For a player seemingly hoodwinked into playing for the national U23 side for a second time; Okechukwu Azubuike on Tuesday displayed an unrivalled sense of patriotism to lead the team to a 5-0 win over Sudan and a place in the U23 Africa Cup of Nations.
Azubuike was the pre-tournament captain of Nigeria’s U23 side which won Bronze at the 2016 Rio Olympics. He did not only captain the team during the qualifying processes, he excelled in it, landing the Player of the Tournament accolade at the 2015 U23 AFCON.
For Azubuike, it was mission accomplished and the next stage to climb would be the senior national team, never to play the U23s again although he was still eligible for another tournament being 19 in 2016.
Fast forward to 2019, the midfielder had just overcome a few months of blankness occasioned by a move to Egypt but had now returned to Turkey where he was already balling again for Çaykur Rizespor, alongside Super Eagles star Chidozie Awaziem.
A phone call from Super Eagles head coach Gernot Rohr was to follow in March 2019 with the midfielder stressing his lack of desire to play the “stressful” underaged football again.
Rohr managed to persuade Azubuike to change his stance, encouraging him to help the U23s against Libya while they reached a gentleman’s agreement that he (Rohr) would invite him for his merited pre-AFCON camp in May, an idea Rohr also hinted at a press conference in Asaba. Well, the German reneged on it.
With a new era of the Super Eagles emerging after the AFCON, Rohr once again left out Azubuike, – whom by then had joined a bigger club in Turkey and featured in two UEFA Champions League games – ostensibly for participation with the U23s. Perhaps a payback time for Okechukwu?
Azubuike honoured the invitation to the U23s in the middle of a club vs country melodrama. He has grown to become an important figure at his new club Istanbul Başakşehir but participation in the games against Sudan would cast a doubt on his availability for their first Europa League group game.
The message from Başakşehir was distinctly clear to their new Number 44; “Return to Turkey on or before September 10 or forfeit the trip to AS Roma.” This is because of the timeframe required to secure an Italian visa for the Nigerian in Istanbul.
What a dilemma for the 22-year old to contend with! The thought of passing up an opportunity to display his craft at the Stadio Olimpico was big enough to deal with but should he feature in the Sudan return leg on September 10, be would not arrive Turkey until the evening of the 11th.
Azubuike’s dilemma significantly increased when the Nigerian U23s lost 0-1 to Sudan in the first leg in Omdurman, leaving plenty to play for in the second leg. He was caught in between the devil and deep blue sea. But as someone not new to taking tough professional decisions, he stayed with the national team.
— Azubuike Okechukwu (@aazzuu14) September 10, 2019
“I will stay and play the second leg. That’s my decision,” Azubuike told www.aclsports.com on Saturday.
“I can’t afford to leave the team now. I will miss the first Europa game and I have told my club already,” he added.
Luckily for him though, his stay paid immediate dividends for the team as Nigeria won 5-0 to overturn the deficit and qualify for the Olympics qualifying tournament which should again set Azubuike up for another round of club vs country row as the tournament is not entirely in the FIFA International window.
In the meantime though, the former Bayelsa United star returns to his club ahead of this weekend’s clash with Sivasspor but will hope that when the likes of team captain Irfan Kahveci, Arda Turan, Gokhan Inler or Mehmet Topal takes his place against Roma next week, they do not make it permanently theirs – a consequence of his national sacrifice.