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Coach Gernot Rohr, Paul Aigbogun and the Chukwueze riddle

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Villarreal’s Samuel Chukwueze (right) celebrates with Carlos Bacca after scoring during their Spanish league against Barcelona…on Tuesday. PHOTO: AFP.

The 2019 FIFA Under-20 World Cup kicks off on the 25th of May in Poland, with Nigeria making a return to the competition having missed out two years ago in South Korea. However, the preparations of the Flying Eagles – as the Nigerian team is known at this age group – have been almost entirely overshadowed by the question over the inclusion of Villarreal wonderkid Samuel Chukwueze.

In the Africa Under-20 Cup of Nations in January, Nigeria placed fourth, thereby earning the last of the continent’s four representative slots. However, the team came in for a great deal of criticism for its style of play, or lack thereof. This has increased the pressure on the coach of the team Paul Aigbogun to produce a respectable performance on the world stage later this month, failing which he will almost certainly find himself out of a job.

This state of affairs has fuelled a sense of desperation on the part of the former Warri Wolves and Enyimba coach, whose preparations have bordered on chaotic. And this is where Chukwueze, who will turn 20 on the eve of the tournament’s commencement, comes in. The winger has been one of the revelations of the season in La Liga, averaging a goal or an assist every 200 minutes in all competitions for Villarreal this season. Consider that the Yellow Submarine has had the threat of relegation hanging over it all season long, and that is impressive. Also considering the fact that this is Chukwueze’s first top-flight league season in his entire career, and it becomes clear just how good of a prospect he truly is.

So far, he has represented Nigeria at under-17 level (as part of the team that won the World Cup in 2015), at under-20 level, at under-23 level, and at senior level – last year he made his international bow in a friendly against Uganda in Asaba. This places him squarely in line for a place at this summer’s Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) in Egypt, and he has as good a shot as anyone else. Certainly, none of the wide options available for selection have had as strong a body of work over the past year as he has, and the standing of La Liga as one of Europe’s top five leagues further amplifies his impact.

This is the dilemma; he cannot honour both competitions, especially considering that the AFCON kicks off less than a week after the conclusion of the Under-20 World Cup. There have also been concerns expressed by his club over the possibility of burnout should he be asked to do both; being an important asset, it is perfectly reasonable that they look out for his wellbeing. So which should he take up?
There is also the argument that, with the under-20 side, he would get undisputed star billing, and be the centre-piece of the team in a way that he is unlikely to be with the senior national team. Super Eagles coach Gernot Rohr has alluded as much, and his non-committal stance on this situation speaks even more eloquently. In his mind, Chukwueze is not a starter. When you combine Rohr’s indecision with Aigbogun’s desperation, you get this: a young player forced to make a decision that would essentially amount to him usurping the place of those who secured qualification for the Under-20 World Cup.

It is not a choice he should have to make. It is easy to forget in a football culture that prioritises results over all else, but the Under-20 World Cup serves the crucial purpose of providing lesser-known players, especially from Africa and South America, with exposure and opportunities. Clearly, these are not perks that Chukwueze needs: he already has piqued the interest of top clubs all over Europe, and will fetch Villarreal a handsome fee when he makes his next move.

For a player who has already proven a thorn in the flesh of the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona (scoring and assisting against the latter even), the AFCON is definitely a better arena for his talent. It may be that he does not start, and that is Rohr’s prerogative, but in order to win, a coach needs to arm himself with as many options as possible.

The Flying Eagles will be fine. Considering the state of the team, it is unlikely they will pull up many trees in Poland anyway, but at least the players who did the work to earn the ticket deserve to have the stage. Aigbogun needs to get over his own desperation and laziness, conquer his fears and look elsewhere.


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