. FIFA reacted to the extrajudicial actions of the government by placing a ban on Nigerian football teams – domestic and international – from competing in any FIFA-sanctioned competitions until the sacked executive committee was reinstated. (The Nigerian government complied and restored the former staff two weeks later.)
More recently, a pay dispute led to the Nigerian Olympic team almost missing its flight to Brazil in time to play its first group stage game in the Rio Olympics. Arriving in Brazil just hours before that first game, Nigeria did eventually go on to win the bronze medal. Also, eventually. the players and coaches were actually compensated for their endeavors to South America.
Keeping inline with those types of incidents, the events leading to Nigeria not qualifying for this month’s Africa Cup of Nations was bizarre – even more so, because most of the circumstances surrounding it were beyond its control.
In March of last year, one of the team’s in Group G, Chad, announced that it was withdrawing from the competition due to financial reasons. By rule, that meant that all of the games that the other teams in that group – Nigeria included – against Chad were annulled. Furthermore, it meant that only the group winner would qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations because, by rule, no second-place team from a group with only three teams legally competing could qualify for the competition. (The two best second-place finishers, along with the 13 group winners and tournament host Gabon, would qualify for the tournament.)
Not only was Nigeria’s 2-0 home win over Chad in June of 2015 annulled, the return leg, schedule for June 3, 2016, was cancelled. As a result, Nigeria only came away with five points in the four games considered for qualification, five points fewer than Egypt’s 10 points. Had Chad not withdrew from the competition, and Nigeria won the scheduled game in Chad, that would have left Nigeria with 11 points, which would have leveled it with Togo and Benin for consideration to qualify as a second-place team.
While many in the footballing world would express sympathy over that specific situation for Nigeria, many in Europe, especially in the Premier League, probably shed a lot of crocodile tears, as the immense talent that’s on Nigeria’s roster will end up staying with their club teams instead of reporting for work in Gabon for, at the very least, two weeks. The difference that can be made by some of these players in their domestic teams’ hopes for league titles, European qualification and top-flight survival is immense.
As of last Monday, Arsenal is holding on to the fourth spot and the last Champions League spot in the Premier League and, outside of striker Alexis Sanchez, fellow frontman Alex Iwobi (the nephew of Nigerian soccer great Jay-Jay Okocha) has also been impressing as he’s now become a regular on the squad. The pacey winger had always had the speed to cause trouble, but now is supplementing that with a finishing touch, as witnessed by his performance at the Liberty Stadium against Swansea last Satuday, where he was involved in all three second-half goals in the 4-0 drubbing of the Swans. Iwobi was the 2016 CAF Young Player of the year, and his role with the Gunners continues to expand as Arsene Wenger’s confidence in him grows.
While reports from Manchester are that new City boss Pep Guardiola’s confidence in reserve striker Kelechi Iheanacho has waned, it’s hard to question his proficiency, scoring six goals in 19 games this season, including two goals in three Champions League games.
Last season, Watford was able to survive – and thrive in – its first season back in the Premier League because of the strike force of Englishman Troy Deeney and Nigerian Odion Ighalo; The dynamic duo combined for 28 goals in league competition last season, helping the Hornets to a __th place finish. While the form form the two has been a shadow of what it was last season, scoring only five goals combined more than halfway through the season, Ighalo, who only has tallied once in league play, is still thought highly enough that West Bromwich Albion is rumored to be floating a $24.6 million offer to bolster its front line.
Over in Germany, FSV Mainz 05 is in contention for a Europa League spot, as they’re seven points out of sixth place (currently in 10th) as the Bundesliga season comes out of its winter break next weekend. The O-Fives will need the 6-foot-3 center back to improve a Mainz defense that has allowed 30 goals this season, the third-worst defense in the division. Defense will be even more of a priority for Mainz now as attacking midfielder Yunus Malli signed with Wolfsburg during the winter transfer window.
While international glory will elude this group of Nigerians this winter, domestic success and achievement definitely will be more than just a consolation prize come the spring.