2026 World Cup qualifiers: Nwabali unchallenged by Okoye’s return

Nigeria's first-choice goalkeeper Stanley Nwabali has downplayed any potential rivalry with Udinese's Maduka Okoye, emphasising his focus on retaining his starting spot in the national team. This comes amidst a period of renewed competition for the position.

Nwabali's rise to prominence has been nothing short of meteoric. Following a string of errors by Francis Uzoho, the former CHAN Eagles goalkeeper seized his chance at the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations held in Ivory Coast. 

His heroics were undeniable – four clean sheets and two penalty saves played a pivotal role in propelling Nigeria to a runners-up finish, with Nwabali himself emerging as a tournament standout. He even retained the starting spot in the subsequent matches against Ghana and Mali.

The 28-year-old's assured presence has instilled much-needed stability after years of inconsistency from Uzoho and Okoye. However, the younger Okoye appears to be experiencing a resurgence. 

After a forgettable period for both club and country, the 24-year-old is rediscovering the spark he displayed at Sparta Rotterdam. A decent Serie A campaign with Udinese where he registered five clean sheets in 21 games has earned him a recall under new coach Finidi George for the upcoming 2026 World Cup qualifiers against South Africa and Benin.

With Nwabali riding a wave of confidence and Okoye hungry for redemption, the battle for Nigeria's number one jersey promises to be an intriguing one in the coming months. The upcoming qualifiers will be a crucial stage for both players to prove their worth as the Super Eagles gear up for the 2026 World Cup qualifiers.

Stanley Nwabali faces challenge for starting spot as Okoye returns

The recall of Maduka Okoye to the national team has cast a shadow of doubt over Stanley Nwabali's grip on the starting goalkeeper position. Okoye, the previous first-choice, lost form but appears to be back in his groove, potentially tempting coach Finidi George to hand him the reins once again.

However, Nwabali remains unfazed by the competition.

“There’s no debate. If Maduka can give what he’s giving Udinese to the country, then he should play,” Nwabali told Lagos Talks.

Maduka Okoye vs Stanley Nwabali

“It’s not like a club side, where you see a new signing and you talk about fighting, No. This is country we are playing for, we are representing this green white green, and we want to see everyone happy.”

Still, Finidi will be looking to minimise risks as soon as possible. Since Nwabali has proven to be trustworthy, it is unlikely that Finidi will bench him.

Okoye returns to Eagles’ Nest

Maduka Okoye's return to the national team is a cause for celebration, as expressed by the goalkeeper himself. “I am very happy to return to the national team,” Okoye declared on Udinese's official website. “It is a great honor for me and my family to play for Nigeria,” he added.

However, Okoye's path back to the starting lineup won't be a walk in the park. A costly error during the 2021 AFCON against Tunisia saw him dropped from the squad and subjected to online abuse, including death threats. This understandably took a toll on Okoye, leading to a self-imposed exile that saw him miss several call-ups.

Limited to the bench on three occasions since then, with his only appearance coming in a friendly against Algeria's B team (which resulted in another conceded goal), Okoye's confidence and public image have taken a hit.

But a strong season for Udinese, where he played a key role in securing Serie A survival, appears to have reignited Okoye's form. Now, he sets his sights on regaining the number one jersey.

The competition, however, will be fierce. In Okoye's absence, Stanley Nwabali of Chippa United has impressed, solidifying his claim on the starting position with a stellar performance at the 2024 AFCON. Okoye's return throws up an interesting dilemma for coach Finidi George, who must decide between the resurgent Okoye and the in-form Nwabali.

Nwabali believes Bafana Bafana will be no match for Super Eagles

While the battle for Nigeria’s number one spot remains keen, whoever gets the nod between Nwabali and Okoye will be greatly tested in the upcoming World Cup qualifying matches against South Africa and Benin. The Super Eagles will first host Bafana Bafana in Uyo on June 7 before taking on Benin away from home three days later.

The home game against South Africa is, however, viewed as the toughest and most crucial following Nigeria’s winless start to the qualifying campaign, which has left them in third place in Group C and also one and two points behind Bafana Bafana and Rwanda, respectively. This means a win over Hugo Broos’ side will see the Super Eagles leapfrog them and also give their qualification hopes a huge boost.

Stanley Nwabali was Nigeria's hero the last time they faced South Africa
Photo by Icon Sport

The last time the two teams met, though, it was a close contest and they were inseparable after 120 minutes, and needed penalties to decide the winner. Nigeria subsequently triumphed 4-2 in the shootout, with Nwabali heroically saving two penalties. The 28-year-old, who plies his trade in South Africa, could once again be in the post when the rivals clash and he believes Bafana Bafana are no match for him and his teammates.

Having played in the South African top-flight for the last two years, the Chippa United shot-stopper said he knows their players very well and doesn’t see them posing a challenge to the Super Eagles. Nwabali stated: “Football is the same everywhere but I don't feel with the kind of players we have, we can have any challenge in any game, especially in our group. But you cannot predict football.

“Talking about South African players I would say I know them. We have good players in our country too so I'm not talking about those guys, they are good in their own way of playing. I'm not talking about them because if we can put ourselves together, they cannot match us.”

Nwabali has impressively kept 11 clean sheets in 26 matches in the DStv Premiership this season.

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Toyosi Afolayan

Toyosi Afolayan is a sports journalist who breathes life into the games we love. He loves to combine insightful analysis with historical background, creating a richer understanding of sports. Afolayan's expertise ranges from captivating narratives to live broadcasts, captivating audiences across platforms like Ojbsport, AllNigeriaSoccer, TVC Entertainment, Bounce Networks, Kwara TV, ICIR, EaglesTracker, and NFF TV. His background in History and International Studies adds depth, revealing the connections between sports, politics, and national identity.