Stanley Nwabali:  The Safe Hands Behind Nigeria’s Run to AFCON Final  

Stanley Nwabali:  The Safe Hands Behind Nigeria’s Run to AFCON Final  

South Africa-based goalkeeper, Stanley Nwaabali is not only the unlikely hero for Super Eagles, who face hosts, Cote D’Ivoire in tomorrow’s tournament climax but one of the revelations of the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations   

In the first week of December, the manager of Nigeria, Jose Peseiro, travelled to the southern tip of Africa. It was high summer in Port Elizabeth, as it used to be known, with the coastal city looking forward to its tourist season.

Peseiro was there to solve a crisis. Many Nigerians would call it a chronic one: the lack of a reliable, big-match-ready goalkeeper for the national team, a live issue since the 2015 retirement of Vincent Enyeama, a record-breaker and inspiration through over 100 caps.

In Peseiro’s rear-view mirror were high-profile errors that marked the Super Eagles in the period immediately before he was appointed as coach.

There was the long, speculative shot that bounced up off the outstretched arm of keeper Maduka Okoye and into the Nigerian goal in the last 16 of the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations, gifting Tunisia victory. There was the long, speculative drive that slid underneath Francis Uzoho’s body two months later, granting Ghana a place at the Qatar World Cup at Nigeria’s expense.

Peseiro had flown to Gqeberha to meet Stanley Nwabili and watch him wearing the gloves for Chippa United, currently in the lower reaches of South Africa’s Premier League, against Golden Arrows.

No glamour fixture this, and a scouting mission that looked a little offbeat, even desperate, just a month ahead of the Cup of Nations in Cote D’Ivoire for which Peseiro was making his plans. Nwabili, 27, had a single cap to his name, from a friendly two-and-a-half-years earlier, a 4-0 Super Eagles defeat to Mexico.

Peseiro introduced himself to Nwabali and watched him keep a clean sheet against Golden Arrows, a 2-0 victory that interrupted an eight-match sequence of Chippa United games without a win. The coach liked what he saw: an imposingly tall and broad keeper with sharp reflexes. He decided his was a presence he could use at Afcon.

Nwabali’s selection was greeted with surprise in Nigeria. He had faded from the radar having left local club football 18 months ago to move a long way south. The best, exported Nigerian talent tends to go north.

Keepers such as Maduka Okoye, of Serie A’s Udinese, and Francis Uzoho, formerly of Deportivo La Coruna in Spain and now of Omonia in Cyprus, make their living in Europe. So does every outfield member of Nigeria’s Afcon squad.

Making a living at Chippa United, meanwhile, can seem insecure. The club have lurched through a series of financial crises and been supported by local government funds, Gqeberha’s civic leaders believing the city needs a top-flight team.

Chippa United, who moved its franchise there a decade ago, are alone in representing South Africa’s fifth biggest metropolis in the upper division of the national sport. An irony, then, in how the peak moment of Nwabali’s professional life unfolded, a little under two months after Peseiro had gone to appraise him.

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