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Nigeria begin quest for more Olympic football glory

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Nigeria begin quest for more Olympic football glory - Sports Leo

It has already been four years since Nigeria added the Under-23 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon) trophy to their collection in Senegal en route to the 2016 Olympic Games.

Since Nigeria’s Under-23 team broke the duck by winning Africa’s first Gold medal in football at the 1996 Atlanta Games, the West Africans have maintained steady progress and were silver medallist in Beijing in 2008 whereas they won Bronze at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil.

Consequently, the current team under former Nigeria goalkeeper Imama Amapakabo are duty-bound to follow on the path of their predecessors but they must, first of all, earn one of the available continental tickets for Tokyo 2020 when the third edition of the Under-23 Afcon begins in Egypt on November 8.

It would not be easy as it seems based on the performance of the Olympic Eagles (as the team is currently known) in the qualifying tournament, with a whimper against Libya and Sudan after losing two away ties to Libya (2-0) and Sudan (1-0) in Ben Guerdane and Omdurman respectively.

Yet the quality in the team with an avalanche of Euro-based player was there for all to see in the two reverse ties at the Stephen Keshi Stadium in Asaba as they pummelled Libya 4-0, as well as the 5-0 thumping of Sudan to secure their third successive qualification for the quadrennial championship that started in 2011.

“It was not easy for us to qualify for the U-23 AFCON in Egypt,” midfielder Kelechi Nwakali of the Spanish side, SD Huesca, told CAFOnline.com.

“We lost both away matches to Libya and Sudan but won convincingly back home; that shows the kind of quality we have as a team. It’s a great feeling for us to secure the ticket to the Under-23 Afcon in Egypt.”

The work of the Amapakabo–led side is already cut out in Egypt where they are drawn in a seemingly tough Group B complete with their bitter West African rivals Ivory Coast as well as Southern African duo, Zambia and South Africa.

Nigeria will start their campaign on November 9 at Al-Salam Stadium in Cairo against Ivory Coast to be followed with the games against Zambia on November 12 and an expected crunch match against South Africa on November 15.

“None of the three matches against Ivory Coast, Zambia and South Africa is going to be easy because the three teams have rich football pedigree,” explained the talented Nwakali who was voted the Most Valuable Player (MVP) when he led Nigeria to win a record fifth Under-17 World Cup title in Chile in 2015.

“I believe we can hold our own against them especially if we can bring our best individual qualities together for the team.”

Meanwhile, Nigeria’s charge for a ticket to Tokyo 2020 would be led this time around by midfielder Azubuike Okechukwu who incidentally captained the team to glory the last term in Senegal.

Currently, on loan to Turkish side Istanbul Basaksehir from Egyptian club Pyramid FC, the 22-year-old Azubuike is widely regarded as one of the pillars of the team and it remains to be seen if he can lead the Olympic Eagles to glory for the second successive time.

“I was part of last national Under-23 team that won the Afcon in Senegal and it was one of the best moments of my career, ” Liverpool loanee Taiwo Awoniyi who scored the opener in the 5-0 win over Sudan in Asaba told CAFOnline.com.

“In this current squad, I would pick our captain (Azubuike Okechukwu) as the most influential because he has always shown courage, commitment and has been a good example to the team,” noted Awoniyi currently with Mainz 05 in the German Bundesliga.

Apart from mercurial duo of Nwakali and Okechukwu, Amapakabo would also be counting on the likes of Orji Okwonkwo who recently made the headlines in the USA Major League Soccer (MLS) as Montreal Impact’s Most Outstanding Player of the season; as well as 20-year-old striker Sunday Faleye who impressed at the 2018 Total African Nations Championship when Nigeria finished as runners-up behind hosts Morocco.

In partnership with ANA and Sports Leo

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