By John Egbokhan
With about 90 days to the start of the Olympic Games in the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro, Coach Samson Siasia is facing a selection headache over which over-age players to select to strengthen the side for the men’s football tournament in the summer.
While the qualifying campaign, which Siasia’s boys won late last year in Senegal is restricted to players aged under-23, three overage players can compete at the Olympics, with Nigerians set to spend the next weeks debating the identity of the trio of overage players Siasia will pick as he has little time before submitting preliminary lists for the August tournament. .
The local media has already dished out plenty of column inches to speculation over the identity of the Dream Team’s over-age trio to the Rio Games, as the search for a second gold medal in soccer reaches feverish peak after the heroics of the 1996 Olympic Team managed by Dutchman Jo Bonfrere won gold in Atlanta in 1996.
Top on the list is John Obi Mikel and Odion Ighalo, two players from the Premier League, and also goalkeeper Victor Enyeama, who is a strong candidate. The France-based goalkeeper had quit the national team last year when dropped from selection, but now could return. Ighalo has been one of Nigeria’s stand-out performers in the Premier League this season, netting over 14 goals for Watford in the current English Premier League campaign.
Other Eagles regular like Ogenyi Onazi, Godfrey Oboabona, Ahmed Musa and Aaron Samuel are also reported to be targeting a place in the Rio Games, all the more complicating the situation for Siasia, who guided the Olympic team to win silver at the Beijing 2008 Games.
The Olympic Games football tournament might be seen as something of a misnomer at an event where all the world’s finest athletes are competing … except in football. But for Nigeria and Africa, it is important and it marked the early breakthroughs for the continent in the international arena. Zambia’s upset win over Italy in 1988 was followed by a bronze for Ghana in Barcelona four years later.
Then came the magical Nigerian performance of 1996 and gold again for Africa in Sydney in 2000 when Cameroon emerged victorious.
Brazil and Neymar will have the tag of favourites and be the firm focus of everyone in August, but the African challenge will be a very real one — with the right over age players to spur on their chances.