Nigeria’s departure to South Africa was delayed by a technical hitch on the plane that was to fly the squad from their South London training camp. Whilst the rest of the roster remained at Stansted Airport waiting for another plane to fly in from Paris to make the voyage to South Africa, the seven unfortunate members of the provisional squad instead flew home.
Everton’s Victor Anichebe will not be joining his club team-mates Joseph Yobo and Yakubu Aiyegbeni on that delayed flight. In a squad which boasts Premier League talent Nwankwo Kanu, Yakubu and John Utaka in attacking positions, supplemented by Wolfsburg’s former Newcastle United centre-forward Obafemi Martins and Lokomotiv Moscow’s Peter Odemwingie, Anichebe was the unfortunate striker to miss out. Like in the Dos Santos family in Mexico (Giovani Dos Santos is considering dropping out in light of his brother Jonathan not making the cut) there will be simultaneous feelings of elation and despair in the Utaka household. The news that John Utaka has done enough to beat the likes of Anichebe and Uche to a seat on the plane will be tempered by the news that there is no place for his younger brother Peter, currently plying his trade in Denmark with Odense.
Having missed the majority of the bygone season with a serious knee injury, Real Zaragoza forward Ikechukwu Uche joins the disappointed party of seven who will watch the tournament from home. Top scorer during the Super Eagles’ qualifying campaign, Uche had hoped to use the pre-World Cup warm up matches and training camp in South London to prove his fitness. Fitness doubts have also spelled disappointment for Nice defender Onyekachi Apam, who is joined in missing the tournament by goalkeeper Akpan Bassey and defender Terna Suswan, both of whom play their club football in Nigeria.
The Premier League is also represented by Bolton reserve Danny Shittu, Dickson Etuhu and Jon Obi-Mikel. The latter two will be buoyed by successful seasons at their respective clubs. Fulham centre-midfielder Etuhu, a veteran of a decade of English football, reached the pinnacle of his career thus far appearing in Fulham’s Europa League final against Atletico Madrid. Whereas the Europa League final brought heartache for Etuhu, Mikel’s summer so far has been spent basking in the glow of Chelsea’s Premier League and F.A. Cup double. The pivot of the Blues’ midfield, Mikel will be hoping to recapture the form which saw him establish a regular first team place in Chelsea’s star studded midfield. It is testament to his importance that Coach Lars Lagerback has seen fit to name him in the squad, whilst dropping the likes of Uche and Apam who have suffered similar fitness concerns.
In addition to the injuries which have dogged Lagerback’s eventual squad selection, their pre-tournament preparations have been beset by disappointing performances on the pitch. A turgid 0-0 stalemate against Saudi Arabia was followed by a failure to beat Colombia, drawing 1-1. Criticism has been aimed at the squad as a result, but one player who has been largely exempt is Haruna Lukman. The AS Monaco midfielder hit a thumping equaliser against the Colombians, evoking national memories of his talismanic performances in the FIFA World Under-17 Championship three years ago. Still a precocious 19 years of age, Lagerback has succumbed to national clamour for Lukman’s inclusion. Even before his equaliser against Colombia, he had starred in midfield against Saudi Arabia, earning his coach’s praise. Speaking on his coach’s behalf, Nigerian Football Federation media officer Idah Peterside said: “Lagerback was very impressed with Haruna. He says he has a future and that he can do a lot better. It was his first cap and the coach decided to allow him play 90 minutes to show what he can do. And he showed a lot of promise.”
Amidst all of the Premier League experience, it is a teenager who has just completed his first full season in European football who is generating optimism about Nigeria’s hopes. Perhaps notions of him holding aloft the World Cup three years after winning the under-17 version are as yet fanciful, but Lukman is the name which is leading Nigerian hopes this summer.
Nigeria World Cup squad
Dele Aiyenugba (Bnei Yehuda)
Austin Ejide (Hapoel Petah Tikvah
Vincent Enyeama (Hapoel Tel Aviv)
Dele Adeleye (Sparta Rotterdam)
Rabiu Afolabi (Red Bull Salzburg)
Elderson Echiejile (Stade Rennes)
Chidi Odiah (CSKA Moscow)
Danny Shittu (Bolton Wanderers)
Taye Taiwo (Olympique Marseille)
Joseph Yobo (Everton)
Yusuf Ayila (Dynamo Kiev)
Dickson Etuhu (Fulham)
Sani Kaita (Alania Vladikavkaz)
Nwankwo Kanu (Portsmouth)
Haruna Lukman (Monaco)
John Obi Mikel (Chelsea)
Peter Odemwingie (Lokomotiv Moscow)
Kalu Uche (Almeria)
Yakubu Aiyegbeni (Everton)
Obafemi Martins (VfL Wolfsburg)
Victor Obinna (Malaga)
Chinedu Obasi (Hoffenheim)
John Utaka (Portsmouth)