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Nigeria not surprised by Bukayo Saka's England decision, but open to switch

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As Nigeria prepare for internationals against Algeria and Tunisia in Austria, Gernot Rohr and Super Eagles fans might be forgiven for looking at England and wondering what might have been.

Bukayo Saka reported to the England training camp on Monday, expected to make his senior debut during this international window in which England play Wales before UEFA Nations Cup fixtures against Belgium and Denmark.

Saka had been courted by Nigeria, and the teenager's decision to accept his first call up to the senior England squad left Super Eagles fans heartbroken, ironically coming as it did on the 60th anniversary of the West African nation's independence from Great Britain.

Not that Saka's decision came as a surprise to anyone.

Much as the Arsenal starlet had been courted overtly by Nigeria, he was always very unlikely to select the Super Eagles ahead of the Three Lions, given he was born and raised in England.

The teenager's connection to Nigeria is tenuous at best, through his parents, and he had never visited the country. So it would have been more of a shock had he turned down England in favour of Nigeria.

Having represented England at multiple cadet levels, any decision to play for Nigeria in full internationals also would have seen his career placed on hold while the process of sorting out his paperwork with FIFA went through.

Nor had his family given the Nigerian delegation much hope that he would choose the Super Eagles, when they were approached a few months ago.

"They told us that they don't want to have him decide on such things yet," a Nigeria source told ESPN.

"He's only 19 and there's a lot of time for him to be making such decisions. Right now it's all about his club football."

Subsequent events show it was not "all about his club football".

Rather, it was probably a polite way of telling the delegation that Saka was not interested in playing for Nigeria.

And Nigeria's new policy, whereby eligible players are approached to let them know they are welcome to the national team, and then left alone to make their decisions, meant that there was no follow-up approach for Saka.

All of which left Nigeria coach Gernot Rohr unsurprised by Saka's decision to accept his England call-up, albeit he sounded somewhat disappointed by the teenager's choice.

"We are not surprised," Rohr told ESPN. "Of course we would have liked to have him with us, but we have to respect this kind of decision from him.

"I wish him good luck and a long career with England."

Saka would have been a phenomenal addition to the Super Eagles squad, especially in the area where he plays. Much as he can feature in a variety of positions, Rohr would have been keen to deploy him at left-back or left wingback rather than on the left side of midfield or attack, where the coach has a glut of talent from which to pick.

Going back well beyond Rohr's time, the Super Eagles have struggled at left-back.

Having previously been blessed with the likes of Ben Iroha, Michael Emenalo, Celestine Babayaro, Ifeanyi Udeze and Taye Taiwo at left-back, the Super Eagles have failed subsequently to find the same quality to run the lines in that position.

Rohr did not entirely trust Elderson Echiejile, who took over from Taiwo, and he has spent most of his four years in charge looking for a capable replacement.

He seemed to have found his replacement in Bryan Idowu, but that proved to be a false dawn.

Jamilu Collins currently occupies the spot, with Ola Aina and Tyronne Ebuehi both serving as reliable back-ups despite not being a natural left footers.

All three have been effective when they have played, but Saka would have been an instant upgrade.

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Rohr has now called up FC Porto's Zaidu Sanusi, who is very highly rated. If Sanusi lives up to the potential that he has shown, Rohr might not mind the loss of Saka quite so much.

However, that loss may not be permanent -- at least not yet -- given FIFA's newly minted rules on the eligibility of players; the door is not entirely closed until Saka makes three senior appearances for England before he turns 21.

There are many who are unhappy about the new rule, arguing that it undermines the value of the national teams of African nations, but the Nigeria Football Federation (NFF) does not believe that is the case.

A NFF source has told ESPN that Saka -- or any player who decides to switch back to Nigeria -- will be welcome, at least under Rohr.

"We don't burn bridges," the source told ESPN. "And we shouldn't. He's gone now. Doesn't mean he can't return. Rules change. And you just can't say never.

"Any player who remains eligible to play for Nigeria will remain welcome under Gernot Rohr as long as he still possesses the qualities that will work for Gernot and his playing philosophy.

Rohr also told ESPN that Saka, "if he wants to change, he will be welcome with me".

For now, Bukayo Saka belongs to, and with, England.