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African All Stars

Osimhen’s Portugal absence reminds Nigeria of World Cup and Afcon failures

16:55 GMT+4 16/11/2022
Nigerian players reacts in disappointment after defeat, Leon Balogun.
The Super Eagles fan disappointment toward the Napoli marksman pulling out of the Selecao friendly reopened the wounds of their Qatar failure

As if Nigerians needed any reminder of their failure to qualify for the imminent World Cup finals in Qatar, their top centre-forward unwittingly opened wounds that had partially healed.

Victor Osimhen’s withdrawal from Nigeria’s friendly with Portugal rankled the majority of supporters who doubt the authenticity of the Napoli striker’s ‘knock’ that has ruled him out of Thursday’s encounter.

In isolation, Osimhen’s non-participation would not have prompted such opprobrium. After all, the Super Eagles’ meeting with the World Cup-bound Selecao effectively falls into the ‘meaningless friendly’ bracket for the West African nation in the short term.

However, supporters still harbour resentment at the Italian club for preventing the centre-forward’s Africa Cup of Nations participation at the turn of the year. At the time, Augustine Eguavoen’s attempts to convince the striker did not yield the desired outcome with the 23-year-old’s health and recovery prioritised over potential risks in Cameroon.

The striker had suffered a serious facial injury two months earlier in a Serie A encounter with Inter Milan, while a positive coronavirus test 12 days before the nation’s opening game with Egypt added to the Super Eagles’ pre-Afcon anxiety.

“Osimhen, it’s a pity that he will not be at the Afcon. He told me practically and pleaded with me and I saw reason,” said then-Nigeria boss Eguavoen via The Punch. “I tried for hours to convince him but his health comes first which is my concern.”

Fans were unconvinced and that irritation intensified when Osimhen returned to action for the Partenopei in a league game against Bologna on January 17 before featuring five days later against Salernitana.

Nigeria played their final group stage game with Guinea-Bissau on January 19 and faced off with Tunisia in the Round of 16 four days after. Osimhen could have been the difference between playing Burkina Faso in the quarter-finals or exiting to the North African nation on January 23. It was the latter for the three-time African champions.

Fast forward months later and Aurelio De Laurentiis’ mindless Afcon remarks and reluctance with signing African players understandably sparked outrage, with Nigerians again censuring the Napoli supremo.

“I told them, lads, don’t talk to me about Africans anymore!” said De Laurentiis in August as quoted by Football Italia. “I love them, but they [have to] sign something confirming they’ll back out of playing the Africa Cup of Nations…these players are never available!

“We are the idiots who pay salaries only to send them all over the world playing for others.”

Osimhen’s presence at Napoli means Nigerians have foreseen more drama when the next Afcon rolls around in January 2024, except unless the Azzurri cash in on their prized asset who has two years and a bit to run on his current deal before the finals in Ivory Coast.

The ongoing country-vs-club battle between Nigeria and Napoli has precipitated the current outrage, as there is a feeling among supporters the striker’s injury is fabricated and is intended to protect their top scorer from suffering any injury that could keep him out of a league return at the turn of the year.

Would Osimhen have been unavailable had the Super Eagles’ friendly with Portugal served a different purpose? Thursday’s tune-up for the European nation aids their preparation for a clash with Ghana, whereas it effectively means little for Jose Peseiro’s crew in comparison.

Having said that, another window to further familiarise himself with his players and vice-versa has to be a positive in facing Fernando Santos’ men. Nigeria’s new trainer wants to build a side capable of competing for and potentially winning in 2024 and the building blocks start here.

Including this window, the journeyman manager has had the group together three times but Osimhen has been available for only one: scoring in the 2-1 win over Sierra Leone and netting a staggering four times in the record-shattering 10-0 success against Sao Tome and Principe in July.

Indeed it is far from ideal not having your best player available to develop on-field relationships and implement the ideas of the new man in charge.

Supporters largely adore Osimhen but the shirker label is not one he wants to carry.

In the interim, Nigeria have other players capable of picking up the slack but they need their best marksman going forward.

His absence this time has done nothing but remind fans they failed to make it to Qatar. It hurts double when you recollect the circumstances of their tepid failure at the hands of Ghana.