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Sunday, June 16, 2024

Nigeria’s Stanley Nwabali: AFCON’s breakout star – and a planned ‘surprise package’

Stanley Nwabali has been the Africa Cup of Nations breakout star.

The Nigeria goalkeeper has been an integral part of his nation’s journey to Sunday’s final, an intimidating presence to shore up one of the most resolute defences in the tournament. Fire in a cross, and the 27-year-old will claim it. Have a speedy winger run in behind and Nwabali will be quick off his line to stop the through ball. He makes saves, organises his back three, and is comfortable in possession.

He’s good at everything you want from a modern goalkeeper. After keeping four clean sheets in the tournament and navigating through a semi-final penalty shootout against South Africa, he looks sure to be his nation’s No 1 for the foreseeable future.

Yet the goalkeeper’s rise has been unexpected.

Nwabali entered this year’s AFCON as a non-established name in a squad mostly lauded for its attacking talents. Yet when he went over clutching his knee after a collision with Georges-Kevin Nkoudou against Cameroon in the last 16, fans inside the Felix Houphouet-Boigny Stadium were praying he could recover.

He is the solution to his country’s long-standing problems in the goalkeeping position. If they are triumphant against host nation Ivory Coast on Sunday, Nwabali is sure to be crowned as the successor to 101-cap Nigeria legend and AFCON 2013 champion Vincent Enyeama.

Here’s a guide to the eight-cap Nigerian international who has fast become a cult hero. 

Nigeria’s failure to qualify for the 2022 World Cup kickstarted a minor reboot of the national team. Interim manager Augustine Eguavoen was replaced by Jose Peseiro, who quickly reviewed the playing talent available to him.

Fans were concerned over the proficiency of Francis Uzoho — the goalkeeper for both legs of their World Cup qualifying play-off defeat against bitter rivals Ghana in March 2022 — and felt the new manager should look for an upgrade between the sticks. Peseiro included Nwabali in his provisional squad for this AFCON, and started him in a pre-tournament friendly against Guinea in Abu Dhabi on January 8.

Nigeria lost that game 2-0, but Nwabali’s performance convinced Peseiro that he should play instead of Uzoho when the tournament began in the Ivory Coast less than a week later.

The opening group game against Equatorial Guinea was Nwabali’s second cap. He had won his first in July 2021, in a 4-0 defeat to Mexico in a friendly played in Los Angeles, USA.

(Issouf Sanogo/AFP via Getty Images)

It has not been an easy route to the top for Nwabali, who has had to wait for the opportunity to show off his skills after breaking through at Nigerian side Go Round FC in 2018. A move to one of Nigeria’s most successful clubs — Enyimba — a year later held promise, but he found his playing time limited behind more established names.

A season later, he switched to Enyimba’s rivals Lobi Stars, before going to Katsina United a year after that. Four clubs in five years yielded 87 league appearances, prompting him to leave his home country for South African team Chippa United in 2022.

Chippa United are relative minnows in the South African Premier Division, sitting 13th in a 16-team league during the current midseason break for AFCON. Those who do watch the Port Elizabeth-based club have been impressed with Nwabali’s performances and, despite the side’s precarious league position, he has kept seven clean sheets in 14 matches. 

Nwabali’s proficiency with the ball at his feet owes a debt to his early days at Go Round, where he initially played as a striker. In a recent interview with Nigeria’s New Telegraph newspaper, he described himself as eager to master all facets of modern goalkeeping.

“I also learned from many of my coaches at the clubs that, as a goalkeeper, I cannot just remain between the sticks but should also make forays up front to help the team,” he said. 

He has been a revelation for Nigeria at this AFCON. One member of the Nigerian setup — speaking to The Athletic under the condition of anonymity to preserve relationships — has said Nwabali’s rise through the ranks was planned, so he could be a “surprise package” at the tournament. 

Their scouting of him began a year ago, with footage of Chippa United games being sent to Peseiro to assess. The national team coach travelled to South Africa in December to watch Nwabali in a match against Golden Arrows. He would keep a clean sheet in a 2-0 victory and spent the following weeks in constant contact with Peseiro about tactics and plans for AFCON.

A brief training camp in Portugal saw Peseiro inform players of his intentions to bring Nwabali first to a pre-tournament training camp and then to the tournament outright.

Since then, the goalkeeper has gone on from strength to strength. Technical staff are said to be delighted with Nwabali’s defensive presence and ability to control things inside the penalty area. The coaches are pleased with how quickly he has integrated into the starting XI.

(Franck Fife/AFP via Getty Images)

He is described as shy in the dressing room but bold on the pitch. The future seems bright, as he is already being linked with moves to European clubs such as Royale Union Saint-Gilloise in Belgium’s top flight.

“I didn’t expect this to come my way now,” said a tearful Nwabali after a man-of-the-match performance in the semi-final against South Africa.

Nigeria came into this tournament with a bounty of attacking riches, but have made their way to the final on the back of their defensive resilience.

Nwabali has been essential to their rise.

(Top photo: Issouf Sanogo/AFP via Getty Images)

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