Nigeria is considered, surely, one of the few teams favoured to win the 2019 African Cup of Nations (AFCON) that begins in a few days. To be clear, the Nigerian Manager Gernot Rohr, has denied that Nigeria is a favourite. Instead, he has named Egypt, Ghana, and Ivory Coast as favourites.
Many will argue against the choice of those three because Ivory Coast has not done much in recent times to be considered a favourite and one wonders why he has not included Senegal on his list. Nevertheless, Rohr’s denial of Nigeria’s favourite status is considered a bit of gamesmanship.
For the rest of us, Nigeria is a favourite having been one of Africa’s five representatives at the World Cup and the team keeping a record of only losing one game to an African opposition throughout Rohr’s tenure that begun in 2016.
But how does this current Nigerian squad compare to the three that won the AFCON in 1980, 1994, and 2013? That, ultimately, is what we explore based on our belief that this squad is on a short list of teams favoured to win the AFCON.
The Age Factor
Going into the 2018 World Cup one of the controversial statements made by Gernot Rohr is that he was taking a young team to the World Cup. The interpretation was that no one should expect the team to perform wonders at the World Cup. The team performed to script. It failed to go beyond the group stage.
However, Rohr has been careful not to repeat that statement as the team gets ready for the AFCON. But I have gone ahead to compare the average age of this team to the previous winners of AFCONs from Nigeria. Of the three Nigerian squads that have won the AFCON, only the 1994 team has a higher average age than the current 2019 squad (see Figure 1). In essence, the average age of this squad cannot be used as a reason that it won’t win the AFCON.
The 2019 squad has six players 30 years or older (Mikel, Ezenwa, Akpeyi, Balogun, Ogu, and Ighalo) which is more than any of Nigeria’s previous AFCON winning squads. In fact, none of those squads had more than two players 30 or older.
However, some had players very close to 30 years old. Notably, the 1980 squad had no player who was 30 years old at the time of the competition. Instead, it had three players listed at 29 years old – Christian Chukwu, Emmanuel Okala, and Kadiri Ikhana.
The Experience Factor
The 2019 squad is far more experienced than any of the Nigerian squads that have ever gone on to win the AFCON. This is basically, at its core, the team that went to the 2018 World Cup finals where it played against the world’s best teams. That experience is valuable and a factor that no previous Nigerian AFCON winner had!
The 2019 team has been under the same coach for 35 months prior to the AFCON (see Figure 3). This is much longer to the AFCON winning managers of 1980 (3 months) and 2013 (15 months) but less than the manager for 1994 (35 months) at time of winning. Each of those teams had the same coach for at least a full year (12 months) except for the 1980 team under Otto Gloria.
Prior to winning the AFCON. Gloria was coach for three months (including the competition month). However, his 1980 team was camped for a long period in Brazil which may have compensated for Gloria’s comparatively short stay with the team before the AFCON.
In quantifiable terms, the 2019 squad is the most experienced. The squad members average 25.26 appearances for the national team. The closest to this average is the 2013 team that averaged 4 appearances less! That is a wide gap between both teams on this measure of experience. But it even gets comparatively wider when you compare the current squad with those of 1980 and 1994 (see Figure 2).
The bulk of appearances for the 2019 squad come from Mikel Obi (88), Ahmed Musa (83), and Kenneth Omeruo (45) who are three players with AFCON finals experience. Each of the AFCON winning squads had at least three members of the squad with no less than 40 appearances at the start of their AFCON winning tournament. Although the 1980 squad was the youngest by average age, it had the most players who had no less than 40 appearances at the time of the 1980 AFCON. Those players were Emmanuel Okala (56), Christian Chukwu (49), Muda Lawal (49), and Aloysius Atuegbu (41).
In essence, the 2019 squad does not lack experience needed to win the 2019 AFCON. If anything, it could be argued that it is more experienced than any Nigerian team that has won the AFCON. In fact, its average number of appearances significantly trumps the number of appearances accumulated by any of the previous AFCON winning squads. Furthermore, the longevity of Manager Gernot Rohr is also notably better than any of the previous managers who won the AFCON, with the exception of Clemens Westerhof in 1994.