2019: Year of mixed fortunes for Nigerian sports
The year 2019 was full of pleasant surprises. The Super Eagles returned to the AFCON after missing two editions, while the country failed to qualify for the Olympics football events. Our correspondents take a look at the performance of the country’s athletes in the outgoing year in this report
Basketball: D’Tigress retain African crown
The outgoing year was memorable for Nigerian basketball as D’Tigers finished 17th at the 2019 FIBA Men’s Basketball World Cup in China.
Nigeria lost their opening two games to Russia and Argentina but bounced back to beat Korea, Senegal and hosts China in their final Classification Round game, which ensured an automatic qualification for the Tokyo 2020 Men’s Olympic Basketball Tournament.
The women’s national team, D’Tigress, on their part, successfully defended their African title, defeating hosts Senegal 60-55 in the final in Dakar.
The African champions also booked one of the two available FIBA Women’s Olympic Pre-Qualifying Tournament tickets from Africa alongside Mozambique. They will face USA, Serbia and Mozambique at the FIBA Women’s Olympic Pre-Qualifying Tournament in February 2020.
At club level, debutants Air Warriors were crowned 2019 Zenith Bank Women’s Basketball League Champions after a hard-earned 55-53 points victory over MFM Queens in the final.
The Abuja-based side became the first women’s club to win the league on their debut outing, while also becoming the first Savannah Conference side to win the league, which had been largely dominated by First Bank of Lagos with nine titles.
Tennis: Quadre is lone star
It was an eventful year for tennis, with teenage star Oyinlomo Quadre proving to be the country’s most outstanding tennis star.
The 16-year-old Quadre reached the quarter-finals of the 2019 Lagos Open, the only Nigerian to achieve the feat, and won all the major national tournaments in the year. She claimed the CBN Open, Rainoil Oil Open, Vemp Open and Dala Hard Court titles.
She also helped Nigeria claim two bronze medals at the 12th Africa Games in Rabat, Morocco – the women’s doubles and the women’s team events.
She ended the year as the country’s number one women’s player.
Table tennis: Omotayo stakes claim
While Quadri Aruna remained the country’s top table tennis player, his rival Olajide Omotayo overcame the odds to clinch the singles gold medal at the African Games in Morocco.
Omotayo defeated three former champions, Egypt’s Ahmed Saleh, Segun Toriola and Aruna to win the gold medal. The feat meant Nigeria won the gold, silver and bronze medals in the men’s singles event.
Toriola and Omotayo also combined to win the bronze medal in the men’s doubles, while Aruna joined them, as Nigeria won silver in the men’s team event.
Edem Offiong won bronze in the women’s singles of the Games, before combining with Cecilia Akpan to defeat compatriots Funke Oshonaike and Fatimo Bello in the women’s doubles final.
Oshonaike, Akpan and Bello also won silver in the women’s team event, while Bode Abiodun and Edem won bronze in the mixed doubles event.
In all, Nigeria won a total of 10 medals (two gold, four silver and four bronze medals) at the Africa Games.
Aruna also claimed the 2019 ITTF Challenge Plus Nigeria Open in Lagos last August, defeating Robert Gardos in the final. This was after he claimed bronze at the Africa Cup played a week earlier.
Edem won bronze in the women’s singles of the Africa Cup, while Oshonaike was the only Nigerian woman player who made it to the Round of 16 of the Nigeria Open.
Aruna featured at the 2019 ITTF Men’s World Cup, after he replaced thw injured Wong Chun Ting from China. He crashed out in the first round to Japan’s Tomokazu Harimoto.
Many youngsters namely Taiwo Mati, Sukurat Aiyelabegan, Azeez Sholanke, Iyanuoluwa Falana amongst others put up outstanding performances worthy of mention in 2019.
Badminton: Opeyori shines
Not only did Aanuoluwapo Opeyori win the Sportsman of the Year award at the 2019 Nigeria Sports Award, he was also one of Nigeria’s best athletes at the African Games in Morocco.
The 22-year-old helped Nigeria top the medals table at the Games with a total of eight medals – two gold, three silver and three bronze medals.
He won gold in the men’s singles, while Godwin Olofua won the bronze medal.
Opeyori also combined with Olofua to clinch silver in the men’s doubles event.
In the women’s category, Dorcas Adesokan won silver in the singles event, while Sofiat Obanishola won bronze.
Adesokan then combined with Deborah Ukeh to win silver in the women’s doubles. Enejoh Abah and Peace Orji won bronze in the mixed doubles event.
Nigeria also emerged champions at the All Africa Senior Championships in Port Harcourt in April.
AFCON: Eagles claim ‘golden’ bronze
The Super Eagles returned to the Africa Cup of Nations for the first time since 2013, winning bronze, after beating Tunisia 1-0 in the third-place fixture in Cairo. They played 15 games in 2019, won 10, drew three and lost two. They finished the year ranked 31st by FIFA, the team’s best finish to a year in a decade.
The senior national team also played high-profile friendlies against Ukraine, which ended 2-2 and 1-1 respectively. They then began their 2021 AFCON qualification on a bright note, with a comeback 2-1 win over neigbours Benin at home, and a 4-1 away win over Lesotho. Lille striker Victor Osimhen grabbed three goals and two assists in both games.
Mikel, Ighalo quit Eagles
Eagles captain Mikel Obi and AFCON top scorer with five goals Odion Ighalo announced their retirements from the national immediately after the continental showpiece in Egypt.
Osimhen is Eagles star abroad
Victor Osimhen was Super Eagles star in Europe in 2019. The 21-year-old moved to Lille from Belgium side Sporting Charleroi for €15m after the 2019 Africa Cup Of Nations. He quickly settled, scoring 13 goals in 24 games for the French side. He scored 11 goals for the Belgian side in 2019, before his summer move. David Okereke also made a summer switch from Serie B side, Spezia to Club Brugge. Okereke scored 10 goals and 12 assists in 33 games prior to his move.
So far this season, David Okereke has played 16 games in all competitions, and he has scored nine goals for the Belgian side. Other Nigerian players who failed to sparkle in 2019 include, Leon Balogun, who did not make an appearance in the English Premier League for Brighton, Henry Onyekuru, despite his bright start with Galatasaray in the year, is yet to justify his €13m move to Monaco.
Eaglets fall below expectations
Nigeria qualified for the 2019 U-17 World Cup in Brazil after missing out on the 2017 edition in India.
The Golden Eaglets had placed fourth at the 2019 U-17 Africa Cup of Nations tournament in Tanzania to qualify for the World Cup.
The five-time U-17 World Cup champions topped Group B in Brazil after wins against Hungary and Ecuador, before losing 2-1 to Australia.
However, they lost 3-1 to The Netherlands in their Round of 16 clash.
AG: Falconets win gold
Nigeria’s U-20 team Falconets won gold at the African Games in Rabat, after a 3-2 penalty triumph over rivals Cameroon, their first triumph in the event in 12 years.
The Flying Eagles missed a chance to win gold when they lost 2-0 to Burkina Faso in the final.
Flying Eagles underperform at Poland 2019
Two-time finalists Flying Eagles exited the Poland 2019 U-20 World Cup in the Round of 16 after they were beaten 2-1 by Senegal. They finished third behind Ukraine in Group D with four points after beating Qatar and playing a 1-1 draw with Ukraine.
Falcons break 20-year jinx in France
The Super Falcons had their best preparations prior to a major tournament, playing 15 test matches before the 2019 World Cup in France, winning 10 of them, losing four, with one draw.
At the World Cup, the team made history reaching the quarter-finals for the first time in two decades. Falcons claimed the last spot among the four best third-placed teams in the gropu stage, on superior goals. They lost 3-0 to Germany in the quarter-finals.
Despite their achievements, internal wrangling, unpaid bonuses among other factors marred the team’s feat in France.
Nine-time African champions also failed in their bid to qualify for the 2020 Olympic Games after a 1-1 aggregate draw against Ivory Coast, but crashed out on the away goal rule.
The male team also crashed out of the race to the Tokyo Olympics, ending the journey for the football event of the Olympic Games in Tokyo next year.
Boxer Ehwarieme grabs WBF title
US-based Onoriode “Godzilla”Ehwariemi claimed the World Boxing Federation Intercontinental heavyweight title after he knocked out Argentine Ariel “Chiquito” Baracamonte in the first round at the GOtv Boxing Night 20 on Saturday.
Nigeria failed to hit the heights achieved at the 2015 African Games in Brazzaville, where they won four gold and two silver medals, claiming just one gold, one silver and five bronze medal.
Wrestling: Adekuruoye seals Olympic ticket, wrestlers shine
The country’s wrestlers performed brilliantly in 2019, finishing top of the medals table once again at the African Games, with a total of seven gold, four silver and one bronze to beat Egypt to the first position of the log.
Nigeria also had a good outing at the 2019 World Championships in Kazakhstan, where Odunayo Adekuroye finished third in her weight category to qualify for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
President of the Nigeria Wrestling Federation, Daniel Igali, says the year is the best the country has had in the sport in the last seven years.
“I think till date, the performances of the Nigerian wrestling team this year were probably the most outstanding of the past seven, eight years,” he said.
“Starting from the African Championships (in Tunisia) where, again, our women became overall African champions for the seventh time in a row, and then at the African Games, where we again dominated not only as a female team, but as the overall best team in Africa in female wrestling, male wrestling and Greco Roman by coming home with seven gold medals.”
Average outing by taekwondo athletes
Nigeria’s taekwondo athletes won just one gold and five bronze medals at the African Games. They had a better medal haul at the previous edition in Brazzaville, winning one gold, four silver and two bronze medals to finish third on the table.
At the close of the year, no Nigerian taekwondo athlete had booked a slot for Tokyo 2020.
Mixed feelings for chess players
The 2019 Chess calendar year was filled with mixed feelings as the Nigeria Chess Federation performed poorly at the African Games amidst calls for the removal of the NCF president, Lekan Adeyemi.
The Nigeria Chess Players Association of Nigeria petitioned world body FIDE, accusing Adeyemi of high-handedness, abuse of office and extortion, while also asking that he be removed from office.
Gymnastics: Nigeria win first AG gold
The Nigeria Gymnastics Federation enjoyed some level of serenity and it reflected in the country’s outing at the African Games, where the country came third behind Egypt and Algeria .
Uche Eke won Nigeria’s first ever gold medal in gymnastics in the pommel horse event and a bronze medal in the parallel bars event. The women’s team also won the bronze medal in the team all-around event, which had Amenagawhon Melvin, Helen Ocheke, Adekemi Adesida, Adenike Oyekunle and Oluwadamilola Oluwafemi.
Another remarkable achievements made by the country was at the African Club Gymnastics Championship in South Africa, where a group of gymnasts led by Tony Azuquo won a total of nine medals.
However, the federation’s achievement was marred by a row between the president, Kelvin Erhunwmunse, and Technical Director, Azuquo, with the latter resigning from his position.
Cricket: Yellow Greens, U-19 team make history
Under the leadership of Professor Yahaya Ukwenya, the Nigeria Cricket Federation made great strides, with the country’s T20 debut being the icing on the cake.
Nigeria’s path to a T20 appearance was already charted back in 2002, when the federation became an associate member of the International Cricket Council.
The Yellow Greens’ first T20I match was against Kenya on May 20, finishing second in the North-Western sub-region qualification group, and advancing to the Regional Final of the 2018–19 ICC World Twenty20 Africa qualifier tournament where they came third.
In July 2019, the ICC suspended Zimbabwe , with the team barred from taking part in ICC events. As a result, the world body confirmed that Nigeria would replace them in the 2019 ICC T20 World Cup Qualifier tournament, in the United Arab Emirates.
It was the country’s first albeit mixed results.
The 14-team men’s T20 World Cup qualifier hosted by the UAE saw Nigeria grouped alongside Ireland, Oman, hosts UAE, Jersey, Hong Kong and Canada in Group B.
Sean Phillip’s charges, however, failed to qualify for next year ICC’s men T20 World Cup in Australia after losing all their six matches to sit bottom of their group.
Nigeria’s U-19 boys team made history by qualifying for their first ever World Cup taking in South Africa next year. The country secured a dramatic, first ever spot in the ICC Under-19 World Cup after they beat Sierra Leone by two wickets, on the final day of the Africa qualifying tournament in Namibia.
Drawn in Group B alongside Australia, England and West Indies, the Junior Yellow Greens will be hoping to make their debut a memorable one when they open up their account against Australia on January 20.
Rowing and sailing break new grounds
Rowing and sailing seems to be gradually warming its way into the hearts of Nigerians.
The little achievements recorded in the sport were largely due to the commitment, investment and energy of the officials of the Nigeria Rowing, Canoeing and Sailing Federation.
The country had never finished tops in an international outdoor water sports competition, but in 2019 the jinx was broken by Ayomide Bello, who won a gold medal in the 200m at the Open International Canoe Sprint Competition in April in India.
Bello also won bronze in the individual category, before snatching two more bronze medals in the team events alongside Amusa Blessing.
At The African Games, not many would have predicted that the sport would fetch the country as much as four gold medals in Morocco.
The country was competing in the sport at the continent’s top sports showpiece in Rabat for the second time in history, after making her debut in Mozambique in 2011.
Canoeing medals were won in the Women’s C1 200m and C2 500m events by Bello, who alongside Foloki claimed two more gold medals in the C2 200m and C2 500m.
To highlight how relatively new the sport is in Nigeria, work on the country’s first canoe and Kayak Building Centre only began early in year, when experts hired by the Nigeria Sailing, Rowing and Canoeing Federation visited the country.
With the impressive show in Morocco, in which Nigeria finished second behind South Africa in the canoeing event, the long-term goal to have the country make a big impact at the Olympic Games looks on track.
The 13th African Rowing Championship in Tunisia, which also served as the Africa Rowing Olympic qualifiers, was an exciting one for the country as the rowers finished with two gold medals and one silver to automatically secured spots at the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics in Tokyo.
Nigeria/Africa Para-rower champion, Ijomah Okoroafor, will fly the country’s flag at the Para-tournament, with Toko Tamaramiyebi also making a dream debut at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
Nigerians in Diaspora
Joshua loses, reclaims titles
Boxer Anthony Joshua ended the year on a high by reclaiming the WBA, IBF, WBO, and IBO titles he shockingly lost to Mexican Andy Ruiz on June 1 at the Madison Square Garden, in New York, when both heavyweight fighters met for the second time at the Diriyah Arena, in Saudi Arabia on December 7.
The win returned the British-born pugilist of Nigerian descent to the summit of the sport and will be expecting a better 2020, where might likely fight WBC title holder, Deontay Wilder, and fellow Brit, Tyson Fury.
Ajagba, Apochie soldier on
Efe Ajagba and Efe Apochie moved to the United States in 2017 to begin their professional boxing careers and two years down the line, they have began to make names for themselves in the heavyweight and cruiserweight divisions respectively.
Ajagba on December 21 at the Toyota Arena, Ontario, California, recorded his 12th win of his career with a TKO win over Georgian Iago Kiladze.
Apochie also increased his record to nine bouts without a loss, with all ending in knockouts.
UFC: Adesanya, Usman, Yusuff hold sway
In the Ultimate Fighting Championships, the trio Kamaru Usman, Isreal Adesanya and Sodiq Yusuff had an impressive year.