AFCON snub: A case for NPFL outfield players

Is Nigeria coach Jose Peseiro's snub of Nigerian Professional Football League outfield players in the Super Eagles' African Cup of Nations provisional squad justifiable?

The AFCON, Africa's biggest football fiesta, is set to light up the continent in less than three weeks in Cote d'Ivoire. 

Whetting appetites and stoking palpable tensions, the Confederation of African Football (CAF) recently announced the provisional squads for all 24 participating nations, including Nigeria, which announced a 40-man provisional squad. 

Like every tournament squad, provisional or final, a few whispers will be heard from far and wide, and the latest list was no different.

Voices of dissent have been heard—and aloud—especially on the home front, where only three Nigeria Professional Football League (NPFL) players made the cut—all goalkeepers: Olorunleke Ojo (Enyimba FC), Amas Obasogie (Bendel Insurance), and a maiden call-up for Christian Nwoke (Sporting Lagos).

Hence, the question on the lips of many, including ex-Super Eagles coach Sunday Oliseh and AFCON 2019 top scorer Odion Ighalo, is: Are there no outfield players in the NPFL good enough for the national team? Some even question if these crops of goalkeepers are the best the league has to offer.

Peseiro's snub of NPFL outfield players

The make-up of the Super Eagles’ AFCON 40-man provisional squad isn’t entirely shocking when you examine Peseiro’s recent selections. While he has reserved spots for goalkeepers plying their trade in the domestic league, outfield players have not had the same experience. 

Advocates of the league believe the NPFL's growth in strength should be rewarded. Coupled with amplified visibility through cable network Startimes and the NPFL Live App, the league is starting to experience some sort of renaissance. This renewed media spotlight has unveiled a cohort of exceptional talents who have emerged as standout performers, contributing significantly to the league's burgeoning appeal.

Lively supporters at the stands in Gombe, Kano, Lagos, Ikenne, Ibadan, Ilorin, and other centers have added colour to the nation's elite league. As this brand and its standout performers continue to woo more eyeballs, so will the advocacy to see its star players on the biggest stage.

But will these supporters see their stars on parade in Cote d'Ivoire? Your guess is as good as mine.

The NPFL stars making a statement

The recent World Cup qualification games with Lesotho in Uyo and Zimbabwe, which both ended in draws, drew a lot of criticism from the press and fans alike.

Sodiq Ismail

Some sections of the media were quick to highlight a deficiency in crosses into the box for Victor Osimhen to profit from, which precipitated a discussion around Remo Stars right back Sodiq Ismail.

Sodiq Ismail of Remo Stars (in blue) up against Bernard Ovoke of Kwara United
  © Remo Stars

Ismail has been a constant name on the lips of NPFL enthusiasts for his role in the table-topping performance of the Sky Blue Stars thus far.

He has nine assists this season, the most by any player. One might have been tempted to feel he should have had a shot at a place on the provisional list—at least.

Chinedu, Abiam, Tanimu and others among defensive options

Nigeria's center-back positions did not look convincing either. It has been shaky for a while and would need to be sorted out if the Super Eagles are to make any appreciable impact in January. The preferred pairing in that position, Calvin Bassey and Semi Ajayi, have failed to help the Super Eagles keep a clean sheet even against minnows Lesotho and Zimbabwe in the 2026 FIFA World Cup qualifiers.

In the NPFL, Lobi Stars defender Sunday Chinedu, Doma United centre-back Nelson Abiam, Bendel Insurance's Benjamin Tanimu, Plateau United's Chris Nwaeze, and Remo Stars captain Nduka Junior have all impressed in that position and can provide more steel to the Super Eagles backline if given the chance.

Daniel Daga a viable back up option for Ndidi?

As has been the case since establishing himself in defensive midfield, Wilfred Ndidi lacks any major competition. Why not get a few NPFL guys into the mix to rival Ndidi in that position?

Rising star Daniel Daga has been a key member of the Enyimba setup and even featured for them against Wydad Casablanca in the quarter-final of the African Football League. His exposure at the youth level with Nigeria's Flying Eagles at the WAFU B championship, the Under 20 Africa Cup of Nations, and the FIFA Under 20 World Cup are enough auditions for a role at the senior level.

Another player with a shout to be in the provisional squad is Jide Fatokun of Remo Stars. He is the string that holds the pieces together in the execution of “Ijaball” under the tutelage of the youthful Daniel Ogunmodede.

The former Kwara United midfielder shows calmness, composure, and vision; all vital to any team that intends to play an attractive brand of football with a cutting edge.

How about Adam Yakubu at Plateau United? His excellent ball control, movement, and guile have kept Mbwas Mangut's team in shape, making the Peace Boys one of the best ball-playing teams in the NPFL this term.

NPFL strikers: Mizo and Alimi both boast a season tally of 10 goals

Elsewhere, two forwards have taken the season by storm: Robert Mizo of Bayelsa United and Sikiru Alimi of Remo Stars. The marksmen have 10 goals each at this stage of the season. Incredible, right?

Though Victor Osimhen and Victor Boniface have secured their spots in the attacking lineup, the potential addition of the top two goal scorers, Mizo and Alimi (who expressed frustration at the constant snub of NPFL players), into the mix for the final squad would have added an intriguing dimension.

The “King of NPFL Keepers” ignored

Rather than being met with applause, Peseiro’s choice of NPFL goalkeepers (Ojo, Obasogie and Nwoke) has also inspired a conversation about whether those were the best shot-stoppers the league has to offer. With 15 match days into the NPFL season, statistics favour Doma United's Kingdom Osayi, who was ignored. 

The Doma United shot-stopper has kept a staggering 12 clean sheets and caught the eye in his team’s 3-0 derby victory over Gombe United, providing two assists. On several occasions, Osayi has single-handedly masterminded crucial away points for his side with breathtaking saves.

The goalless draws at Kwara United, Sporting Lagos, and Remo Stars solidify this fact.

It begs the question: Why ignore the “King of NPFL Goalkeepers” this season?

Home-based players and Nigeria's AFCON triumphs

The “Let's Do It Again” campaign, a rallying call adopted by the Super Eagles, feels like a tall dream. Since it is a call to repeat the feats attained in 1980, 1994, and 2013, next year's AFCON will lack one of the critical components of the previous triumphant squad: outfield players playing at home.

All but one player was Nigeria-based when the Super Eagles won the AFCON in 1980. Midfielder Godwin Odiye played for the San Francisco Dons men's soccer team in the United States of America at the time. And while many would argue that club football had not become very popular at the time, it is still on record that domestic professionals delivered Nigeria's first continental crown.

Nigeria's last AFCON triumph in 2013 was largely made up of foreign pros, but the late Stephen Keshi showed faith in NPFL stars and took defender Godfrey Oboabona, then a Sunshine Stars player, Azubuike Egwuekwe of Warri Wolves, Rangers International trio of  Chigozie Agbim, Ejike Uzoenyi, and Sunday Mba, and Kano Pillars’ Reuben Gabriel. Mba and Oboabona were standouts, with the former providing a sensational strike to seal Nigeria’s 1-0 victory in the final against Burkina Faso for a third continental silverware.

A question only Peseiro can answer

History shows that, when trusted, home-based players have proven their mettle. So why there are no outfield players from the NPFL on the list this time is a question only Jose Peseiro can answer—or perhaps the answer is that he has no faith in them whatsoever.

However, the silver lining is that the Super Eagles is blessed with attackers like African Footballer of the Year, Osimhen, German Bundesliga and Bayer Leverkusen hotshot Victor Boniface, AC Milan's Samuel Chukwueze, and Atalanta's Ademola Lookman, who will provide a selection migraine for Jose Peseiro ahead of the showdown in Cote d'Ivoire. 

But committing the fate of the team in the hands of red-hot strikers is a tall order. Aside from the forward line, the jury is still out on the rest of the team, from midfield to the goalkeeping department. Critics believe they could use some help from some of the NPFL stars highlighted. Regrettably, the current scenario depicts a closed door for them.

As the AFCON draws near, though, regardless of the final selections, the collective aspiration of all Nigerians, whether home-based or abroad, remains fixed on a resounding fourth title triumph for the Super Eagles.

Soar Super Eagles, let’s do it again.

AFCON snub: A case for NPFL outfield players
Andrew Randa

Andrew Randa is a seasoned Africa sports journalist, and a former Media Officer for Nigeria's U-20 national team. He is widely acknowledged as an authority on the NPFL and African football, Randa is esteemed for his expertise in football content creation. Furthermore, he holds the distinction of being Nigeria's foremost sports kit designer and a trailblazer in the realm of sports graphics in Nigeria.