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First 11: Ighalo’s AFCON Absence And This Week’s Biggest Sports Stories

Emmanuel Egobiambu  
Updated January 8, 2022

 

From Romelu Lukaku’s row with Thomas Tuchel; Odion Ighalo’s AFCON absence to Watford’s eventual release of Senegal’s Ismaila Sarr for the competition, sports fans had a lot to chew on in the first week of the year.

On First Eleven this week, we capture the stories that made headlines to help sports lovers make sense of an eventful seven days.

AFCON Is Here!

AFCON trophy.

 

Finally, the 2021 African Cup of Nations (AFCON) is here! The competition, which was postponed last year, will begin in Cameroon on Sunday.

Several clubs in Europe had criticised the timing of the competition as well as raised concerns over the rising rate of COVID-19 infections across the world, a development that triggered fears that the tournament may not hold.

But in his visit to the Central African country late last year, CAF President Patrice Motsepe, who met with Cameroonian authorities, said the biennial football showpiece will go ahead as planned.

To make this happen, a string of measures including a mandatory COVID-19 test for fans, and a limited crowd at the stadia, were introduced. Earlier in the week, Arsenal’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had contracted the disease and is a doubt for Gabon’s opening game against Comoros on Monday.

Aside from concerns about the timing, security issues also appeared as a major stumbling block to Cameroon’s hosting of the AFCON. Fears of attacks from separatists have led to the tightening of measures in the nation.

Eagles Land Without Ighalo

Nigeria won the AFCON in 2013. Photo: Instagram/Super Eagles.

 

On Wednesday night, the Super Eagles arrived in Cameroon for the AFCON tournament but were without forward, Odion Ighalo. A post on the team’s social media handles showed the players disembarking from the plane.

Ighalo’s absence followed his club, Al-Shabab’s refusal to release him for the competition, further compounding the woes of a country already missing star man, Victor Osimhen.

Coach Austin Eguaveon, has, however, said there is no replacement for the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) top scorer. Nigeria are in Group D alongside record winners, Egypt, Sudan, and Guinea Bissau.

Watford Bow

File photo: Watford’s Senegalese star Ismaila Sarr (C) celebrates after he scores the team’s first goal against Liverpool. JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP

 

The row over the release of players for the continental event did not only affect Nigeria. Watford – the club which barred Super Eagles’ Emmanuel Dennis from the competition – finally bowed to pressure from the Senegalese football authorities and released Ismaila Sarr to join his compatriots.

Sarr had been a doubt for the team with the Senegalese Football Federation (FSF) claiming the Premier League side blocked the release of the 23-year-old. The federation in describing the claim said it was a “disrespectful, pernicious and discriminatory behaviour” from Watford. The club though dismissed the accusation.

Djokovic’s Ordeal Lingers On

Novak Djokovic was denied aces to participate in the Australian Open despite ab exemption from two panels of medical experts
In this file photo taken on October 22, 2020, Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic attends an open-air press conference in Belgrade. (Photo by Andrej ISAKOVIC / AFP).

 

COVID-19 is also raising more debates in the tennis world and Novak Djokovic continues to make headlines.

The Serb has repeatedly refused to confirm if he has taken the shots. He, however, got a medical exemption to participate in the Australian Open. Hours after the move, the Australian authorities denied him a visa to the country.

As expected, the development sparked outcry globally but the conservative Prime Minister Scott Morrison maintained that “rules are rules and there are no special cases”. Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic waded into drama, describing it as a “political witch hunt”.

Osaka Expect Fun-Filled Return

In this file photo, Japan’s Naomi Osaka reacts after a point against France’s Alize Cornet during their women’s singles match at the Melbourne Summer Set tennis tournament in Melbourne on January 4, 2022. William WEST / AFP

 

Also in tennis, Naomi Osaka is expecting fun on the court following her return from a four-month break! The four-time Grand Slam winner tearfully exited at the US Open in September.

The Japanese fell to 13 in the rankings and had said after her third-round defeat at Flushing Meadows that she was “dealing with some stuff” and was taking a break from the game!

She flew into Melbourne last week to prepare for her Australian Open defence.

Guardiola Gets COVID-19

File photo: Manchester City’s Spanish manager Pep Guardiola looks on from the touchline during the English Premier League football match between Manchester City and Norwich City at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester, north west England, on August 21, 2021. Adrian DENNIS / AFP

 

In England, COVID-19 cases have also continued to soar among Premier League teams. Manchester City coach, Pep Guardiola and his Burnley counterpart, Sean Dyche, tested positive for the disease.

The duo is now in isolation and Guardiola will miss the team’s FA Cup trip to Swindon Town. Before then, the Carabao Cup tie between Arsenal and Liverpool was also moved due to the increasing number of cases in England. But other FA Cup games are expected to continue.

Messi Tests Positive

This file photo taken on December 7, 2021, shows Paris Saint-Germain’s Argentinian forward Lionel Messi at the Parc des Princes Stadium in Paris on December 7, 2021. FRANCK FIFE / AFP

 

Apart from Guardiola, Paris Saint-Germain (PSG)’s, Lionel Messi also tested positive to COVID-19. The seven-time Ballon d’Or winner was one of four PSG players to contract the virus, according to the club.

“He is constantly in contact with our medical service. When he is negative, he will be able to return to France,” PSG coach Mauricio Pochettino told a press conference.

Lukaku Backtracks

Chelsea’s Belgian striker Romelu Lukaku controls the ball during the English Premier League football match between Chelsea and Brighton and Hove Albion at Stamford Bridge in London on December 29, 2021. Glyn KIRK / AFP

 

Still in England. Following the controversy generated by an interview with Sky Italia, Romelu Lukaku apologised to manager, Thomas Tuchel.

The Belgian star was in the news after he claimed he was unhappy at the Stamford Bridge side, claiming Tuchel had been playing him out of position for the Blues.

He was axed for the game against Liverpool and days after the encounter, the former Inter Milan forward, said he was “sorry” over his comments.

“To the fans, I’m sorry for the upset that I’ve caused,” Lukaku told Chelsea’s website. “Obviously, it’s up to me now to restore your trust, and I’ll do my best every day to show commitment on the training ground and in games to make sure we win games.

“And also to the manager, my teammates, and the board, I apologise, because I think it was not the right moment, also.”

All Clear for Plumptre

Ashleigh Plumptre
Ashleigh Plumptre has been given a go-ahead by FIFA to represent Nigeria.

 

Back home, footballer Ashleigh Plumptre, formally switched her nationality to Nigeria after FIFA cleared her to play for the African nation.

The Leicester defender had indicated interest to represent the Super Falcons and last year played an unofficial game for the Nigerian side.

Spokesman of the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF), Ademola Olajire, confirmed the development, saying the former England youth international fast-tracked the move.

“It was only possible because of her commitment and dedication. She made the federation’s work a lot easier by providing all the requirements in quick time,” Olajire told the BBC.

Finidi’s Honeymoon Over

 

George Finidi is a former international. Credit: Facebook/Enyimba FC

 

On the local scene, George Finidi’s Enyimba lost their second league game in a row on Sunday. The People’s Elephant fell 2-0 to Kano Pillars in a Nigerian Professional Football League (NPFL) matchday 4 encounter.

The team earlier on suffered a 1-0 defeat against Rivers United, the first loss for the Aba-based side since Finidi’s appointment. Enyimba had enjoyed a five-game unbeaten run before then. Matches continue this weekend in the league.

Mendy Granted Bail

In this file photo, France’s defender Benjamin Mendy arrives in Clairefontaine-en-Yvelines on November 12, 2018, as part of the team’s preparation for the upcoming Nations League football match against the Netherlands and a friendly football match against Uruguay. FRANCK FIFE / AFP

 

Away from Nigeria, Manchester City defender, Benjamin Mendy, was granted bail after four months in prison.

Mendy was granted bail by Judge Patrick Thompson at a private hearing at Chester Crown Court at a private hearing in a Chester Crown Court. But pressmen were barred from the hearing. He has been bailed until January 24 pending a further pre-trial hearing.

The Frenchman is facing a seven counts charge of rape and sexual assault and was held at the HMP Altcourse, Liverpool, from where he was transferred to HMP Manchester.

He was billed to go on trial this month but that has now been moved to June at the earliest.