Stanley Nwabali’s journey to AFCON glory: From underdog to hero

When Super Eagles goalkeeper Stanley Nwabali saved Evidence Makgopa’s penalty against Bafana Bafana, it marked a pivotal moment in the career of the Chippa United shot-stopper.

Kelechi Iheanacho sealed the victory for Nigeria with the winning penalty kick, propelling the Eagles into the final. However, Nwabali's story is much more than just that singular moment.

It's a tale of resilience and self-belief that has propelled the once-overlooked goalkeeper to the brink of an AFCON title and potentially the goalkeeper of the tournament award in his first major international tournament for Nigeria.

To provide further context to this captivating narrative, it's noteworthy that Nwabali has not even amassed ten appearances for Nigeria.

Stanley Nwabali super Eagles player ratings
Photo by Icon Sport

Before the accolades, there was considerable discontent surrounding the goalkeeper, a challenge that would have disheartened many players. Yet, Nwabali persevered.

Following relegation at Go Round in the 2018/19 Nigerian second-tier league – the NNL, he showcased his talents enough to earn a move to Enyimba, one of Nigeria's premier clubs.

Under the guidance of Enyimba's sporting director, Jude Anyadufu, Nwabali's potential was recognized despite initially starting as the third-choice goalkeeper. He then ventured to South Africa, joining Premier Soccer League side Chippa United.

Even before making the switch to Chippa United, Nwabali made his international debut for Nigeria in a friendly against Mexico in July 2021.

Despite Nigeria's defeat, Nwabali's standout performance caught the eye.

Peseiro and the Stanley Nwabali tale

Stanley Nwabali continued to impress in South Africa, catching the attention of Super Eagles coach Jose Peseiro who took a trip to South Africa to watch the goalkeeper. Consequently, the Chippa United player earned a place in the provisional and final squads for AFCON 2024.

Amidst nationwide anticipation and concern for his fitness after an injury against Cameroon, Nwabali returned in time for Nigeria's quarter-final victory against Angola.

Stanley Nwabali Super Eagles power rankings
Credit: Icon Sport

His heroics continued in the shootout against South Africa, where he saved two penalties and earned the Man of the Match award, endearing himself to Nigerian fans nationwide.

Nwabali's remarkable journey has captured the hearts of many Nigerian fans, with celebrations erupting across cities following the victory over South Africa.

Some Nigerian fans even went to his family home in the city of Port Harcourt to celebrate with Nwabali's mother, much to the delight of people in his neighbourhood.

From grass to grace

Such Cinderella stories epitomize the essence of football. Regardless of the outcome in the final against hosts Ivory Coast, Nigerians can take solace in the fact that, for now, the Super Eagles' goalkeeping concerns are a thing of the past.

Irrespective of what happens against the Elephants on Sunday, Stanley Nwabali has undoubtedly left an indelible mark on the hearts of many Nigerian fans, many of whom had scarcely heard of him before the tournament commenced.

Stanley Nwabali’s journey to AFCON glory: From underdog to hero
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.