By Sulaiman Alao:
Africa's biggest football fiesta has kicked off in Gabon without Nigeria's flag being hoisted among the 16 participating teams and the heavens did not fall.
Having won the 2013 edition in South Africa, Nigeria failed to defend her hard-won title two years later in Equatorial Guinea after losing out in the qualifiers to Guinea. And if that was considered as one-off, the reality that our football is nose-diving hit us better as the Eagles again failed to qualify for the AFCON currently going on in Gabon after losing out in the qualifiers this time against Egypt.
Now with two back-to-back tournaments without Nigeria, who are the set of people missing or not missing Nigeria at the tournament?
Let's will start with Confederation of African Football (CAF) which happens to be the organizers of the competition. The body, with sit-tight Issa Hayatou as the President, is surely not missing Nigeria at the tourney. Other top African teams are there in Gabon with top African stars like the CAF award winning trio of Riyard Mahrez, Pierre Emerick Aubameyang and Saido Mane who are best African footballers at the moment and are there to light up the tournament. So who cares if Nigerian players are not in Gabon? Definitely, not CAF!
Gabon as host of the competition will not be missing Nigeria either. The other 15 teams will provide enough excitement on the field of play alongside the economic boom that usually accompany hosting such a big event that will attract thousands of football fans to the country. For the three weeks the tournament will last, Gabon will be the centre of tourist attraction in Africa even without the presence of the Eagles.
Rival countries who qualified for the competition will definitely not be missing Nigeria as well. It is always a welcome development for other teams if one of their top rivals didn't come for the party. Nigeria's absence will serve well to brighten the chances of other top teams to win the trophy.
Foreign scouts, most of whom will throng Gabon are not missing the Eagles. There are several unsung football talents spread across the participating teams to pick from. Besides, top Nigerian football stars are already tied to several clubs.
Having exhausted the foreign interests, let's consider the local interest.
Nigerian football administrators especially NFF officials will definitely miss the Eagles non-participation, even if not for sporting and genuine reasons. Despite the cry about lack of funds due to recession, the government would have released funds for the Eagles to participate in the tournament and you can trust our football officials to get their lion share in terms of estacodes and other free monies attached to such trips. With the Eagles grounded at home, it is bad business for Nigerian football officials.
The Nigerian Sports Supporters Club, belong in the category of the football officials. They too will be missing the Eagles absence in Gabon for obvious reasons though they stand to gain less money-wise.
Nigerian football fans will barely miss the Eagles at the AFCON as they seem to be getting used to their darling team's non-qualification in recent times. And with top football leagues in Europe now in full gear, the fans can get their fair share of excitement watching Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga etc where top Nigerian stars ply their football trades.
As things stands, Nigerian sports journalists are the ones truly missing Nigeria's absence at the AFCON. The AFCON is a media event and with the Eagles not participating, scores of Nigerian sports journalists are stuck at home following proceedings in Gabon on television. A handful of those that made the trip will operate like orphans amidst their counterparts who have their teams on ground.
Lastly, the Eagles players themselves will be missing not playing in the tournament since their absence is an indictment on their personal abilities. And as a team, missing two editions of the AFCON in a row will be a minus in the Eagles CV and that explains why the players are desperate to make up for that by winning the 2018 World Cup ticket.
Generally, Nigeria's absence is not taking any shine off the 2017 AFCON in Gabon. It is Nigerians themselves that are left to lick their own wounds while looking forward to the 2019 qualifiers set to kick off later in the year.