When Nigeria’s coach Gernot Rohr released his squad for the 2022 World Cup Qualifiers against Liberia and Cape Verde, a particular name was missing-Taiwo Awoniyi.
The 24-year-old has been arguably Nigeria’s best striker in the new European football season, with five goals in six matches this campaign.
Awoniyi’s young career has been a rollercoaster ride. The Nigerian joined Liverpool two years after winning the 2013 u-17 World Cup with the Golden Eaglets.
However, in his six years with Liverpool, he never made a single appearance for the club, going on different loan spells during this period.
Awoniyi’s struggles in his loan stint at different clubs were well documented. But he finally found his feet in his last loan spell at Union Berlin.
The 24-year-old scored five goals and registered three assists in 21 league games for the Iron Ones. Even though he missed almost the entire second half of last season, his performance was good enough to convince Union to sign him permanently from Liverpool.
Awoniyi has now picked up from where he left off last season, scoring five goals in six matches for the German side, including three in three Bundesliga matches.
With this kind of form, it was hoped he would get a call-up for the September international break. However, despite naming a 30-man squad, Rohr could not find a place for the former Mainz striker, which surprised fans.
And ahead of the match against Liberia last Friday, Rohr was asked why he didn’t include the Union Berlin striker in his squad.
In his response, Rohr said: “There are people calling for Awoniyi and other players. We can only invite three strikers. We already have Osimhen, Onuachu & Moffi.”
“There’s also Kelechi Iheanacho, which makes it difficult for Awoniyi. He’s a good player, he will surely get his chance,” he added.
Rohr’s answer may not be satisfactory enough for Awoniyi’s fans, but for once, the German tactician is right for leaving the striker out.
Over the years, Rohr has been rightly criticised for failing to give new players a chance, even in international friendly games.
Nigeria played back-to-back friendly matches against Cameroon in June, missing many of their regulars. Still, Rohr did not give enough minutes to the new players he invited for the clash.
Decisions like this show Rohr’s stubbornness, and he won’t change for anyone. But while Rohr may have his fault, he was right not to invite Awoniyi.
This is because, unlike club football, international managers do not have the luxury of changing and chopping their squad, especially when there’s an international tournament looming.
With next year’s Africa Cup of Nations just four months away, it’s only logical that Rohr picks the players he is familiar with as there’s no more time to try new players, especially when he’s under pressure from his employers.
The Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) has given the German tactician a mandate to win next year’s Afcon and also lead the team to the 2022 World Cup.
With a target to meet, it’s only right Rohr calls up players that are familiar with the national team environment, which makes his job easy.
Calling up Awoniyi means the former Burkina Faso manager will have to find a way to integrate him into the team, but time won’t allow that.
It would’ve been different had Awoniyi gotten his call-up in March. The Nigerian was tipped to get his first invitation last March for the Afcon qualifiers against Benin and Lesotho but missed out due to injury.
Also, with the team’s many attacking options, it was always going to be difficult for the former Liverpool star to break into the squad. Awoniyi plays as a centre-forward, which is also the same role Victor Osimhen plays in the Super Eagles squad.
There’s also Terem Moffi and Paul Onuachu, who have also started the season brilliantly for Lorient and Genk, respectively.
And looking at these factors, it’s hard to begrudge or criticise Rohr for leaving out Awoniyi because it’s justifiable.
It may be a hard one to take for the former Golden Eaglets striker, but with a lot at stake for Rohr, it’s only right he selects the players he’s familiar with.
Nonetheless, there’s no reason for the Union Berlin striker to feel disappointed, as he will get enough chances in the future as long as he stays consistent.