What you need to know:
- Nwabali’s impact extends beyond clean sheets. He commands his backline, confidently claims crosses, and snuffs out through balls with decisive positioning. This comfort with the ball reflects his unique journey – he started as a striker before transitioning to goalkeeping.
An unlikely hero - goalkeeper Stanley Nwabali - has fueled Nigeria's journey to the Africa Cup of Nations final. The 27-year-old, relatively unknown before the tournament, has emerged as a key figure, his presence anchoring a resolute defence.
Nwabali’s impact extends beyond clean sheets. He commands his backline, confidently claims crosses, and snuffs out through balls with decisive positioning. This comfort with the ball reflects his unique journey – he started as a striker before transitioning to goalkeeping.
His rise to prominence has been swift. Despite limited playing time at various Nigerian clubs, he impressed at South Africa’s Chippa United. His performances caught the eye of national team coach Jose Peseiro, who saw potential in Nwabali as a “surprise package”.
Scouting began a year prior, culminating in Super Eagles coach Jose Peseiro personally watching Nwabali play in December. Impressed, he integrated Nwabali into the squad, a decision vindicated by the goalkeeper's stellar performance.
He navigated a tense penalty shootout against South Africa in the semi-final, solidifying his position as Nigeria's No. 1 for the foreseeable future.
Nwabali's composure under pressure is remarkable. He put up a sterling performance as Super Eagles beat Bafana Bafana 4-2 on penalties following pulsating 120 minutes of action, where the two nations remained deadlocked at 1-1 on Wednesday night at the Stade de la Paix.
The Chippa United goalie cemented his influence as the unlikely hero in a team that has top stars like CAF Footballer of the Year, Victor Osimhen and Kelechi Iheanacho, as he saved two penalties, in turn denying Bafana a place in the coveted final.
“Congratulations, Stanley “Pitbull” Nwabali. I call him the beast. I’m proud of you, my boy,” said Nwabali’s technical director at Chippa United Morgan Mammila, after the game.
Apart from the penalty saves, Nwabali's familiarity with South African players gained through the DStv Premiership might have aided Nigeria in the Afcon final against Bafana Bafana.
'No love lost'
And despite playing a pivotal role in Nigeria's win, Nwabali expressed his continued affection for South Africa, where he plays his club football.
“A night to remember!!! I felt every bit of it!! Brick by brick and, dreams are coming true,” he said. “No love lost at all. I still love South Africa as much as their fans love me. My name is Nwabali Stanley Bobo, and I love this team with all my heart. Safe hands.”
The Nigeria goalkeeper leads the race for the Golden Glove as he has the most clean sheets at the 2023 Afcon (four). He is at par with his SA counterpart, Ronwen Williams.
Before the Africa Cup of Nations, Nwabali wasn't a regular name on the Super Eagles roster. Nwabali, playing in his first Afcon, emerged as the preferred goalkeeper for the Nigerian national team under coach Peseiro, surpassing Ojo Olorunleke of Enyimba and Europe-based Francis Uzoho of Omonia in Cyprus.
This decision surprised many, as Olorunleke and Uzoho are more experienced players with the national team.
Nwabali hasn't disappointed, as he has played six matches at Afcon and conceded just two goals in Nigeria's Group A opening game against Equatorial Guinea and the semis against Bafana.
“I believe in all my goalkeepers – Ojo Olorunleke, Stanley Nwabali, and Francis Uzoho. I asked my friends in SA about Nwabali and went there to check on him. Thanks to Chippa United,” said Peseiro.
“Nwabali has the quality to be in goal, and he came in to fight for the number one shirt with Uzoho and Ojo, and he's done that,” said Peseiro.
The Chippa shot-stopper said he was in disbelief upon learning that Nigeria coach Peseiro would visit him at his club. He described the moment as a “dream come true,” highlighting the unexpected honour and potential turning point in his career.
“He (Peseiro) is one of the biggest coaches. Coaching a national team like Nigeria, it was like a motivation to me when he said he was coming to see me.”
Back in South Africa, where he has kept seven clean sheets in 14 outings, his club has admitted that keeping him after his Afcon performances may be challenging. Soweto giants Kaizer Chiefs are reportedly interested in snapping him up at the end of the season.
In the meantime, Nwabali will continue to live his dream of representing his country at the continental showpiece, and he is just one win away from lifting the Afcon.
He will be in between the sticks when Nigeria take on the hosts, Cote d'Ivoire, in the final on Sunday, with the Golden Glove also up for grabs.
His success transcends individual brilliance. Nwabali represents Nigeria's defensive rejuvenation, a much-needed shift after their World Cup qualifying woes. He embodies the team's newfound resilience, a key factor in their run to the final.
While Nigeria boasts attacking riches, Nwabali's contributions at the back cannot be understated. He has been the silent guardian, the unexpected hero whose brilliance has propelled the Super Eagles on their Afcon journey.