The Super Eagles of Nigeria have weathered a troubled preparation to become one of the favourites to win the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations (Afcon). A coach installed less than a month to kick off as well as missing multiple key players meant Nigeria started on the back foot in a tournament they haven’t won since 2013.
But a storming start, booking their place in the last 16 after just two games, flipped the script and reminded everyone why they are among Africa’s powerhouses. They will face Tunisia in the last 16 on 23 January as favourites. From the bench, there has been a sense of vindication for Augustine Eguavoen, who took on the coaching role amid doubts over his managerial ability. Many even considered his appointment to be an indication that the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) had written off the competition.
Instead, Eguavoen’s quiet leadership has seemed to liberate this team, and his willingness to allow a talented group to express themselves is bringing the best out of a number of players.
None has shone brighter than Nantes’ winger Moses Simon, 26, who has been Nigeria’s standout player in the tournament. Simon scored and produced two assists in the group stage, helping the Super Eagles finish with a 100% win record. That, however, does not tell the full story of his involvement, or indeed the journey he has undertaken to arrive at acclaim.
Since making his international debut in 2015, Simon has divided opinion among the Nigerian fanbase. While his quality is highlighted by his being a mainstay under five different national team coaches to date, fans have grown increasingly frustrated by his lack of output. In his first 10 international appearances, Simon scored three goals. It has taken him a further 34 to double that tally.
The sense of frustration has only grown as Simon’s club career has flourished. The Jos-born winger first caught the eye playing for Belgian club Gent in 2015, and was touted as a €20 million prospect on the basis of his flying displays for the Buffalos. In that season, Simon helped the club to its first and only league title after joining during the winter transfer window, scoring six goals in the final nine matches of the regular season.
After three years and more than 100 appearances in Belgium, things took a downward turn for the winger. He failed to catch fire after a move to Spanish club Levante, and after one season he was loaned to French club Nantes, which got the option to buy him on a permanent basis.
In the northwest of France, Simon has found his feet again and risen to become one of the most influential wingers in the league. So far this season, only three players have assisted more goals than he has in Ligue 1. He came off the bench on 10 December to score an outstanding solo goal in a 3-2 win over Lens in a game in which the Canaries had been trailing 2-0 at half-time. It was an impact that manager Antoine Kombouaré described as that of “a great champion”.
“When he is happy in life, he expresses it on the pitch,” the former Paris Saint-Germain boss told French sports daily L’Equipe. “It’s a matter of trust.”
Meanwhile, back home…
There has been a sharp contrast between Simon’s starring performances for Nantes and his displays with the national team. His inability to transfer his club form to international duty has led many to question his quality and, worse, call his commitment to Nigeria into question.
A chief point of concern has been his crosses. While the majority of his assists in Ligue 1 have come via flighted deliveries into the box, when turning out for Nigeria his balls into the box have often been imprecise and underhit.
The negative press came to a head on the eve of the Afcon with calls for him to be dropped in favour of other on-form forwards like Watford’s Emmanuel Dennis. In spite of that, he retained the faith of the new coach and is now flourishing in international colours for the first time in a long while.
“I must admit that truly the game [against Egypt on 11 January] is one of my best in two years,” Simon said. “Every coach has their mentality and impact. The previous coach, I played to his instructions. With the new coach, he gives us freedom and allows us to bring our style of play with our clubs.”
It has indeed been noticeable how much more dynamic Simon has looked playing from the left, in the same role he enjoys with Nantes. Under former Nigerian coach Gernot Rohr, he was often fielded on the right and handed a more defensive brief whenever the team was out of possession. The German even extolled his ability to play at rightback, describing him as having “a lot of strings to his bow”.
For Simon, the Afcon will feel like the ultimate vindication. It will also be deeply gratifying for a player who has, in the course of his career, become accustomed to disappointment at major tournaments. Despite making the Nigeria squad to two Fifa Under-20 World Cups in 2013 and 2015, he did not make a single appearance in either Turkey or New Zealand. Ahead of the 2018 World Cup, the winger established himself as a vital component of a Nigerian side that went through the entire qualifying series without defeat, and was set to play a starring role until a thigh injury ruled him out less than three weeks before the tournament’s start.
In the previous edition of the Afcon, Simon finally got on the field for Nigeria at a major tournament. However, he only started two of their seven matches, losing his place in the starting line-up to youngster Samuel Chukwueze.
A welcome change
This Afcon, therefore, is an important milestone for a man who is finally getting to star for Nigeria on the big stage. So far, he has justified that opportunity and is thriving on the trust and belief of the new technical team. In doing so, he has won back the hearts of Nigeria fans all over the world.
The most remarkable thing for this taciturn player is that it could all have been so different. Simon grew up in a military barracks and faced opposition at home as his father, Simon Ijegba, frowned on his athletic pursuits. Discipline and a military pursuit were the priority, whereas football was a passion his father described as “unpredictable and uncertain”. Simon revealed that his father was worried he would not make it in the sport and urged him to follow in his military footsteps.
“I don’t blame him because he wanted what he thought was good for me,” Simon said. “The number of people in the community who failed in their football pursuit was more than those who made it. He felt I didn’t stand a chance and he had a valid point.
“My mum [Martha Ijegba] was a lot more supportive because she saw the determination right from the beginning. My father was just being a loving father and that’s what every father does.”
The opposition subsided when Simon got a chance to travel to the Netherlands for a trial with Dutch giants Ajax Amsterdam in 2013. He excelled and signed a pre-contract with the four-time European champions before the deal collapsed owing to club and agent failing to agree on the terms.
“The disappointment with the youth national team was probably a clear hint for me to give up, but the first light came with that trip to Ajax,” Simon recalled. “The fact I could then move to Slovakian club Trenčín a few months later was the biggest chance to fulfil a dream and pursue my football career.”
His career may have taken him via a disappointing Amsterdam route to the lights of French Ligue 1 through Slovakia, Belgium and Spain, but home is truly where the heart is for Simon.
A humble man
Off the pitch, he is reserved. He rarely speaks about himself and is quick to extend individual honour to team success. While some footballers love to show off their wealth, fast cars and stupendous lifestyle on social media, Simon prefers to praise his wife Ibukun and two daughters for his success.
“Family is everything to me. First it was my parents and siblings, and it increased with my own immediate family,” he said. “I don’t think it’s possible for me to have a successful career and a clear head without the support of my wife and children. They motivate me on a daily basis.”
And as the coronavirus hit the globe in 2020, the Super Eagle made financial and food donations to struggling families caught up in the lockdown in the Nigerian cities of Jos and Kaduna. In April 2021, he felt compelled to help finance the installation of a drainage system and the construction of a road to help tackle flooding in Obagaji Agatu in central Nigeria’s Benue state.
Seven months before, he had come to the aid of his father’s community by funding the building of water pumps in the village to halt their long-standing reliance on a stream for potable water. The lack of access to some of the most basic necessities in his father’s hometown of Obagaji Agatu and other surrounding communities was something that bothered Simon.
“It’s important to step in where the politicians have decided not to help,” Simon, who now has a street named after him, told BBC Sport Africa. “Imagine in 2021 we are talking of people without potable water and desperately praying for protection ahead of the rains and floods.
“These people deserve more from the government because they put all their trust in them only to be disappointed. As sportspeople we can all do more to make our people happy. Some are already doing [a lot] and are very supportive of their community, but we can’t stop.”
The flying winger is certainly doing more than enough for his country and his folks, on and off the pitch.