From NPFL to AFCON finals: Stanley Nwabali’s journey

Since the retirement of the legendary Vincent Enyeama in 2015, the Nigerian national team has struggled with a goalkeeping crisis. Enyeama, widely regarded as one of the best goalkeepers to don the Nigerian jersey, left behind a significant void, having kept an impressive 50 clean sheets in 101 appearances.

In the years following Enyeama’s departure, the Super Eagles struggled to find a suitable replacement. A slew of goalkeepers, including Carl Ikeme, Ikechukwu Ezenwa, Daniel Akpeyi, Francis Uzoho, Maduka Okoye, and most recently, Olorunleke Ojo, all failed to live up to expectations, leaving Nigeria vulnerable in the crucial position.

During the 2019 African Cup of Nations (AFCON) tournament in Egypt, Daniel Akpeyi and Francis Uzoho alternated in goal as Nigeria finished in third place. However, the search for a consistent and reliable goalkeeper continued. The arrival of new coach Jose Peseiro saw the emergence of Maduka Okoye, but subsequent changes in coaching personnel led to further instability in the goalkeeping department.

The 2021 AFCON campaign initially showed promise for Nigeria, with the team securing victories in all three group stage matches. However, a disappointing exit at the hands of Tunisia in the round of 16 highlighted ongoing concerns in goal. Francis Uzoho’s reinstatement as the starting goalkeeper was marred by critical errors, including one that led to Nigeria’s failure to qualify for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.

Amidst the turmoil, Stanley Nwabali has emerged as a beacon of hope. The former Enyimba FC goalkeeper caught the attention of national team selectors during the NPFL Super Six in Lagos in June 2019. Recognised for his consistency and skill, Nwabali has long been viewed as a potential solution to Nigeria’s goalkeeping woes.

What sets Nwabali apart is not just his shot-stopping ability but also his unwavering confidence and leadership on the field. Despite the weight of expectations, Nwabali has embraced the spotlight and thrived under pressure, providing a solid foundation for his teammates to excel.

“When the coach believes in you, it gives you confidence in the team,” Nwabali said after Nigeria’s group stage victory over host Côte d’Ivoire. “The coach chooses me to play and I have to give my best.”

His standout performances have been crucial in Nigeria’s AFCON journey. From organising the defense to making crucial saves, Nwabali has demonstrated his value to the team time and again. 

He was instrumental against Angola in the quarter-finals and when asked about the game, Nwabali said: “It is a team game, you must help your team. I am there to make saves and I am happy with the progress of the team.”

His heroic display in the penalty shootout against South Africa in the semi-finals, where he saved two penalties and earned the Man of the Match award, showcased his importance to the team’s success.

Reflecting on his contributions, Nwabali remains humble yet determined, emphasising the collective effort of the team and the seriousness with which they approach their task.

“I am very happy, winning the Man of the Match award and taking my team to the finals.

“Everyone in the team plays their role, even the management. You can see a lot of changes, a lot of leadership in the team and I won’t say it is about luck. I think we know that we are a big country and need to take certain things seriously.”

As Nigeria prepares for the AFCON finals against Cote d’Ivoire on Sunday, Nwabali’s emergence as a reliable and inspirational figure in goal offers hope for a nation longing for a new goalkeeping hero. With his talent and leadership qualities, Nwabali has proven to be exactly what Nigeria needed at this critical juncture, and his journey is only just beginning.

Contributor: Nsidibe Akpan

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