Super Eagles Manager, Gernot RohrÂ on MondayÂ released a provisional list of 30 players ahead of the remaining three friendly matches before the World Cup in Russia, beginning with theÂ May 28encounter with the Congo Democratic Republic. The list came with two surprise names – Kano Pillarsâ€™ Junior Lokosa and Italian Serie A’s Crotone forward, Simeon Nwankwo. Can the duo beat the odds and make the final 23-man list to Russia? Kunle Adewale reports
Junior Lokosa has been taking the Nigerian Professional Football LeagueÂ (NPFL)Â by storm scoring 18 goals in 20 matches, the latest being a brace inÂ Sundayâ€™sÂ 3-1 victory against Katsina United at the Sani Abacha Stadium.
In a telephone chat with THISDAY, a former Nigerian international, Friday Ekpo said it would have been an injustice against the local league and indeed home-based players in the Kano Pillars strikerâ€™s name was not included in the provisional list.
â€œIt would have amounted to gross injustice if Lokosaâ€™s name was absent from the list. The Nigerian League is still the strongest in Africa and if a player could score 18 goals with the league still a long way to go, no national team coach could ignore such a player. What he had achieved so far is not a small feat. He should indeed be celebrated,â€ Ekpo said.
Asked if he thinks the Nigerian League top scorer could make the final 23-man list, the former Shell of Gabon midfielder reacted thus: â€œWhy not? Every of the 30 players in the provisional list have a chance, a lot would depend on how much they are able to take their chances in the remaining friendly matches and how well they comport themselves in camp.â€
Ekpo, however, cautioned that the striker should not be overwhelmed by the presence of foreign professionals.
â€œHe is as good as any Nigerian striker playing abroad. The only difference is that he is playing in the home front and this is what he should have at the back of his mind and therefore gather the necessary confidence and concentrate on doing what he knows how to do best-scoring goals,â€ Ekpo added.
Also speaking, Atlanta â€™96 Olympic gold medalist, Emmanuel Babayaro, noted that the names were purely based on merit, adding that Lokosaâ€™s call up was the biggest surprise in the list.
â€œI think the list is okay. I am looking forward to seeing if we can finally break that last 16 hurdle and get to the quarters for the very first time. I think this is overdue and hopefully, Russia is where history will be made. I am delighted that three home-based players – Dele Ajiboye, Junior Lokosa and Ikechukwu Ezenwa – made the provisional list and my guts tell me Lokosa will make the 23-man final list. He is the surprise package for me,â€ Babayaro said.
Born August 23, 1993, in Badagry, Lagos state, Lokosa fell in love with football at a young age which angered his parents.
â€œIt wasnâ€™t easy because all parents want their children to go to school,â€ he said in an interview in March. â€œHowever, when they realised football was in my blood and they couldnâ€™t pull it out, they had to accept it. I think today, everybody in the Lokosa family is happy.â€
Knowing what he wanted, he stuck to his dream of playing football. He began on the streets of Ajegunle, a Lagos community known for high poverty and crime.
Football began to grow from being just a hobby to a career for Lokosa when his brother took him to a field where he began to play structured football. Soon, things started taking shape, as he got signed to play for an amateur side before catching the eye of First Bank football club.
The 24-year-old centre-forward was still with Lagos-based First Bank Football club in 2017 and was â€œpraying to Godâ€ for a better team when, â€œlike a miracleâ€, he was offered the chance to join Kano Pillars.
â€œI didnâ€™t plan to join Kano Pillars. However, one day, I returned from training and I got a call from someone who asked if I wanted to play for Kano Pillars and I said yes.
â€œOf course, I was praying to God for a better team to play. So it was like a miracle to me. The following day, I travelled to Kano and everything went on smoothly. I have to thank God because joining Pillars is a big lift in my career,â€ he recallsâ€.
Lokosa had a debut to remember for Pillars, scoring in the match against Niger Tornadoes. His goal for Kano pillars came as no surprise to his First Bank teammate Abou, who would later tellgoal.com: “I am very happy for my pal, Lokosa. I believe in his abilities and I am not surprised he scored on his debut at Kano Pillars.
â€œLokosa is a lethal striker who makes goal-scoring look very simple. He plays with so much calm, yet he punishes goalkeepers. I wish him all the best and to Kano Pillars, they are lucky to have a lethal striker who will score so many goals that will make them achieve their set goals.”
When Lokosa scored his 11th goal of the season, he was asked how happy he was: â€œI wasnâ€™t really happy because my goal did not give the three points to my team,â€ he responded. It was not our intention to draw again at home but there was nothing we could do to save the situation. We still feel bad with the result but we just have to move on. That match has come and gone.â€
He responded in typically calm fashion when asked to respond to clamour for his invitation to the Super Eagles.
â€œI donâ€™t know much about that but every player wants to play for his country so my case is not different. By the grace of God, when I am invited I will do my best. However, if God says it is not yet time, there is nothing I can do about it. At the moment, I have a job in hand so I have to focus on it,” he said.
Meanwhile, Kano Pillars Chairman, Tukur Babangida has confirmed that the NPFL’s leading marksman, will be off to Bulgaria to have his medical and fitness tests with Ludogorets.
The administrator said he decided to set the record straight due to insinuations in the media that the player was embarking on a trial abroad.
â€œKano Pillars are only allowing him to go for medical and fitness tests. He is not going to have a trial.
â€œYou should know the mentality of Nigerian players once they are contacted by any European club. They and their agents will put pressure on you to allow them to go and if you say no, they will be thinking otherwise. Transfers open in July in Europe and if he cannot go in June, then he has to wait until January. He has his options but he has no guarantees that he can get a club in January depending on his performance,â€ he said.
Another player that would also be hoping to make the cut to Russia is Crotone of Italy striker, Simeon Nwankwo.
The striker scored eight goals this season.
It remains to be seen how much impression the duo of Lokosa and Nwankwo would make on Rohr as the battle for Russia heats up.