Nigeria coach Augustine Eguavoen says he made picks to 'pacify' NFF

Nigeria coach Augustine Eguavoen's recent tacit admission that he picked midfielder Ogenyi Onazi to appease NFF higher-ups was a seismic confirmation of what has previously been whispered rumours.

Onazi, who plays for Saudi Arabia's Al Adalah, was included in the squad to face Ghana in this month's FIFA World Cup qualifying playoff, and Eguavoen's seemingly off-the-cuff admission has been met by incredulity within Nigeria football circles.

Days after the already-controversial squad was announced, Eguavoen said while speaking with reporters that at least one player -- Onazi -- was picked to 'pacify everybody' and had not been scouted by his team.

"Ogenyi Onazi is a good player," Eguavoen said. "Whether he's still good and can play at that level we don't know, but to pacify everybody, to just make sure there's harmony here I put him on standby."

Eguavoen, whose position as interim Super Eagles coach was confirmed in February, has been met with pushback since the Nigeria squad for the decisive playoffs was named last month.

Fans, media, and even former internationals and coaches had been critical of the composition of the list for all of the usual reasons, including the lack of players from the local league, and perceived influence of officials on the selection process.

Admitting publicly that some of those picks were influenced by outside factors has done nothing to help the situation, with sources within the team's coaching staff telling ESPN that at least two names on the 32-man squad were included at the behest of top NFF officials.

"There are at least two players on the list that should not be there but we had to include them because of pressure from above," one team source said.

Said another inside the camp: "Although the coach did not want them, there was need for peace to reign so the compromise was that they would be on the list, but only the coach would have the final say on who dresses for the games."

The squad is expected to be pruned to 24 players before the team reports to training camp and Eguavoen, a former Nigeria captain, insisted that the final decision on who makes that squad and gets to play, remains with him.

The coach, who did not respond to ESPN's requests for comment, added of Onazi at the time: "He's on standby, but I have the final say. Like I said before, I have my plan and it's close to my chest."

The 29-year-old Onazi last played for the Super Eagles in 2018, when he was frozen out by Rohr. He has since bounced around different clubs from Turkey to Lithuania and now plays in the Saudi Arabian second tier.

Onazi was quick to respond to the furore, telling ESPN: "Personally, I don't care about what people say. I'm still on the reserve list, not yet on the main list, so we can't tell what's going to happen."

But the midfielder said he was not surprised to be included in the squad and would be ready if needed.

He added: "It's not a surprise to me, because I'm still playing and I'm ready to play anytime. When it comes to the national team, I'm always at the service of the nation, to always give my best for the country.

"Yes, it's been a while since I was in the national team, but when we talk about this very game -- home and away, that will take us to the World Cup [it's very important].

"When I got a call from the coach, he told me how important it is, and I also know how important it is. We need the experience to tackle this game. It's not a game of saying 'where do you play' or 'where do you come from' or whatever you're doing."

Reports of highly-placed football officials influencing national team selections are not new. Former Super Eagles coach Gernot Rohr backed Eguavoen, his successor, saying that he faced similar pressure to include players, but told ESPN that he refused to play along.

Rohr said: "It is not the moment to speak about the 'advice' I got from them about which players we can invite for the national team, because I want the players to focus and go to the World Cup.

"But they couldn't influence my decisions."

Sylvanus Okpala, a former international who served as assistant Super Eagles coach under the late Stephen Keshi, was less accommodating.

Okpala told ESPN: "He is the coach, so he should know what he wants and what he doesn't want. I don't know what he meant by 'to pacify everybody'. Coaching is not where you have to please people anyhow. I don't know what he meant by that."

Okpala gave a pass mark to Eguavoen on the overall composition of the squad, but warned that the buck stops with just one person.

Okpala said: "On the whole, I think he made a good selection but I don't know why he included some of those players in the team. He knows better, he is the coach. Everything lies on his head.

"If you want to please some people and the result is not favourable, people will not remember those people who forced players on you, because you were supposed to be in charge."

Nigeria will face Ghana in a double-header World Cup playoff on March 25 and 29.