Why Nigerian champions Enyimba could conquer the world this decade

This weekend saw the start of the inaugural African Football League (AFL), which is a competition set to expand in terms of influence and popularity. Amongst the sides was Nigerian champions Enyimba, who lost 1-0 to Wydad Casablanca in the first leg of the quarter-finals.

While that has given them a very difficult task on hostile turf in tonight’s second leg, this is undoubtedly just the beginning for Enyimba, as a new competition starts to grow.

What is the African Football League?

The AFL is a new competition launched by FIFA president Gianni Infantino, and run by the Confederation of African Football (CAF). It is played on a knock-out basis, with each team playing two legs against each other in the quarter-finals, with four advancing to the semi-finals and two in the final.

The eight highest-ranked teams from north, central-west and south-east Africa were selected to participate, which include:

  • North: Al Ahly (Egypt), Wydad Casablanca (Morocco), Esperance (Tunisia)
  • Central-west: Enyimba (Nigeria), TP Mazembe (DR Congo)
  • South-east: Simba (Tanzania), Mamelodi Sundowns (South Africa), Petro Atletico (Angola)

In other first-leg results, TP Mazembe beat Esperance 1-0, while Mamelodi Sundowns beat Petro de Luanda 2-0. In the competition’s inaugural clash, Simba SC and Al Ahly drew 2-2 last Friday.

Gianni Infantino FIFA president
FIFA president Gianni Infantino launched the AFL – Photo by Icon sport

African Football League expansion in 2024

The AFL is set to be expanded to 24 teams in 2024, which was its original plan for the inaugural competition before being reduced to eight. They will be divided into three groups of eight teams, with each group representing an African region (north, central-west and south-east). There is also a maximum of three teams allowed per country.

The new format will also incorporate promotion and relegation play-offs, and like the 2023 edition, teams will be selected based on highest rankings. With the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) set to restart in 2025 after 2024’s tournament, the AFL could help unearth new African talents that could be selected for their respective nations to compete.

Senegal AFCON winners 2022
Senegal are the current AFCON holders – Photo by Icon sport

Nigerian champions Enyimba – a class apart?

Enyimba were founded in 1976, but were not overly successful until this century. They were champions of Nigeria’s second division in 1993, and won the top flight for the first time in 2001.

Enyimba experienced a change in fortunes in 1999, when Orji Uzor Kalu was elected Governor of Abia State in the first democratic elections held in Nigeria after many years of military rule. Kalu then provided generous funding for Enyimba, who then saw results start to turn.

They have won the Nigerian top flight nine times since the turn of the century, including the most recent campaign, and have also won the domestic FA Cup and Super Cup four times each.

Enyimba’s record appearance-maker is Augustine Oladapo, an attacking midfielder who played 128 times for them between 2017-22, and has five senior caps for Nigeria. Incidentally, he now plays for Enyimba’s fellow AFL participants TP Mazembe!

Meanwhile, their record goalscorer is Victor Mbaoma, who scored 41 times in 91 appearances between 2019-22, and the striker has two senior-level Nigerian caps.

Victor Mbaoma is record goalscorer for Nigerian champions Enyimba.
Victor Mbaoma is record goalscorer for Nigerian champions Enyimba – Photo by Icon sport

Key players

Centre-back Somiari Alalibo and left-winger Joseph Atule have played every minute of the 2023/24 campaign so far, while striker Mbaoma Chijioke is top scorer with two goals in three appearances.

Goalkeeper Olorunleke Ojo was called up to Nigeria’s most recent squad during the international break, and subsequently could feature in next year’s AFCON, but he has never earned a senior cap.

Finidi George a familiar name

Finidi George is the manager of Enyimba, and is a familiar name both in Nigeria and England. George won 62 caps for the Nigerian national team as a player, scoring six goals, and was part of the squad that won AFCON in 1994. He also competed with Nigeria in the 1994 and 1998 FIFA World Cups.

At club level, George starred for Ajax in the 90s alongside fellow Nigerian Nwankwo Kanu, who is now the chairperson of Enyimba. Two years after Kanu joined Arsenal, George went to Ipswich in 2001, but underperformed and was part of a relegated side.

A noticeable aspect of George’s recent team selections for Enyimba is that he is not afraid to give youngsters a chance, while he has also stuck to the same starting XI and has not been tempted to make wholesale changes.

Finidi George Nwankwo Kanu
Nwankwo Kanu and Finidi George pictured with ex-Ajax manager Louis van Gaal after winning the 1995 UEFA Champions League final – Photo by Icon sport

Can Enyimba win the African Football League 2023 trophy?

Enyimba can win the 2023 AFL, but they are not among the favourites. Comparing their performances in the African Champions League to other AFL teams, they have not reached the semi-finals of the competition since 2011, while fellow AFL side Al Ahly have won 11 of the last 13.

Enyimba also lost the first leg of their AFL quarter-final 1-0 at home to Wydad at the weekend, and will have to overturn this in the second leg if they want to progress. However, they are likely to be chosen as one of the highest-ranked teams to participate in next year’s competition, due to their recent success in Nigeria.

Al Ahly CAF Champions League winners 2023
Al Ahly beat Wydad in the 2023 CAF Champions League final. Date: 11 June 2023. Credit: Weam Mostafa/Sports Inc – Photo by Icon sport

Could this tournament offer a route towards intercontinental competitions?

The CAF Champions League winner already participates in the Club World Cup, and the AFL could open a similar pathway in the future.

Al Ahly won the CAF Champions League in the 2022/23 season, and so are competing in this season’s Club World Cup. They feature alongside some big names like UEFA Champions League winners Manchester City and Saudi hosts Al Ittihad, the latter spearheaded by superstar Karim Benzema, who won the UEFA Champions League only last year with Real Madrid.

Nonetheless, African teams like Enyimba could be given additional routes to compete on the world stage, and they will only get better playing against the world’s best.

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