A decade on from when they won their last Africa Cup of Nations title in 2013, Nigeria travel to Côte d’Ivoire with the undisguised ambition of winning their fourth crown, but their always-unstable goalkeeping berth stands in the way.
While the Super Eagles are always counted among the favourites to win, and have more podium finishes than any other country, recent performances, combined with a slew of new injuries, have left fans feeling less than optimistic about their chances.
Nigeria boast one of the deadliest attacking units on the continent, led by Napoli’s (at least for now…) Victor Osimhen, but they have looked thin and vulnerable elsewhere.
Midfield stalwart Wilfred Ndidi is ruled out, and exciting new striker Victor Boniface also dropped out at the last minute due to injury. Additionally, forward Kelechi Iheanacho’s fitness is in doubt, and despite having the option of selecting 27 players, coach Jose Peseiro decided to go with 25.
But by far the biggest issue going into the tournament for Nigeria is the goalkeeping situation. First choice stopper Francis Uzoho is still reeling from criticism of his performances at the last tournament, which saw him lose his spot to Maduka Okoye.
An Okoye error then went on to cost the Super Eagles a loss against Tunisia, which eliminated them from the tournament, which saw Uzoho reinstated. But he has also been afflicted with a few gaffes in recent games that have had fans groaning in frustration.
Nigeria goalkeeper Francis Uzoho has been inconsistent in goal for the Super Eagles, and will need his best effort at AFCON if Nigeria are to come close to the title. Zed Jameson/MB Media/Getty Images
Despite all these troubles, former captain Vincent Enyeama says Uzoho and the other goalkeepers, must shake off the outside noise and focus on helping the team win.
“People don’t believe in him, and I don’t understand why,” the former goalkeeper told ESPN. “But I believe in him and I know that he can do it. He just needs to trust himself and forget about what people are saying.”
In his early days, Enyeama came in for harsh criticism but he weathered that storm for many years before assuming legend status, and he says the current crop of goalkeepers can learn from his experience.
He added: “I was my number one critic, because I am a perfectionist. That is why most of that criticism did not get to me. I would rate myself after every game. If I had a seven or an eight, for me it was not good enough. I wanted to have at least a nine in every game.
“So before they started hammering me, I had already hammered myself. I would take the clips from my game and watch it, analyse it and find ways to improve. That is how I handled it, and then I come out in training and work extra hard like a mad man, because I want to correct that mistake that I made.
“I didn’t care about what the fans or media had to say, what I cared about was what I could see and how I could fix it and that is the advice I would give them.”
Peseiro has since called up Stanley Nwakali from South Africa’s PSL, and Enyimba’s Olorunleke Odom, the only Nigerian domestic league player in the squad. Nwabali, widely expected to be the second choice behind Uzoho.
As for the rest of the side, losing Ndidi, and Boniface would usually be considered major setbacks, but not for the former captain, who was part of that 2013 championship team.
Enyeama added: “Talent can win you a game, but team work wins you championships. It is unfortunate that we lost Ndidi and Boniface, but Nigeria still have a lot in their arsenal to win the championship. What they need is teamwork.
“When we won, who was a star player in the team? We did not have any. We lost our captain Yobo after the first match to injury but we still won the Championship, not because we didn’t miss him but because the whole team came together and played as a team.
“What they need is teamwork and not individual talent. Defend as a team, leave Osimhen upfront, he will get the goal. Try to not concede silly goals, that’s the most important thing.”
Enyeama shares the team’s optimism that they can win: “We have the team to win, and I believe they can do it. If we don’t believe, then there is really no need for us to board the plane to Côte d’Ivoire.”
Nigeria open their campaign on January 14 against Equatorial Guinea. They play the hosts four days later and round up their group phase against Equatorial Guinea on January 22.