3 Positives from Gernot Rohr's latest Super Eagles squad
Seated with a quartet of half-drunk football-loving buddies at the pub, conversation digressed into African football. Topic: which African team is best suited to win the World Cup in Russia this year? I argued a highly optimistic, mildly inebriated case for Nigeria. The Super Eagles have not always soared, but they’ve been able to at the very least fly. They were the first African team to qualify for football’s marquee tournament. If manager Gernot Rohr has my back, the Super Eagles must start earnest preparation immediately.
Rohr recently handed out invitations to 28 players who will execute Nigeria’s upcoming friendlies against Poland and Serbia later this month. Expectedly, Rohr's list comprises notable names. That aside, there are many positives to be drawn from it.
Core remains intact
At the 2002 African Cup of Nations in Mali, the Super Eagles were anointed favourites. Stocked with big-name players honing their craft all over the globe, all eyes were on them heading into the tournament.
At the tournament proper, the Eagles did not disappoint, at least not until the semifinals. Internal ramblings about unpaid match-bonuses dampened the team spirit. The result was a 2-1 semifinal loss to Senegal. The Nigerian FA made matters worse by disbanding the entire team.
The outcome was ominous. With a largely inexperienced team, the Eagles were dumped out of the 2002 World Cup at the preliminaries.
Today, the Nigeria Football Federation and Gernot Rohr aren’t repeating their predecessors' absurdities. Rohr’s 28-man list oozes continuity. Nearly all the players who have put their bodies on the line to ensure Nigeria is represented in Russia are being given looks.
It’s interesting to see the centre-back pair of Leon Balogun and William Troost Ekong returning to play their country once more. The pair were the best defensive duo in African qualifying. Nor has pint-sized Ikechukwu Enzenwa lost his place in goal.
The big boys in midfield Mikel John Obi, Wilfred Ndidi, Ogenyi Onazi and John Ogu have all been called up. Leicester’s Kelechi Iheanacho, Chelsea's Victor Moses, Arsenal’s Alex Iwobi, and CSL-based Odion Ighalo will continue their good work, too.
Hard work rewarded
Lack of playing time can derail the progress of even the best players. Persistent hard work is the best solution. A move away from the quagmire can also help. Gernot Rohr has rewarded the players who are working hard to remain first-team regulars at their clubs. Joel Obi, who’s been brilliant for Torino comes to mind.
Oghenekaro Etebo's impressive outings since joining La Liga outfit Las Palmas earlier this year have been noticed. We can say the same for Ahmed Musa. He was languishing at Leicester but is getting the minutes Rohr demands at CSKA Moscow.
There’s a second African Cup of Nations for African-based players. The Super Eagles reached and lost the final. Still, two players put in quite an effort. Gabriel Okechukwu and Stephen Eze are the selected duo from the 2018 CHAN losing finalist.
Young guns out of the holster
With his latest selections, Gernot Rohr has again proven he’s a gaffer who gives youth a chance. Iheanacho, Ndidi and Iwobi are integral members of the Super Eagles albeit still in their early twenties. Tyronne Ebuehi and newcomer Stephen Eze are other young players who are being given a chance to impress.
Junior Ajayi, the 22-year-old Al Ahly, winger gets his first bow with the national side. Ajayi has impressed with the Egyptian giants since joining them in 2016.
Will Rohr have the team ready for Moscow? Don't bet against it.