With the 2023 AFCON mere weeks away, the Super Eagles coach's sudden interest in appraising Stanley Nwabali calls both his judgement and wisdom into grave question
Not only does action speak louder than words, but it does so much more eloquently to boot. When, however, action and words align, the message is driven home with a finality and gravitas that is unmistakable, a confluence of intent that affects and alters the prevailing status quo.
This makes Jose Peseiro’s latest junket to the southernmost reaches of the continent, ostensibly to run the rule over Stanley Nwabali with the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) looming all the harder to understand.
Since the Portuguese took charge of the Nigeria national team for the first time in May 2022, he has left no room for doubt as to his preference between the sticks for the Super Eagles. Of the 14 official matches Peseiro has helmed, Francis Uzoho has started in goal for 13 of them, the lone exception being the 3-2 away victory over Sierra Leone that confirmed Nigeria’s place at the AFCON. As it happens, Uzoho was injured at the time; in his absence, Hapoel Jerusalem’s Adebayo Adeleye deputised.
Not even Gernot Rohr, who essentially headhunted him in 2017 during preparations for the World Cup in Russia, displayed as much faith in Uzoho. Under the German, the Omonia goalkeeper only started 51.52 percent of matches for which he was called up, sharing time with the likes of Daniel Akpeyi and Maduka Okoye as his fitness and form wavered.
For Peseiro, though, neither an almost complete lack of game time at club level (Uzoho has only played 45 minutes of football for Omonia this season) nor a recent succession of errors has caused him to second-guess his choice.
19:24 - 15.11.2023
Jose Peseiro was not wrong to make Francis Uzoho his first-choice goalkeeper. However, persisting with the error-prone shot-stopper is bordering on blind faith.
When the 25-year-old chucked a routine cross into his own net in an October friendly against Saudi Arabia, , and demonstrated his faith by selecting him again three days later in a second friendly against Mozambique. This despite calling up three other goalkeepers.
The former Sporting and Porto boss simply cannot have been clearer, both in word and deed: when Nigeria take the field against Equatorial Guinea in Abidjan on January 14, 2024, Uzoho will be their no.1.
How sincere is Peseiro's Nwabali interest?
To what end, then, is this wild goose chase in Mzansi?
When it was reported that, , Peseiro had stated he was looking into getting a new goalkeeper for the Super Eagles, it seemed an exercise in pacifism. The AFCON, after all, kicks off in about a month; why would there exist any uncertainty still in the mind of the coach, especially concerning such a critical position? It was surely a statement that had been made to mollify, rather than one rooted in any sort of sincerity.
Photos soon surfaced, however, of Peseiro travelling to South Africa in order to give Nwabali the once-over, and all of a sudden the implausible can no longer be dismissed out of hand. Not when the handshake has morphed into a death-grip on the clavicle.
To be clear, Nwabali is a decent enough goalkeeper. Formerly of Enyimba, the 27-year-old has been in decent nick over in the South African top flight, boasting eight clean sheets in 16 appearances (all competitions) this campaign. He managed another under Peseiro’s eye on Saturday, although Lamontville Golden Arrows were so bereft going forward that he might well have furnished himself with a book and a deck chair.
The issue is not whether he is a good goalkeeper or not. He clearly is, and even though it is far from clear that he is fundamentally better than the other options not named ‘Francis Uzoho’, he nevertheless fits the mould both physically and personality-wise: imposing and extroverted, just how we like them.
What, however, is this late play meant to achieve?
Nwabali set up to fail already by Peseiro
There are two distinct possibilities. The first is that Peseiro is there to, essentially, fulfil all righteousness. The clamour for Uzoho to be dropped has – belatedly – reached a crescendo, and Nwabali’s name has been percolating within Nigeria’s footballing circles for a little while now. Perhaps this is simply Peseiro’s out, played for effect so he can say he at least has appraised Nwabali and reached an informed decision, that being a “No, thank you.”
Backing up this possibility is all that has gone before: there simply has been too much time and confidence reposed in Uzoho to suddenly toss him overboard like unneeded ballast.
11:52 - 18.10.2023
Francis Uzoho, Super Eagles' number one goalkeeper has hit back at critics following his performance against Mozambique
The second is that Peseiro is genuinely doing this for real, and has decided, mere weeks out, that despite working with him for 18 months, Uzoho cannot be trusted. This not only calls into question the 63-year-old’s judgement looking back, but also his wisdom going forward.
Even in the best case scenario – Nwabali finds favour in Peseiro’s eyes, is given the no.1 shirt and starts every match for Nigeria in Cote d’Ivoire, the Super Eagles make a deep run – there would be no escaping the sheer ludicrousness of the situation: Nwabali would be making his international debut at the second biggest competition in which Nigeria can compete.
That would be the opposite of setting him up for success, even if he did come through that baptism of fire in flying colours. And if he did not, and leaked a couple of errors on opening day, what then? To stick with him then would be to bet on nothing; to summon Uzoho immediately would be to fall back on a rusty goalkeeper whose last dregs of confidence would have been vaporised by the flames of Peseiro’s betrayal.
Anything except a smooth, seamless integration for Nwabali would invariably lead to calamity, and what is planning if not preempting the worst? Hope abides, but it is not a strategy in the best of circumstances; without a promise underpinning it, it is even less so.