The outcome of Nigeria's opening Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON 2023) match against Equatorial Guinea resulted in disappointment among many Nigerian fans. There's a prevailing feeling that the Super Eagles missed an opportunity to secure a victory in a game they were expected to win.
Victor Osimhen's goal salvaged a point for Nigeria after Ivan Salvador gave Nzalang Nacional a surprise lead. Despite numerous chances, the Eagles' profligacy proved to be their biggest undoing as both teams settled for a draw.
Despite the disappointment, the silver lining of the game was the emergence of Alhassan Yusuf.
Alhassan Yusuf's journey to AFCON 2023
Relatively unknown before leaving Nigeria, 23-year-old Yusuf did not play in the Nigeria Premier Football League or any official football leagues in the country. Discovered in Kano, he moved between Tiki Taka Academy and FC Hearts of Abuja before securing a move to Swedish side IFK Goteborg in 2018.
Yusuf's talent shone at the annual Gothia Cup in Sweden, catching the attention of Goteborg. He became a key player for the 18-time Swedish champions, earning the Allsvenskan Young Player of the Year award in 2019.
His impressive performances in Sweden attracted interest from clubs like West Ham, Wolves, Anderlecht, and Sheffield United. However, it was Belgian side Antwerp that secured his signature in a £1million transfer in 2021.
Yusuf quickly established himself in Antwerp's first team, contributing to their victory in the Belgian Jupiler League title last season. The team also participated in the UEFA Champions League, facing challenging opponents like Barcelona, FC Porto, and Shakhtar Donetsk.
Despite Antwerp finishing bottom of the group, Yusuf had done enough to work his way into the consciousness of national team selectors with the AFCON approaching.
National team adventure
Yusuf's journey with the national team began when he caught the eye of Flying Eagles coach Paul Aigbogun during the FIFA U20 World Cup qualification in 2019. However, injuries and schedule conflicts prevented him from participating in the qualifiers and the World Cup in Poland.
It wasn't until 2022 that Yusuf was called up for the Super Eagles games against Mexico and Ecuador, marking his return to the national team setup. Unfortunately, administrative issues kept him from making the trip.
Initially left out of the final squad for the Africa Cup of Nations, Yusuf received a call-up when Wilfred Ndidi suffered an injury. He seized the opportunity and justified his inclusion with a spirited performance against Equatorial Guinea.
Yusuf's impact so far
Despite leaving the pitch due to injury in the opening AFCON game against Equatorial Guinea, Yusuf's contribution was evident. Official game stats revealed that he won seven duels, more than any other player on the pitch, and made three ball recoveries, showcasing his impressive work rate.
Though he trained alone on Monday as a precaution, Yusuf downplayed the injury, saying, “My injury is just a cramp. I suffered cramps. We will see if I will be available against Ivory Coast.”
As Nigeria gears up for a crucial game against hosts Ivory Coast, fans eagerly await Yusuf's return, hopeful that the new sensation will continue to shine for the Super Eagles. It's safe to say that Alhassan Yusuf has become the new darling of Nigerian football.