On Sunday, the 33rd edition of the Cup of Nations begins in Cameroon, amid club vs country rows, the COVID-19 pandemic and insecurity in the host nation.
The Indomitable Lions will open the tournament against Burkina Faso at the new 60,000-capacity Olembe Stadium in Yaounde.
But most Nigerians’ eyes and minds will be on Tuesday when the Super Eagles come up against Egypt.
Of course, the Pharaohs, along with Senegal, Ghana, Algeria and Ivory Coast stand in the way of a fourth continental crown for Nigeria.
“If they top the group, I’m confident they can go all the way.
“If they don’t, it’s hard to see them going past the R16,” Colin Udoh, who is a former press officer of the Super Eagles, tells NAIJAFORBE.
The last time out in Egypt, the Eagles finished third behind Algeria and Senegal.
It was a disappointing outing for Gernot Rohr’s men, as they had looked imperious at times, with Odion Ighalo, Samuel Chukwueze and Wilfred Ndidi in brilliant form. It all came down to a gorgeous Riyad Mahrez free-kick in the semi-final, with virtually the last kick of the game.
Rohr was sacked just before Nigeria confirmed their 28-man squad for the championship in Cameroon, which has notable absentees like Victor Osimhen, Leon Balogun, Dennis Emmanuel and Odion Ighalo. Three of those names are top strikers, who would have added goals and experience to Augustine Eguavoen’s team.
Now, Eguavoen has to make do with Henry Onyekuru, Peter Olayinka, etc in his quest for glory. The preparations have been typically shabby. The players barely had a training camp and there were no pre-tournament friendly matches arranged. Eguavoen now has to rely on his experience and sheer determination from the players.
“I think our chances aren’t really bright owing to the fact that the spine of the team is gone with the absence of Victor Osimhen, Leon Balogun and Jude Odion Ighalo,” Oma Akatugba, a UEFA-licensed sports journalist, says.
“The whole inconsistency surrounding the preparation makes it more difficult. However, things can happen. 2013 AFCON success came against all expectations. That is what gives me hope. I would be happy to see this team surprise me.
“Algeria is our biggest threat. We might face them if we come second in our group. In the group stage we have to pick Egypt as our biggest threat.”
Oluwashina Okeleji, who works with the BBC, is quick to temper expectations.
“A semi-final finish for Nigeria will be a success with everything that shouldn’t have gone wrong, that has gone wrong,” he says matter-of-factly.