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Fortunate AFCON seeding could disguise Nigeria’s soft underbelly

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Later Friday night, Nigeria will learn its preliminary round foes at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations.

It has been a long, gruelling road to return to the top table of African football for the three-time African champions, one filled with numerous lessons. Following an unexpected triumph in the 2013 edition, the Super Eagles then failed to qualify and defend their title in 2015. The following competition, in 2017, similarly saw one of Africa’s major footballing nations fail to put in an appearance.

Those ill-fated qualifiers featured damaging losses against the likes of Sudan and Republic of Congo. The message is clear: there can be nothing taken for granted, and no challenge can be disregarded. Nevertheless, it is very convenient that Nigeria has been seeded for tonight’s draw, along with the four other nations that represented the continent at last year’s World Cup, and defending champions Cameroon.

This seeding, ostensibly based on the latest FIFA rankings, “portrays a true reflection of the state of the qualified teams”, according to CAF. It also is a marker for just how far the Super Eagles have come since the dark days of 2015 and 2016. That turnaround has been overseen by Gernot Rohr, under whom the country has begun to punch up to their weight in African football. The German’s sole loss to an African side remains a 2-0 defeat to South Africa in 2017: he has overseen wins against the likes of Cameroon, Algeria, Egypt and drawn against Senegal (the latter two in friendlies).

Yet, he goes into this summer’s tournament under more pressure than he’s ever had to face.

Some of that is simply to do with the trajectory of his career so far. Having largely managed minnows on the continent, Nigeria represents a major step up, both in terms of profile and expectation. Rohr has, however, been keen to play up his ability to perform under pressure, pointing to his run to the Quarter-Final with host nation Gabon in 2012. “We won our first three games, and were tipped to go on and win it. That was pressure,” he insists. Be that as it may, nothing he has faced up until this point can possibly prepare him for the ardour of 180 million people.

The modalities of the draw mean that, aside the prospect of either Ghana or Ivory Coast (both in Pot 2), he should find the Group Stage easy enough to navigate. Win the group, and he might even get to face one of the best third-placed teams. All things considered, he might not face a particularly testing tie till the last eight.

Having been at pains to point out that his side does not have what is required to go all the way, a run to the last four can be objectively referred to as a success. But if the luck of the draw gifts him a smooth passage, he may find that the biggest impediment to glory comes from the weakness within his own squad.

Despite his own admission of dissatisfaction with his goalkeeping options, Rohr has opted to stick with what he has at the moment. That means Francis Uzoho very likely taking a starting spot, with Daniel Akpeyi and Ikechukwu Ezenwa as back-ups. None has an entirely convincing claim. Uzoho, a greenhorn at the World Cup, has not progressed in the manner that justifies the continued faith in him, and he was sent off recently on only his second start since January for Cypriot side Anorthosis Famagusta. If anything, he has regressed.

Akpeyi has made the best career move of the three, stepping up to Kaizer Chiefs, but remains fundamentally flawed and prone to huge errors. Ezenwa is steady, but exudes no confidence, and is largely untested by the quality of the Nigeria Professional Football League.

A side is really only as strong as its weakest department, and so for all the talent upfront, Nigeria will go into the Africa Cup of Nations with a very soft underbelly. It is fortunate that the path to advancement looks to be kinder than first imagined. However, Rohr’s legacy may come to be defined by his stubbornness: if his side falls short, his decision to close his camp to new entrants, and unwillingness to sing from the same hymn sheet as the footballing authorities, could be what does him in.


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