Brighton & Hove Albion defender Leon Balogun has stressed the importance of focus and professionalism during Nigeria’s AFCON 2019 campaign, which gets underway against Burundi tomorrow evening.
The Super Eagles kick off their tournament as one of a number of sides harbouring ambitions of winning the title, but Balogun emphasised the competitive nature of the continent’s biggest international competition.
He said, “Some people will look at our group and think it will be easy, but there’s no such games at tournaments like this one.
“Sometimes when you play teams who people consider to be underdogs you have your hardest matches – you only have to look at someone likes ourselves at Brighton to see how much you can put the bigger teams under pressure and give them a tough time.
“Once we get through the group stage you can start thinking in this way, but for us the next game is always the hardest one and that’s the mentality we’ll have to have for the tournament.”
Gernot Rohr’s side will be making their first appearance in the competition since winning the title in 2013, and the Albion central defender admits Nigeria’s supporters have high expectations for the squad.
“It’s a big occasion for the whole of Nigeria. We haven’t been part of the last two and after winning the trophy [in 2013] there’s also been a bit of disappointment at that,” he continued.
“It’s far different to something like a World Cup. Nigeria have always been one of the most successful African nations – to have not been part of the last two tournaments was tough.
“We’ll be one of the sides that people think will go close to winning it, and certainly inside the dressing room there’ll be a lot of the team who’ll want to lift the trophy. hat’s the reason you go to tournaments like this, but there’s a lot of competition.”
Nigeria take on Guinea and Madagascar in their remaining two group contests following tomorrow evening’s opener, and Balogun warned against complacency.
“You have a certain factor of unpredictability. One thing you have to know about all the African sides is that they’re all very physical with top athletes.
“They have amazing pace and for me it’s about always being ready. We always analyse the opposition to know what to expect, but you always have to be prepared for something out of the ordinary to happen as well.
“It’s down to the players on the pitch to make things work.”