No one would have thought a few months ago that Stanley Nwabali would even make the Super Eagles squad for the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) taking place in the Ivory Coast.
Fast forward to February 2024 and the Chippa United of South Africa goalkeeper has played a pivotal role in helping Nigeria make it into the final of AFCON 2023 scheduled for Sunday.
Nwabili was certainly the dark horse in the race for Nigeria’s first-choice goalkeeper spot despite his brilliant performances for Chippa United in the South African Premier Soccer League.
He is known for his proficiency with his feet and solid shot-stopping abilities and has a good record of keeping seven clean sheets while conceding only 14 goals in 15 league games this season.
Despite all those stats, a few Nigerian fans were quite sceptical when Super Eagles coach, Jose Peseiro, while naming his final 25-man squad list for AFCON 2023, hinted that Nwabali would be his first-choice goalkeeper.
Some other Nigerian football fans had, however, expected Nwabili to take over as the number one goalkeeper for the Super Eagles following Peseiro’s decision to travel to South Africa to watch him live in action for his club.
That was particularly due to the comical goalkeeping exhibited by Francis Uzoho of Cyprus’ Omonia Nicosia who no longer had a stranglehold on the Super Eagles’ first-choice spot following a drop in form, especially for Nigeria.
However, since Peseiro became the Super Eagles’ manager in 2022, Uzoho had been his first-choice goalie, barring a suspension-induced absence against Sierra Leone, and appeared to be the logical choice for Nigeria at AFCON 2023.
All that, however, changed when Nwabali made three very important saves right in front of Peseiro to help Chippa United pick up a 2-0 win and also put an end to the club’s run of six matches without victory.
The 27-year-old goalkeeper, however, did not start on a bright note after conceding twice when Nigeria fell to a 2-0 defeat to Guinea in a friendly game in preparation for AFCON 2023.
Nwabali was in goal when Nigeria began their AFCON 2023 campaign with a disappointing 1-1 draw with Equatorial Guinea in their group A opener but Iban Salvador’s 36th minute goal was not as a result of the keeper’s fault.
The Chippa United goalkeeper started exhibiting his greatness when the Super Eagles secured a 1-0 victory against host nation, Ivory Coast, in their second group game courtesy of a 55th minute penalty expertly converted by William Troost-Ekong.
The shot stopper was called into action several times against Ivory Coast in the titanic battle in Abidjan, making a save in the first half when he made himself big to block a shot by an Ivorian attacker who had perfectly read Zaidu Sanusi’s back pass to Nwabali.
In the second half of the match, he made a timely surge out of his goal post to parry the ball away from on-rushing Nicolas Pepe as the Elephants were desperate to score an equaliser.
Nwabali thereafter told Nigerians to expect more from him as he was yet to give his best performance for the Super Eagles. “When the coach believes in you, you bring more confidence with you into the team,” he told BBC Sport Africa.
“I feel like I can do more to bring that confidence in to the team. I don’t feel like Nigeria has seen my top performance.”
The Eagles capped the group stage performance with an uninspiring 1-0 win over Guinea Bissau, a game which Nwabali did not have much to do, though, as his defenders were up to scratch.
Nwabali was also solid and made some vital saves when Nigeria defeated Cameroon 2-0 in the round of 16 but he couldn’t finish the game after getting injured and was replaced by Uzoho.
Nwabali passed a late fitness test to feature against Angola in the quarter-final and Nigerians would thank their stars that their first choice goalie did not miss the match as his crucial save at the start kept the Eagles in the game.
He displayed awareness as he was able to block a shot from a corner kick a few minutes into the game. In the second half, he had to parry away a bending shot heading for the corner of the net and he commanded his aerial catches well.
He was beaten once but was lucky the ball bounced off the upright before Troost-Ekong cleared as the Eagles qualified for the semi-final where they met South Africa on Wednesday.
Nwabili made three quality saves against the Bafana Bafana during regulation time to ensure that the game ended 1-1 and after 30 minutes of extra time, it went into penalty shootout.
South Africa failed to convert two of their opening three spot-kicks with Nwabili saving from Teboho Mokoena and Evidence Makgopa but despite Ola Aina throwing away his penalty, Kelechi Iheanacho kept his cool to score and help the Super Eagles win 4-2 and reach the final of AFCON 2023.