Coach Gernot Rohr has restored stability to Nigeria heading into the World Cup.
The German brought a sense of calm to a team that went through five coaches in two years following the 2014 tournament in Brazil.
Africa’s most populous nation flew through qualifying and was the first team to qualify from the region, seeing off continental champion Cameroon.
Nigeria then showcased its qualities by winning a friendly last year against Argentina, its final Group D opponent at the World Cup.
Nigeria has an array of attacking options that includes Premier League talent in Victor Moses, Alex Iwobi, Kelechi Iheanacho and Ahmed Musa.
The challenge is to ensure the defense is similarly strong and the squad doesn’t get sidetracked by off-the-field issues that have undermined previous campaigns at major tournaments. At the 2014 World Cup, it was a disagreement over player payment that almost caused the team to go out on strike ahead of the last 16 game against France, which Nigeria lost.
Rohr will be hoping there’s no repeat, as will the Nigeria Football Federation, which has made a point recently of publicizing the fact that the players are now paid on time.
Here’s a closer look at the Nigeria team:
Rohr hasn’t had a high-profile career, coaching Gabon, Niger and Burkina Faso before taking on one of Africa’s most demanding football jobs. Rohr has set out to experiment with various formations in an effort to make the team more tactically aware and versatile, and able to compete with the best in the world like Argentina.
This area has been an issue for Nigeria ever since regular No. 1 Carl Ikeme revealed last year that he had been diagnosed with leukemia. Rohr made Ikechukwu Ezenwa, the only Nigeria-based player in the squad, the new first-choice goalkeeper.
But there may be a surprise in goal in Russia, with Rohr recently talking up 19-year-old prospect Francis Uzoho, who last year became the youngest foreign goalkeeper in La Liga when he made his debut for Deportivo La Coruna at 18. The 6-foot-5 teenager is definitely a talent and started in recent friendlies against Congo and England.
Leon Balogun, born in Germany, and William Troost-Ekong, born in Netherlands, are the preferred central defensive partnership. Either side of them, places are up for grabs. Elderson Echiejile was the first choice at left back and Shehu Abdullahi at right back. But there are other contenders. One of the most intriguing is left back Brian Idowu, who was born in St. Petersburg to Nigerian parents and has lived his whole life and spent his entire career in Russia.
Captain John Obi Mikel and vice-captain Ogenyi Onazi are the rocks of the team in central midfield and their diligence allows Nigeria to play three and sometimes four players in advanced positions. The 21-year-old Wilfred Ndidi of Leicester also has a growing reputation.
Victor Moses’ recent resurgence means Rohr expects the Chelsea man to lead Nigeria’s attack, which promises to be a handful for opponents. Alongside Moses, Musa and Alex Iwobi could be the other starting forwards if Rohr continues with a formation that gives him two men playing either side of central striker Musa in a three-man front line. But the competition is fierce. There’s also Iheanacho and China-based striker Odion Ighalo, while an injury to Moses Simon opened up a spot in the final squad for Simeon Nwankwo, a 6-foot-6 striker who plays in Italy.
Nigeria’s opening game is against Croatia on June 16, it then plays Iceland on June 22 before the big one to finish its Group D campaign, against Lionel Messi and Argentina in St. Petersburg on June 26.
Goalkeepers: Francis Uzoho (Deportivo La Coruna), Daniel Akpeyi (Chippa United), Ikechukwu Ezenwa (Enyimba)
Defenders: Abdullahi Shehu (Bursaspor), Tyronne Ebuehi (Den Haag), Elderson Echiejile (Brugge), Bryan Idowu (Amkar Perm), Chidozie Awaziem (Nantes), William Ekong (Bursaspor), Leon Balogun (Brighton), Kenneth Omeruo (Kasimpasa)
Midfielders: John Obi Mikel (Tianjin TEDA), Ogenyi Onazi (Trabzonspor), Wilfred Ndidi (Leicester), Oghenekaro Etebo (Las Palmas), John Ogu (Hapoel Be’er Sheva), Joel Obi (Torino)
Forwards: Ahmed Musa (Leicester), Kelechi Iheanacho (Leicester), Victor Moses (Chelsea), Odion Ighalo (Changchun Yatai), Alex Iwobi (Arsenal), Simeon Nwankwo (Crotone)