Nigeria’s Super Eagles are set to return to action this week after a rather agonising exit at the group stage of the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia. That tournament; as it has always been for the past two to three editions was widely expected to mark the end of an era for the team but this is not precisely so this time.
Aside the retirement of Victor Moses and the withdrawal of captain John Mikel Obi, Nigeria head coach Gernot Rohr is still left with majority of the players he took to Russia for this weekend’s trip to Seychelles in an important 2019 Africa Cup of Nations qualifier.
Added to the aforementioned duo’s absence is injury to right backs Abdullahi Shehu and Tyronne Ebuehi which has indeed opened the way for equally young players to freshen up the young squad. Defenders Ola Aina and Semi Ajayi have been called up while Samuel Kalu and Henry Onyekuru are enterprising attackers all under the age of 23.
More withdrawals were to follow on Monday with Aina and two other World Cup participants William Troost-Ekong and Alex Iwobi ruled out of the game. In Iwobi, the team lost a hopeful playmaker while in Ekong, they lost one of their most consistent actors in the past two years who is steadily growing into a leadership role.
Nigeria are currently third in Group E of their qualification tournament and the manner with which they lost their first group game is enough to bring genuine worries among the fans of the team. A disjointed display enumerated by a lack of leadership handed South Africa a 2-0 win in Uyo.
The absence of Leon Balogun, Victor Moses and captain John Mikel Obi was felt like a dark cloud on that fateful night and the current trend of withdrawals is enough to bring a sense of dejavu which can only be assured by one man: Wilfred Onyinye Ndidi.
Wilfred Ndidi is Nigeria's best footballer right now!
— Ọmọ Ọ̀dọ̀ Àgbà (@lakunle70) September 1, 2018
Since joining Leicester City in January 2017, Ndidi has not only grown to be the most consistent Nigerian performer in Europe, but has also become one of the foremost names when Super Eagles players are talked about in the various leagues of Europe.
He is just 21, but with twenty international caps already and an indubitable role in the heart of the team, it is time for the Nath Boys product to shoulder the added responsibility of leading the new generation – not necessarily with the captain’s armband but that of a shoulder to lean on at all times.
Perhaps, there is something synonymous with that defensive midfield position and leadership. From the current (or outgoing, if you like it that way) captain John Mikel Obi to Sunday Oliseh and Stephen Keshi, these players, save for the latter were renowned for their organisation around the centre of the pitch with a charisma that oozes into the team’s flow.
Wilfred Ndidi is a national treasure.
— Ivan Dougan (@ivanlotti) September 1, 2018
Vice captain Ogenyi Onazi has started the new season well in Turkey but it remains to be seen if he can be trusted to give direction and purpose for a team. Ndidi’s discipline and dexterity is expected to give the kind of leadership that Mikel gave the AFCON winning squad in 2013 despite not being the captain nor vice-captain of the team.
One thing is sure on Saturday, Nigeria will parade players that have never played for the senior national team in competitive games while some are even earning their first ever call ups. No matter how brilliant these ones are, it is always crucial to have leaders with emotional stability around them whose personal contributions can hardly be flawed and so can provide guidance for the newbies.
The absence of Mikel and Moses told on the team pre-2018 but Nigeria have come to a stage they must live or plan to live without the duo and much will depend on players like Ndidi to take responsibility on behalf of his mates since many of the team’s ‘future’ are either in his age group or are his juniors in the national team.
Seychelles are expected to submissively lose on Saturday (perhaps that informed my dream on Tuesday morning of a 9-3 win for Nigeria) and coach Rohr’s side will not lack leadership as players like Ahmed Musa, Leon Balogun and Ogenyi Onazi were already in camp as at Tuesday afternoon.
However, in the immediate future, when the team come up against “quality” oppositions (no disrespect to Seychelles), a lot will be asked of the team’s character which should be moulded around the indefatigable qualities of Wilfred Ndidi.