NFF President Amaju Pinnick has spoken glowingly of the youthfulness of the new Nigeria senior squad, with a clutch of new faces joining a few experienced and still –combative performers to take Nigeria pretty close to a 2018 FIFA World Cup ticket.
“This team has not only shown capacity to go very far, but the youthfulness gives you the assurance that it can even go farther. You look at the players and you are happy that there is a future for Nigerian Football.
“You take a first look at the team and you see players like William Ekong, Wilfred Ndidi, Leon Balogun, Alex Iwobi, Chidozie Awaziem, Tyronne Ebuehi, Kelechi Iheanacho and now we have Ola Aina as well. We are working on getting Tammy Abraham. There are others like Henry Onyekuru and Olanrewaju Kayode. I believe we are so blessed and that this team will cause a big stir in Russia, and if not in Russia, in Qatar in five years time.”
In July last year, the NFF appointed Franco-German tactician Gernort Rohr into the position of Technical Adviser of the Super Eagles, invoking mixed reactions from a vibrant football –passionate citizenry. In 14 months however, Rohr, who coached in Burkina Faso, Gabon and Niger Republic and took charge of Etoile du Sahel of Tunisia previously, has crashed the average age of the Super Eagles and engendered such spirit in camp that the players feel they are one big family.
“I am very happy to be part of this squad. We look out for one another and everyone is ready to cover up for the other. It is a family, such a united family,” goalkeeper Ikechukwu Ezenwa said.
Ezenwa, a former junior international, got his first big chances against the Lions and proved his ability and capacity, leaving no one in doubt. He was huge for the team as the African champions started the first match in Uyo like a chimney, and took the same confidence to Yaounde’s Stade Omnisports Ahmadou Ahidjo on Monday.
The FC IfeanyiUbah number one stopper arrived at the FIFA U20 World Cup in Canada 10 years ago as third choice behind Olufemi Thomas and Moses Ocheje. The technical crew was uncomfortable with the fact that Thomas was prone to jitters, and Ocheje got injured in the second match, paving way for Ezenwa to dazzle in goal as the Flying Eagles reached the quarter –finals.
The truth is that even those who are seen as veterans, as a result of activity and consistency over the years, are relatively young. Left back Elderson Echiejile was at Canada 2007 with Ezenwa, while Abdullahi Shehu played U20 World Cup in Turkey only four years ago, alongside Olanrewaju Kayode, Uche Agbo and Wilfred Ndidi.
Dele Ajiboye was goalkeeper of the U17 team that won the FIFA World Cup in Korea Republic 10 years ago, Alampasu was number one for the U17 team that won the same trophy in the UAE four years ago and; Ahmed Musa played for the U20 team in Colombia in 2011.
Oghenekaro Etebo shone for the U23 team at the Olympics in Brazil last year; Victor Moses has age on his side, just as Moses Simon, Anthony Nwakaeme, John Ogu and Mikel Agu.
Eight years ago, deputy captain Ogenyi Onazi was in the U17 team that won silver at the World Cup for Nigeria. Odion Ighalo was in the U20 team at the World Cup in Egypt eight years ago.
Team captain Mikel Obi, at 30, is the oldest of the pack, and yet has a special motivation to lead the team to the World Cup and excel, just as he did in carrying the U23 team at the Olympics last year.
In truth, the former Chelsea star feels he needs to prove something at the FIFA World Cup. Germany 2006 was a painful miss for him and the team, as Angola finished ahead of Nigeria in the somewhat odd head-to-head principle (it would have been his first World Cup), and four years later, he played a yeoman’s role as the Eagles qualified on the last day in Nairobi, only to miss the finals in South Africa through injury.
Four years ago in Brazil, Mikel would himself admit, he was not at his best.
“Russia 2018 will be special for me and this squad. We will do everything to get there and do well for Nigeria and Africa,” he said.