From Wilson Oruma to Macualey Chrisantus, Nigerian youngsters have dazzled before falling by the wayside. Can the Manchester City youngster buck the trend?
By Victor Abimbola
Nigeria is a country of close to 200 million people and undoubtedly blessed with an abundance of talent in many fields, especially football. The amount of success the country has achieved in age group competitions only makes you wonder why the team have failed to reach the quarter-finals of the senior World Cup, despite appearing in three knockout stages to date.
At the end of the 1993 edition of the Under-17 World Cup, the Nigerian trio of Wilson Oruma, Peter Anosike and Nwankwo Kanu had 16 goals amongst them, with Oruma clinching the Golden Boot. In the long run, only Nwankwo Kanu progressed and became a world-class star, winning the UEFA Champions League and Olympic Gold between 1995 and 1996. More titles followed with Arsenal, Ajax and Portsmouth (among others).
Oruma, on the other hand, retired in 2010 having played for nine clubs, Marseille being the most prominent of them. Anosike wasn't that lucky, he couldn’t make it at the highest level and his footballing career has faded into obscurity.
The Golden Eaglets arguably have the best record at Under-17 World Cup level, having appeared in seven finals, winning four and ending as runners-up three times. One can still ask, however, why the Super Eagles have never won the same tournament in the Under-20 age group. That collapse against Mali on home soil in 1999 at the Nnamdi Azikwe Stadium in Enugu still lingers in memory.
Oruma | Promised so much, delivered so little...
Victor Brown, Soga Sambo and Femi Opabunmi were all stars of the team that reached the finals in 2001 but none of them have developed into household names.
Macauley Chrisantus, Kabiru Akinsola, and Ganiyu Oseni all played important roles in the all-conquering team of the late Yemi Tella in 2007, with Chrisantus claiming the Golden Boot. Eight years on, he has failed to break into the Super Eagles and now plays for Sivasspor in the Turkish league while Toni Kroos, who was the star of the German team in that tournament, is now a World Champion and has just signed a contract with the biggest club in the world.
The lack of a proper developmental process has been the greatest undoing of the Nigerian talent pool. Most Nigerian football clubs do not have a proper youth system, nor does the league itself have a well organised set-up for the development of youth. This results in the desperation of players to play abroad professionally instead of coming through the ranks. Age falsification issues are also a major part of the problem while the lack of faith in youth by Nigerian coaches hasn't helped matters either.
Kroos vs. Chrisantus | Unhappy reading for Nigerians
After Kelechi Iheanacho's heroics at the most recent edition of the competition in the UAE, scoring six goals in seven games to claim the Golden Boot, one wonders if it would have been better for Nigerian football in the long term had Keshi taken him on the plane to Brazil instead of some of the squad’s peripheral figures.
For any Nigerian who saw the 17-year-old's performance for the Etihad giants vs. Kansas City in their recent pre-season friendly, one might be tempted to say that he's the next big hope of Nigerian football.
And there's every reason for optimism. The youngster boasts close control, good vision, decent pace and the supreme ability to read the game and get into goal-scoring positions are his biggest attributes. He's also good at bringing his teammates into play and recycling possession high up the pitch, but that still doesn't mean he's the finished article. Kelechi is still a work in progress, but one that has every chance of being a true star.
If he gets a work permit, City has one of the best academies in the world to aid the progress of any youngster, although breaking into the first team will be a tough task and a loan move would benefit him for regular football. Even manager Manuel Pellegrini had to concede however, after the match against Kansas City, that the youngster is an exceptional prospect.
Will Iheanacho buck the trend of so many failed, forgotten Nigerian talents and finally transfer his prodigious ability to the senior side? At the moment he is in the foothills of a giant mountain, but City will look to provide him all of the resources and support needed to rise to the top of the game.
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