Super Eagles ready to soar again
Nigeria’s national side may not be on top form right now. But as Oladipo Okubanjo reports, two of the Super Eagles squad can’t stop scoring for their clubs.
These are strange times for Nigerian football. The country’s national team, the Super Eagles, once had the aura of invincibility in the African game. However, the Super Eagles have struggled to live up to the billing in recent times.
A classic example is the just-ended Africa Cup of Nations qualifying campaign.
Despite being placed in a qualifying group alongside Benin, Sierra Leone and Lesotho – nations considered the backwaters of the African game – Nigeria’s Super Eagles left it worryingly late to secure its place at the 2022 championship in Cameroon.
The Super Eagles barely managed to beat Benin 2-1 in the opening match of the qualifying series, surrendered a 4-0 lead against Sierra Leone – who eventually snatched a draw from the jaws of defeat – and posted an embarrassing 0-0 draw away to Sierra Leone.
The results were deemed dire for a nation with star strikers, including Leicester City’s Kelechi Iheanacho and Simeon ‘Simy’ Nwankwo of Serie A club Crotone.
Iheanacho, who as a teenager wowed the world with his prodigious talent at the 2013 FIFA World U-17 World Cup, has had a torrid time getting playing time this season until injuries to Leicester’s Harvey Barnes and James Madison ensured he was given a look-in by manager Brendan Rogers.
At the time of going to press, the 24-year-old had scored 14 goals in his last 14 appearances for the English club in all competitions, finding the net nine times across his last seven top-flight starts, leading pundit Adrian Clarke to dub Iheanacho the Premier League’s most clinical and in-form striker.
‘We have all been impressed by Kelechi and this is very positive for our team to have a player doing well in a top league,’ said the Super Eagles manager, Gernot Rohr.
Wilfred Ndidi, another Nigeria international and Iheanacho’s teammate at Leicester, said all Iheanacho needed was encouragement – a reference to the striker being overlooked for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations final.
‘I’m very happy for him because he's doing wonderfully well now and everyone can see,’ said Ndidi.
‘It's just sad that when he needed encouragement in the past few years many were quick to write him off, but thankfully some of these people have now turned around to praise him. That's life.’
He added: ‘This latest chapter is going to give him the belief and confidence that he is a really important player for his club and country. I know and hope that he will continue to deliver for us. I never doubted him and I know he will bring more goals and performance that will continue to elevate him.’
Unlike Iheanacho, Simy Nwankwo has not had enough opportunities to prove his worth with the Super Eagles.
The 28-year-old has yet to receive a call-up to the side since 2018 when he represented Nigeria at the World Cup in Russia.
The player, consistently overlooked by national team selectors, has been one of the top strikers in the 2020-21 Italian Serie A season.
Credited with 19 goals at the time of going to press, Simy was joint third in the list of players battling for the Capocannoniere (head gunner) in the competition.
Simy’s feat for Crotone has however failed to impress the Nigeria manager. According to him, the player would have to turn up similar performance for a notable European club for him to get a recall to the Super Eagles fold.
‘I have never stopped following his performances, but I believe that next year, he must go and play in a club and in a team that is stronger than Crotone,’ Rohr told the website Europa Calcio.
Unfazed by Rohr’s comments, Simy told reporters, ‘I need to make it clear that making the national team squad is not an obsession for me. I don't lose sleep over it, to be honest, and I only focus on what is professionally expected of me by my club.’
Meanwhile, one-time Super Eagles invitee John Fashanu has described Paul Onuachu as the best Nigerian striker at the moment.
The 6ft 7in forward has scored an impressive 31 goals in 36 league appearances for the Belgian side Genk this season.
Onuachu saved Nigeria’s blushes in a recent Nations Cup qualifying game against the Republic of Benin by giving the Super Eagles a lone goal victory.
‘With the kind of statistics he flaunts, he is easily my pick,’ Fashanu told NewsAfrica.
'Such a player should be the number one on any manager’s list. And considering the form being exhibited by him and other Nigerian strikers right now, I think the forward line of the Super Eagles should be the envy of managers of rival teams.’
Since beating American Tyron Woodley to win the Welterweight title in 2019, Nigeria’s Kamaru Usman has established his dominion in the sport.
Number two in the UFC pound-for-pound rankings, Usman had, in his latest defence of the Welterweight title, knocked out American Jorge Masvidal.
It was Usman’s second victory against the highly rated Masvidal, a development that has sparked a debate over whether the ‘Nigerian Nightmare’ was invincible.
Usman, apparently unhappy over the seeming lack of capable challengers to his reign, had called on the former UFC Lightweight Champion Khabib Nurmagomedov of Russia to come out of retirement and fight him in what would be the 'biggest fight in UFC history’.
Khabib was the longest-reigning UFC Lightweight Champion, having held the title from April 2018 to March 2021.
Even though he had called it quits with the mixed martial art in October 2020 after his win over Justin Gaethje, speculations are rife that Khabib might make a return to the Octagon for a big money mega fight.
Even though he was optimistic of squaring up to Khabib, Usman, in an interview with TMZ about the idea said: ‘It absolutely would be the biggest fight in UFC history. But the problem is, it wouldn't happen.’
‘I think you have more chance of Kamaru Usman and Georges St-Pierre happening before Kamaru Usman and Khabib. That one just won't happen,’ the 33-year-old added.
Organisers of the 2021 World Athletics Under-20 Championships in Nairobi, Kenya, have assured of their readiness to host the competition.
The crème of the world’s talents is expected to converge on the Moi International Sports Centre (MISC) in Kasarani from August 17-22 to compete in the track and field event.
After a recent tour of the facilities, Kenya’s cabinet secretary for sports, Amina Muhammed, admitted that a lot of work still needed to be done, but said it would definitely be completed in time for the competition.
The secretariat, media centre, and the medal holding areas were some of the facilities yet to be renovated to the required international standards, but she assured all would be put in place.
However, many areas had been refurbished including the stadium lifts, the centre surfaces at the warm up area and the main arena, according to the sports secretary
‘Generally, I am happy with the progress having noticed a big difference since my last tour,’ Muhammed told the Nation newspaper.
'I wanted to see our preparedness and the challenges that are there so that we can solve them. We wanted to see what is left and what should be expedited.'
The Nation quoted the secretary as saying the media tribune had been overhauled and that the tartan track was being refurbished in consultation with World Athletics track experts Mondo.