LONDON: Al-Shabab’s star striker Odion Ighalo is in the middle of a club vs country row that leaves his participation in the African Cup of Nations, which kicks off on Sunday in Cameroon, in serious doubt.
While club officials are refusing to comment on the situation, according to reports in Nigeria, Al-Shabab are refusing to release the former Manchester United forward on the grounds that the Nigerian Football Federation missed the official deadline to call up the 32-year-old.
Ighalo, who has netted 16 times for his country, is currently the leading goalscorer in the Saudi Pro League season, and his 11 goals have helped the Riyadh club climb to second place.
Augustine Eguavoen, Nigeria’s interim coach who was appointed in December to take over from the sacked Gernot Rohr, has yet to make a statement on Ighalo, simply saying on Tuesday: “Hopefully Odion will come … The only thing is to change the style of play because the personnel is not there as we expected.”
The situation echoes December’s dispute between Nigeria and Watford after the English Premier League club refused to release Emmanuel Dennis claiming the African team missed the deadline to request his release.
Local media quoted Eguaoven last Friday after an Abuja training session saying that Dennis wanted to go to Cameroon but was prevented from doing so by the relegation-threatened Hornets.
“Watford stopped him from featuring at the AFCON,” Eguavoen said. “Dennis told me he wanted to come for the tournament but Watford threatened him (away) from coming.”
Watford coach Claudio Ranieri denied his side had disrespected Nigeria or Africa’s showpiece event.
“No, no. No, we respect everybody,” the Italian said. “They have a lot of players, and they changed the manager, then they change everything, and then we were ready. We knew we were ready to give the players, but they didn’t do this.”
Reports in Nigeria claim that the national team are hoping to call up Feyenoord striker Cyril Dessers to replace Ighalo.
The Super Eagles, who won the last of their three continental titles in 2013, kick off their AFCON campaign in a eagerly-awaited Group D clash against Egypt next Tuesday. After that will come games against Sudan and Guinea-Bissau.
Nigeria are accustomed to life without Ighalo, as he retired from international football after the 2019 AFCON when he finished as top scorer with five goals, which helped the team into third place. In November however, he answered the summons from his country and played against Cape Verde in qualification for the 2022 World Cup.
Nigeria are due to leave for Cameroon on Wednesday and, assuming that Ighalo is not on the plane, he will be available for three crucial league games over the next two weeks in the Saudi Pro League as Al-Shabab take on Abha, Ettifaq and Al-Fateh. As it stands, the club are just one point behind Al-Ittihad after winning eight of the last nine games.
His form this season has seen Ighalo linked with a move to struggling EPL team Newcastle United. Former Tottenham Hotspur and England goalkeeper Paul Robinson has, however, warned the Magpies against taking a punt on the well-traveled forward.
“He is unreliable and I don’t think Newcastle are in a position where they can take risks,” Robinson told website Football Insider. “Financially, they are in a position where they can go and get a top quality striker who is less of a risk than he is. I just don’t think Ighalo is the player they are looking for.”