Nigeria v Congo: Off-field issues overshadow opening qualifier

Nigeria find themselves mired in off-field issues as they prepare to host Congo in their opening Africa Cup of Nations qualifier on Saturday.

The reigning champions' football federation (NFF) landed in hot water with FIFA when the government intervened following the country's poor performance at the World Cup in Brazil earlier this year.

Football's global governing body subsequently imposed sanctions on the NFF, whose president Aminiu Maigari was arrested upon his return from Brazil, but that ban was lifted when Nigeria's government relented on their position.

However, after NFF elections were held on August 26 while Maigari was being held for questioning, FIFA stated that it did not recognise the result of the vote and originally set a deadline of September 1 to remove those who still claimed to hold positions as a result of the ballot.

The FIFA Emergency Committee has since extended that deadline by a week, but warned an immediate suspension will be imposed if their latest request is not met.

FIFA's new deadline falls midway between Nigeria's opening two qualifiers, with a trip to South Africa next up after Saturday's home match against Congo, only in the competition following Rwanda's disqualification for fielding an ineligible player.

The issue represents an unwelcome distraction for coach Stephen Keshi, who has faced further difficulties ahead of the Congo fixture.

Villarreal striker Ikechukwu Uche was due to be part of the Nigeria squad for the forthcoming fixtures, but - according to Keshi - asked to be begged to join up with the squad.

The request backfired for Uche, who saw his invite to rejoin the national team withdrawn as a result.

"He was supposed to be part of the team that is presently in camp but he said we must beg him first to play for Nigeria because he was left out of some competitions," said Keshi. "But I can't beg anyone to play for Nigeria, impossible.

"That's why he is not here."

Uche has moved to deny Keshi's claims, writing on Twitter: "It's an honour to play for Nigeria. I don't expect to be begged or given special treatment. I'm available when/if considered for selection."

Keshi remains in charge of the national team, despite tendering his resignation following the World Cup.

As if this fixture did not come with enough off-field drama, the NFF reported Congo to CAF this week over the withholding of travel plans, which the Nigerian body claimed would cause problems with the issuing of visas.

Nigeria will be without goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama, who has withdrawn citing family reasons, but fans of both teams will be relieved when Saturday finally comes and off-field politics can give way to 90 minutes of football, as the hosts take their first step towards defending their Cup of Nations crown.