U23 AFCON: Okechukwu, Awoniyi To Miss Cote d’Ivoire Opener As Sports Ministry Wades Into Bonus Row

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Nigeria U23 national team captain Azubuike Okechukwu and striker Taiwo Awoniyi will miss the Olympics Eagles U23 AFCON opener against Cote d’Ivoire on Saturday after both players failed to secure early release from their respective clubs.

Okechukwu plays for Turkish side Basaksehir FC while Awoniyi is on loan at Bundesliga club FSV Mainz 05 from Liverpool and both players hope to be available for Nigeria’s second game against Zambia on Tuesday, 12 November.

Midfielder Kelechi Nwakali will assume the armband in Okechukwu’s absence for the defending champions as they attempt to defend their title and secure a berth at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

Despite missing the services of Okechukwu and Awoniyi for Saturday’s 2pm encounter at the Al Salam Stadium – the same venue where the Super Eagles beat Tunisia to win bronze at the 2019 AFCON – Amakapabo is bullish about the chances of his team against their fellow West Africans.

“We have players in camp here who are ready to give their all and do Nigeria proud any day, any time. We are quietly confident and will take it one match at a time.

“We are quite aware that as defending champions, so much is expected of us. This team will throw everything into the battle and ensure it does not disappoint Nigerians,” Amapakabo said.

The Nigeria U23 contingent spent six days in Ismailia fine-tuning preparations for the finals before arriving in Cairo on Wednesday, where they are staying at the Novotel Hotel and Resorts.

On Thursday, the Nigeria camp received a morale boost when top officials of the Nigeria embassy in Cairo, led by Abubakar Sadiq Muhammad, visited the team to deliver the message of the ambassador, His Excellency Professor Dandatti Abdulkadir, OFR.

“On behalf of the Nigerian Ambassador to Egypt, Prof. Dandatti Abdulkadir, OFR and the Nigerian Government, I welcome you to Egypt and wish you a successful outing in the forthcoming U23 AFCON tournament. Football is a major unifying factor in our country, and I believe you will all make us proud starting with the game against Cote d’Ivoire.

“Our presence here is to make sure you are comfortable. We will be at the stadium on Saturday in order to give you our maximum support,” said Muhammad, in company with head of chancery Ibrahim Ahmed Al-Ghazali and Muhammad Tukur Garba, administrative officer.

Host nation Egypt will tackle Mali in Friday’s tournament opening match at the Cairo International Stadium from 4pm (3pm Nigeria time), before the two other Group teams Cameroon and Ghana clash at the same venue as from 6pm Nigeria time.

Meanwhile, following Thursday’s row over unpaid bonuses and allowances where the Olympic Eagles threatened to boycott the game against Cote d’Ivoire unless their outstanding bonuses were paid, the Ministry of Youth and Sports have intervened to assure the players of payment.

Sports Minister Sunday Dare in a statement on Thursday said all allowances and bonuses due the team have been approved but bureaucratic red tape meant the funds were yet to be released by the Ministry of Finance.

Dare assured that he’s working closely with the Nigerian Football Federation to ensure all monies due the team are gets to them as quickly as possible.