It is exactly a week before the start of the 33rd edition Africa Cup of Nations, but Nigeria’s preparations have been far from ideal.
It all started with the sacking of Gernot Rohr as the team’s coach a month before the competition, with Austin Eguavoen coming in as an interim boss.
Although Eguavoen will still lead the team to Cameroon, the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) caused controversy when they named Portuguese tactician Jose Peseiro as Rohr’s permanent replacement ten days before the competition.
The organisation even went further to add that the ex-Porto manager will travel with the team, albeit as an observer.
But while that itself is an unwanted distraction for the team, the biggest setback in the team’s preparations happened last week as four players withdrew from the squad.
Eguavoen had named a 28-man squad for the mission in Cameroon but had to call up four replacements after the quartet of Victor Osimhen, Emmanuel Dennis, Abdullahi Shehu, and Leon Balogun all withdrew.
In fairness, the team can still cope with the absence of Shehu and Balogun. It is the withdrawal of Osimhen and Dennis that caused outrage, and rightly so.
Both players have been fantastic for their clubs in Europe this season. Osimhen has nine goals and one assist in 14 games for Napoli, while Dennis has contributed 67% of the goals Watford have scored in the Premier League this season (eight goals and five assists).
Their performance explains why Nigerians are angry with their withdrawal. However, while it may be disappointing to see him miss out, Osimhen is right to pull out from the squad.
In Osimhen’s case, his participation had always been in doubt as he was running a race against time to be fit for the competition after suffering a facial injury in Napoli’s Serie A clash against Inter Milan last November.
The 23-year-old went through a complicated but successful surgery after the injury, and it was confirmed that he would be out for three months, ruling him out of the competition.
Nonetheless, Osimhen returned to training- albeit individual training- just two weeks after the surgery before declaring he would be available for AFCON selection.
Napoli were adamant, though, that their talisman would not be fit for the competition, which led to conspiracy theories from Nigerian fans that the Neapolitans were looking for every available opportunity to stop the Nigerian from playing at the AFCON.
But the truth is this is not Napoli’s fault as they have nothing to gain from preventing Osimhen from travelling to Cameroon.
The truth is it would have been careless and irresponsible if Osimhen had gone to the AFCON because he is yet to heal properly.
The surgeon who carried out the operation confirmed it would have taken a miracle for the Nigerian to play in the competition, and he has no reason to lie because his licence is on the line.
Osimhen’s commitment to the Super Eagles is not in doubt, and it is seen in the way he celebrates his goals after scoring for the team.
Yes, the AFCON is a big tournament and a dream for every player, but it is only right that he does not act on his emotions and follow what the medical experts say.
If he had gone with his emotion and disobeyed the experts, he could have aggravated the injury, which could cost him in the long term.
At the age of 23, he still has years left to play in many AFCONS. And it is also important to understand Napoli’s fear and position.
Osimhen is the club’s record buy, but he is yet to fully justify the money spent on him two years into the five-year contract.
He has had some top moments, but it has not been consistent, no thanks to injuries. The ex-Lille man was also ruled out for three months in his first year at Naples after picking up a shoulder injury on international duty.
And a similar situation could have happened if he had not pulled out of Nigeria’s AFCON squad. It is also important to note that Napoli have been nice to Osimhen ever since he signed.
The club allowed him to travel home in December 2020 despite the pandemic, but it looked like a wrong move as Osimhen contracted Covid-19 after celebrating his 22nd birthday with family and friends.
It was a careless and irresponsible act, yet he was protected by the club. The same situation repeated itself last month after Napoli once again allowed him to leave for Nigeria, even though he was injured.
Unfortunately, ahead of his return to the club, Osimhen tested positive for coronavirus, which meant his scheduled checkup on his face had to be postponed.
Taking all these into account, it is only fair Osimhen excuse himself from the Nigerian squad.
But while Osimhen is right to withdraw from the squad, the same cannot be said about Dennis, who is risking his international career with his decision to pull out from the team.
Dennis had not played for the Super Eagles since 2020, but it would have been inexcusable to leave him out of the squad due to his impressive display for the Hornets.
The 24-year-old has had a brilliant start to life in the Premier League after joining Watford from Club Brugge in the summer.
Although it has been a frustrating return to the top-flight for the Hornets, Dennis has been the shining light in their team, contributing 67% of the goals they have scored this season.
As a result, he was called up to the Super Eagles 28-man squad. Dennis tweeted his excitement after hearing of his call-up, which signified his intention to represent Nigeria in Cameroon.
But surprisingly, last Friday, the ex-Club Brugge attacker was dropped from the squad with Peter Olayinka called up as a replacement.
Initially, the NFF failed to explain why Dennis was excused, but Eguavoen later revealed that Watford stopped the Nigerian from coming.
Before he was dropped, Watford boss Claudio Ranieri claimed that Dennis invitation came late, and they were hoping to exploit the error to prevent Dennis from linking up with the Super Eagles.
However, while Watford might have used their strong position to stop Dennis from coming, there have also been reports that the attacker was not interested in playing for the Super Eagles, which is why the Hornets were able to achieve their aim.
Although Dennis has neither confirmed nor denied these allegations, it is hard not to believe because of his past behaviours.
During this period, he was left out of the Nigerian squad because he was not playing at club level, but the real reason for his international wilderness is that he failed to respect the coach’s instruction.
Dennis has three caps for the Super Eagles, which all came under former coach Gernot Rohr. However, a source told Soccernet that the Watford man did not get more opportunities under the German tactician because he failed to play to instructions.
The 24-year-old played as a substitute in his three appearances under Rohr, but Dennis was not satisfied with his cameo role as he saw himself better than the attackers in the lineup.
As a result, Rohr stopped inviting him to the squad. But while it is a good thing for a player to have confidence in his abilities, it is also important for him to respect his coach choice and continue to train normally.
Dennis did not show this attitude, which is another reason why he was not given a chance under Rohr. The same situation is now repeating itself under Eguavoen.
It is believed that Dennis decided not to show interest in playing at the AFCON because he felt he would not get enough playing time at the competition.
This is not a good attitude to have, and he is risking his international career if he continues this way.