COMMENT By Solace Chukwu
It is often during international tournaments that legends are born.
Tournaments allow for a myth to be built around players and performances in a way that qualifiers and friendlies do not: the stakes are higher, and the spotlight is at its harshest. Mistakes are canonized, but so are heroics, even those of the minor kind.
Yakubu Aiyegbeni remains, in the minds of Nigerians, a waster of chances who had the gall to laugh in a moment of intense anguish.
Never mind that his mirth was born of incredulity rather than nonchalance, that he is the third highest goalscorer in the history of the national team, or that he is in a select group of African players who have exceeded a century of goals in Premier League history.
It is that miss at the 2010 World Cup that defines him.
On the other end of this spectrum is a player like Julius Aghahowa, who is widely revered despite the fact that his scoring record, outside of international tournaments, was somewhat mediocre.
He excelled at major competitions: first in a breakout 2000 Africa Cup of Nations, and then in 2002 when he starred both at the Afcon and at the World Cup, but rarely made a decisive input during qualification campaigns.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does highlight the outsized significance that performances in tournaments assume.
In Aghahowa's case, that was embellished further by an initial super-sub role which meant that his contributions, when they came, were particularly decisive.
His strike against Morocco at the 2000 Afcon soothed jangling nerves and secured the victory that saw the Super Eagles win Group D, while his late brace in the quarter-final against Senegal turned a 1-0 deficit on its head. It was a debut that immediately launched the then 18-year-old.
In 19-year-old Samuel Chukwueze, Nigeria once again have a player who appears ready to have a similar kind of impact at this summer's Africa Cup of Nations.
The Villarreal forward is in the middle of a breakout season in Spain with the Yellow Submarine, for whom he has been a shining light in a gloomy season. Five goals in all competitions this season has served notice of his immense talent, and has also awakened interest from some of Europe’s more established sides.
More pertinently, he made his international debut in November’s goalless draw against Uganda in Warri, and though he only played the first half, it was a performance that indicated a very high ceiling.
Quick across the ground, with a tremendous self-confidence and a wand of a left-foot, he calls to mind another winger who, 25 years ago, wrote his name into Nigerian football history with a historic cameo.
It would be borderline blasphemous to directly equate Chukwueze to Emmanuel Amuneke, of course.
For one thing, the latter was already quite well established before the 1994 Afcon, and had been chomping at the bit to prove his ability all tournament long by the time erstwhile coach Clemens Westerhof sprung a surprise by telling him he would start in the final.
It felt like it was overdue, and perhaps the feeling that he had a point to prove spurred Amuneke, whose brace saw Nigeria crowned champions.
So no, there are few obvious parallels beyond the superficial: winger, pace, left foot.
There is also the fact that modern football, with its round the clock, wall-to-wall coverage, no longer affords the opportunity to surprise the opposition in the same way that it once did. It is harder now than it ever was to have a true joker in the pack.
Samuel Chukwueze with yet another goal. Still a lot to improve (timing, as well as associative play without the ball, etc), but he's a genuinely exciting prospect. Whether his development will continue at Villarreal beyond this season is another matter.— Solace Chukwu (@TheOddSolace) January 17, 2019
With the surprise element gone, a lot will depend on the discretion of Super Eagles coach Gernot Rohr, in terms of how he chooses to unleash the youngster for maximum effect.
It is one thing to know what is coming, and quite another to have the wherewithal to avert it.
In much the same way that Aghahowa’s particular set of skills – his movement and predatory instincts inside the box – made him so useful late on in games, Rohr will have to find the correct moments in-game when Chukwueze’s qualities can be most effective.
Relegation looks increasingly inevitable for Villarreal. Mad, considering the players they have, but something is just not right.— Solace Chukwu (@TheOddSolace) January 26, 2019
Knowing that, Samuel Chukwueze's reps needs to have an exit strategy. One that, hopefully, doesn't involve flying him too close to the sun just yet.
Between getting that right, and finding the player’s trigger in much the same way that Westerhof tapped into Amuneke’s mental state in 1994, there lurks the very real potential for Chukwueze to be the Super Eagles’ wildcard in Egypt come the summer.