Tom Dele-Bashiru heads into a crucial African Cup of Nations Under-23 match tonight with his dream of playing in the Olympics on the line.
The Watford midfielder, 20, is with the Supers Eagles for the tournament in Egypt and watched from the bench as Ivory Coast won the group opener 1-0 at the Al Salam Stadium in Cairo.
The former Manchester City ball player will now hope to get the nod for the game with Zambia at the same stadium tonight (6pm GMT KO) and a win is now a must if they are to get out of a group that includes South Africa. The top three teams in the eight-team tournament will qualify for Tokyo 2020.
“It’s a big tournament as if we qualify, we get to go to the Olympics,” Dele-Bashiru said. “I’m really excited as it’s a massive competition. There is high expectation to do well and qualify. It will be really disappointing if we don’t qualify. We won it four years ago so we’ve got a lot to live up to. We’ll try our best and hopefully that will be enough.”
Dele-Bashiru is joined in the squad by former Arsenal midfielder Kelechi Nwakali and Wolves forward Bright Enobakhare.
“The Under-20s is a good team and most of the lads are from that team,” said Dele-Bashiru. “I haven’t been with the 23s before, but it looks like a team of very good individual players who work hard together. We’ve got a few guys from Europe so it’s exciting.”
Dele-Bashiru has represented England at Under-16 level, but has switched his allegiance to Nigeria. He was part of the squad at the Under-20 World Cup earlier this season and scored in a 4-0 win over Qatar. Born in Manchester, he qualifies to play for Nigeria through his father.
“I’m very proud of my Nigerian roots,” he said. “It’s a great honour to play for my country and show everyone that Nigeria is a great breeding place for talent. It’s a massive country and we have massive support. Everyone there is a football fanatic so the country will be behind us during this tournament. We have got to make them proud.”
The midfielder’s decision to play for the Super Eagles was also borne out of the esteem in which he holds a Nigerian great.
“Jay-Jay Okocha is my hero,” he said. “I just loved his playing style and watched videos of him all the time when I was growing up. He’s a big hero of mine, as is Kanu.”