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African All Stars

Uproar over Onazi return shouldn’t dent Super Eagles legacy

06:37 GMT 07/03/2022
Ogenyi Onazi of Nigeria
The ex-Lazio man was a surprise inclusion in Augustine Eguavoen’s stand-by list for the upcoming World Cup qualifier

The inclusion of Ogenyi Onazi among the stand-by players in Nigeria’s squad to face Ghana in the World Cup qualifying playoff double-header later this month was a throwback to a bygone era.

Once a key man during the memorable tenure of Stephen Keshi, and an Africa Cup of Nations winner in 2013, Onazi hasn’t featured for the national side since the 3-0 victory over the Seychelles at the Stade de Linite in September 2018.

Before that, he was involved against England in a pre-World Cup friendly in June of 2018, where a woeful showing prompted a raft of criticism and prompted a midfield reshuffle from Gernot Rohr.

Onazi duly dropped down the pecking order, with a midfield of John Obi Mikel, Wilfred Ndidi and Peter Etebo starting against Croatia in the Eagles' opening match in Russia.

From playing 14 matches for Nigeria during 2013—only five players featured more regularly—Onazi wasn’t used at all by Rohr during 2019, 2020 or 2021, having drifted out of the international picture.

It was a bitter disappointment for the midfielder, still only 29, who ought to have been enjoying his peak years in the heart of the park for the Eagles.

However, as his international caps dried up, his club career stalled.

Once courted by the likes of Everton, Sunderland, West Ham United, Swansea City and Southampton while with Lazio, he managed just 29 league appearances across his last two full seasons in the Italian top flight, and allegedly hit out at the club upon his departure from the Italian capital.

A Turkish Cup followed at Trabzonspor, and he left on much better terms despite injuries having stalled his progress in the Super Lig.

Things have drifted in recent years, with two stints with Turkish top flight new boys Denizlispor coming either side of brief and unfruitful spells in Denmark and Lithuania.

It’s been little wonder that Onazi wasn’t truly knocking on the door for a return under Rohr, particularly with the likes of Ndidi, Etebo, Mikel Agu, Frank Onyeka, Semi Ajayi, Joe Aribo, Shehu Abdullahi, Samson Tijani, Innocent Bonke, Joel Obi and Kelechi Nwakali just some of the players competing for minutes in the heart of the midfield.

What has been a surprise, however, was his return to the squad—albeit the standby list—for the double-header against Ghana later this month.

His introduction wasn’t a surprise because he’s been playing poorly recently, but because it’s been so long since he featured for the national side, and has done precious little in the intervening years to warrant inclusion.

Indeed, his introduction has prompted questions among Nigeria fans on social media about the criteria used for considering players for upcoming fixtures.

Is Onazi, who’s currently playing in the Saudi second tier, really the best that the Super Eagles can call upon as a midfield option right now?

Ignoring Bonke, playing with FC Lorient in the French top flight no less, really beggars belief.

He may have struggled against Olympique Lyonnais this weekend—as Les Merlus were thumped 4-1—but recent performances against the likes of AS Monaco and Racing Club de Lens demonstrate that the 26-year-old can make a name for himself at this level.

Why is Bonke—whose recent solid performance in the French top flight make him appear to be the most likely understudy to Wilfred Ndidi—behind Onazi in the hierarchy, rather than getting more valuable exposure to international football?

Of course, none of this is Onazi’s fault, and the NFF’s decision to turn to one of the nation’s key players of the previous decade can’t be laid at his feet.

Should he feature—which would require several injury withdrawals, surely—he could have a valuable opportunity to redeem himself after that underwhelming showing against England which brought a premature end to his international career in 2018.

Either way, Onazi—for all he’s contributed to the Super Eagles over his half-century of international appearances—doesn’t deserve to be the subject of fan ridicule.

He played a key role for Nigeria during the Nations Cup triumph in 2013, despite having only made his international debut the previous October and featured three times for the team before the tournament.

The youngster came into the team when Fegor Ogude was suspended, and kept the lumbering defensive midfielder out of the side with a series of full-hearted displays.

His performance against Ivory Coast in the quarter-final—alongside John Obi Mikel—was one of the great underrated Super Eagles performances of recent tournaments, and his energy and dynamism proved critical to the side’s front-foot approach during the best of Keshi’s tenure.

He also excelled at the 2014 World Cup, and who knows what could have happened in the Last 16 meeting with France had Blaise Matuidi’s clumsy tackle not ended Onazi’s tournament prematurely.

Certainly, the midfielder’s departure cost Nigeria centrally, and it’s not far-fetched to suggest that his substitution was the turning point of the match.

Two years later, in late 2016, Onazi’s role in the midfield alongside Mikel and Etebo was central to the Eagles’ 3-1 World Cup qualifying triumph over Algeria—one of the fine early performances of the Rohr years, to set the tone for an excellent campaign.

Ultimately, the side outgrew him, while his own injuries and stalling club career slowed in his momentum.

In 2022, even at 29, he appears as yesterday’s man, but the uproar that surrounds Onazi’s return shouldn’t dent his legacy with the national side.

Comment below and let us know if you believe Eddy Onazi still has something to offer the Super Eagles.