WARRIORS’ STOCK SOARS . . . Nigerian adventure sign of changing times

Robson Sharuko Senior Sports Editor
ZIMBABWE’S high-profile international friendly against Nigeria’s All-Star Super Eagles team — drawn from 13 countries and with, at least, a player from each of the world’s Big Five Leagues — is yet another confirmation of how the value of the Warriors’ brand has sky-rocketed in recent years.

The Super Eagles will host the Warriors on June 8 at the 22 000-seater Stephen Keshi Stadium, commissioned last year in honour of the late Nigerian football legend — who led Africa’s most populous nation to AFCON success both as a player and a coach — on June 8.

This friendly international will also be the last match the Super Eagles will play at home, before flying for their adventure in Egypt, and will be used by the team as a grand occasion for their fans to bid farewell to the team and also wish them good luck as they search for a fourth Nations Cup title.

The Super Eagles — ranked number three on the continent — will also have a final international friendly against Africa’s number one ranked side, Senegal’s Lions of Teranga, in the Egyptian city of Ismailia on June 16.

Nigerian coach, Gernot Rohr, has drafted in players from each of the world’s Big Five Leagues — the English Premiership, Spain’s La Liga, Germany’s Bundesliga, France’s Ligue 1 and Italy’s Serie A — in his squad for the international friendly against Zimbabwe’s Warriors.

The clubs who supply those Super Eagles include Arsenal, Leicester City, Torino, Udinese, CD Leganes, SC Padeborn, who have just been promoted into the Bundesliga, Villarreal, Levante and Bordeaux and include Alex Iwobi, who could feature for the Gunners in the UEFA Europa Cup final in Baku, Azerbaijan.

The players include teenage winger, Samuel Chukwueze, who made a huge impression in his first season with Villarreal in La Liga and, as of yesterday, was even being lined up as one of the players Liverpool could recruit to boost their team next season.

The pacey winger has already won the Under-17 World Cup and Rohr believes he has done enough to stake a claim for the Super Eagles.

Mikel Obi, who captained Nigeria at the last World Cup in Russia but has not featured for the Super Eagles since that tournament, has been recalled to the national team even though he is currently unattached after a short stint back in England in the Championship last season.

Turkey, Cyprus, South Africa, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Belgium, China and Denmark are the other countries from where some of the Super Eagles have been picked for the next assignments.

The Nigerians’ decision to hand the honour to the Warriors, to be their opponents in that farewell match for the Super Eagles just before their departure to Egypt, has been described by ZIFA president, Felton Kamambo, and board member, Farai Jere, as another confirmation the value of the team’s brand was rising.

‘’Getting Nigeria to agree to play us, in such a match of huge significance, the last one they will play at home before they leave for the AFCON finals, was a masterstroke for us and it shows that our team is now being viewed in a different light around the continent,’’ said Kamambo.

‘’Gradually, we are improving the profile of our team and the more we do well, as we have done in the past few years, the more we are likely to get more matches against the traditional giants of football in Africa and, even, around the world.

‘’We have to keep the momentum and I have always argued that we have a very good team and we need to help them go as far as they can.’’

Jere, the ZIFA board member who is also the PSL chairman, said, in years gone by, the chances of the Super Eagles agreeing to take on the Warriors in a friendly international, just before the AFCON finals, would not have been possible.

‘’It’s a credit of how far we have travelled that it’s now normal that we can have a big match against the Super Eagles just before such a very important tournament and no one is saying that the Nigerians have chosen a weak side because they know we are a competitive team now,’’ said Jere.

‘’We have earned our stripes and there are rewards that you get for topping your qualifying group, not just once but in successive campaigns in the AFCON, and when you go to Kinshasa and come out with a win, as we did in that match, some people notice and begin to accord you the respect you deserve.

‘’We lost just one game in all the qualifiers, against Liberia by a single goal in a game where we had chances to score two or three, and we made sure that in three games at home, all the visiting players failed to score against us, such good statistics are what makes you an attractive team.

‘’This is a very important phase for our Warriors and, with the exciting talent that is also coming through the ranks, I think our football is in good shape and fine health.’’

Ahead of the Warriors’ maiden appearance at the 2004 AFCON finals, the Warriors played a friendly match against Botswana and earlier that year they had also played friendlies against Zambia and Lesotho.

Nigeria’s 25-man provisional squad:

Goalkeepers: Francis Uzoho (Anorthosis Famagusta, Cyprus); Ikechukwu Ezenwa (Katsina United); Daniel Akpeyi (Kaizer Chiefs, South Africa)

Defenders: Olaoluwa Aina (Torino FC, Italy); Abdullahi Shehu (Bursaspor FC, Turkey); Chidozie Awaziem (Caykur Rizespor, Turkey); William Ekong (Udinese, Italy); Leon Balogun (Brighton & Hove Albion, England); Kenneth Omeruo (CD Leganes, Spain); Jamilu Collins (SC Padeborn 07, Germany); Semi Ajayi (Rotherham United, England)

Midfielders: John Mikel Obi (without a club); Wilfred Ndidi (Leicester City, England); Oghenekaro Etebo (Stoke City, England); John Ogu (Hapoel Be’er Sheva, Israel)

Forwards: Ahmed Musa (Al Nassr, Saudi Arabia); Victor Osimhen (Royal Charleroi, Belgium); Moses Simon (Levante, Spain); Henry Onyekuru (Galatasaray SK, Turkey); Odion Ighalo (Shanghai Shenhua, China); Alexander Iwobi (Arsenal, England); Samuel Kalu (Girondins Bordeaux, France); Paul Onuachu (FC Midtjylland, Denmark); Kelechi Iheanacho (Leicester City, England); Samuel Chukwueze (Villarreal, Spain)

Standby: Theophilus Afelokhai (Enyimba FC); Bryan Idowu (Lokomotiv Moscow, Russia); Ikouwem Utin (Enyimba); Mikel Agu (Vitoria Setubal, Portugal); Junior Ajayi (Al Ahly, Egypt); Valentine Ozornwafor (Enyimba