Nigeria's 'orchestra' of foreign-born players hits record high ahead of Afcon qualifiers

For the first time ever, as the Super Eagles congregate in Benin for this weekend's Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers against Sierra Leone, the Nigeria squad contains 10 players born or raised abroad.

With this, coach Gernot Rohr makes history by having the highest number ever of diaspora-born players called up at any one time into the Super Eagles.

A number of those, like Cyriel Dessers of Belgium, switched nationality and decided to play for Nigeria, most of them after featuring for other countries at cadet level.

This record reflects the gradual shift which started as far back as the 80s with the likes of Tunji Banjo and John Chiedozie, but has accelerated in the last few years under the German.

When Nigeria's last squad list was released in October, there were seven first time call ups. Less than a month on, that number has dropped to just one.

FC Lugano goalkeeper Sebastian Osigwe, of Switzerland, is the lone newbie and is also the latest member of the growing group born and raised abroad but playing for Nigeria.

So far, Rohr has handed debuts to a total of 10 players of Nigerian origin but not from the country. That is the most of any coach in Nigeria history.

This is in addition to three others [Iwobi, Troost-Ekong and Balogun] who got their debuts under previous coaches. So he really could field an entire XI of overseas players.

Not that he cares. He told ESPN: "You know when I do my list I don't watch where the player is born.

"I watch only on his quality, his mind, his motivation and for the interest of our team. It doesn't matter where he is born. It is only important that they feel like Nigerians."

Based on word from the team, there are at least four more incoming. Goalkeeper Tobias Lawal was in camp with the team during the friendly games, Kingsley Ehizibue and Ovie Ejaria have been announced, and sources tell ESPN that Ademola Lookman is processing his paperwork.

So far, the players come from England (5), Germany (4), Holland (2) and Belgium (1).

With such a potpourri of players coming in from different football cultures, could there be a danger of eroding he Super Eagles own football identity? Not a chance, says Rohr.

"It is the same everywhere," he argued. "The identity of the team is not bad because they are coming from different places. Look at teams from Europe, they come from different countries.

"It is like an orchestra in music. It is important to play well together and the chief of the orchestra is able to make one united team, with all these different cultures and also birth places.

"The most important is that they have harmony and they are going in the same direction."

Victor Ikpeba, former African Footballer of the year, says as long as they are giving their all, "It is a good thing. As long as they are giving their best and playing well, they will improve the team."

Former striker Odemwingie takes it a step further, saying the diversity helps, telling ESPN: "That's more options for the national team.

"We love Nigeria. We also eat Nigeria food, listen to Nigerian music, come on holidays with families, even if the main residence is in Europe or America or wherever it is.

"You know, everybody has a connection in their soul with Nigeria."

There have been suggestions that the players -- like others of African origin -- only consider African countries like Nigeria as Plan B when they cannot make it with their European first choices.

So is the motivation simply a chance to play international football or more of a genuine commitment to the country?

Former Everton striker Anichebe says the players are just as motivated to do well with Nigeria as others: "I feel like they're coming back to where their families are from. They're proud of their country and they want to make the team better.

"But at the same time, it just shows that we need to improve our facilities back home and shows that we need to improve our league. Shows that we need to improve a lot things that are happening back home."

Dessers, one of the more recent additions, insisted to ESPN that there was only one option for him: "For me, there was no other choice.

"If they call, I was always going to go. It is something I dreamt of and I never imagined I could achieve this. Now I am in the national team of the a country with 200m people. It is unreal."

When they do get to camp, the players are welcomed with warmth and respect, according to Dessers: "From the first minute I arrived at the airport the guys took good care of me.

"Coming into this group was a real pleasure. Sometimes when you move clubs and you go into a new group it is hard. But here, it was really easy, everybody was really nice and respectful and it was good to come in here and just be yourself."

Once they get in, and largely because of their backgrounds of coming from developed countries with better facilities, expectations are higher for these players to deliver.

Odemwingie says the route to success is to relax and just play football. But also to assimilate, understand the culture and then of course the situation in the country itself.

He said: "Be just standard, no magic, just be professional, be patriotic, that's all. Look at the situation back home always in the country. A lot of people live below normal poverty, like in extreme poverty.

"Think about that when you are representing the country, give everything to play well to give them some joy. That is all they ask for. It is as simple as that."


GK: Maduka Okoye

D: Leon Balogun, Ola Aina, Ebuehi, William Troost-Ekong, Kevin Akpoguma;

M: Joseph Aribo, Alex Iwobi, Semi Ajayi;

F: Cyriel Dessers, Josh Maja