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Peter Olawale: Nigeria's 'little Ronaldo' that Dortmund targeted

12:00 BST 10/09/2020
Peter Olawale NxGn
The 18-year-old forward had a number of top European clubs interested in him before eventually opting to join Israeli side Hapoel Ra'anana in August

Peter Olawale needed just 21 minutes to announce himself at the Under-17s World Cup back in 2019.

Having been handed a starting berth for Nigeria's third group game in Brazil, the forward beat Australia goalkeeper Adam Pavlesic with a terrific, curling, left-footed shot midway through the first half.

Though Nigeria eventually lost the match 2-1, it provided Olawale the opportunity to truly announce himself on the global stage.

Blessed with lightning-fast speed and - at 6'2" - a threatening aerial prowess, the 18-year-old forward has drawn comparisons with Brazil great Ronaldo Nazario, owing to his appetite for goals and his tendency to showboat when the game situation allows.

Olawale, who began life as a winger, idolises the Real Madrid and Barcelona legend, and has made no secret of his desire to follow in his footsteps.

“My role model is Ronaldo [Nazario],” he told Goal in an exclusive interview. “I love the way he played, he was fast, skilful and had power-packed shots too. These are the characteristics I possess.

“I watch his videos always and I keep working hard to do better than him. As much as I feel honoured getting compared with this football icon, I try to be myself always.”

Like most of his Lagos-born footballing peers, Olawale’s love for the beautiful game overtook his secondary school education, and he regularly absconded from academic activities to train with neighbouring grassroots teams.

This posed a big problem for his family, who had hoped for their son to become a mechanical engineer.

His father, who had fallen short in his own quest to become a professional footballer, first insisted on education, but after much persuading, Olawale senior finally relented and agreed to entrust his son’s sporting development to Tripple 44 Academy boss Samuel Olatunji-Okuku.

“At first, I did not take him so seriously because I felt he was doing nothing special, maybe because I was once a footballer,” Olawale’s father, Rauf, told Goal. “Several coaches would come to my house to convince me, but I was unyielding.

“Peter was doing badly in school, but I felt it would be an irrational decision asking him to drop out to pursue his football dream because so many youths [in Lagos] have wasted the better part of their life in their bid to chase football dreams.

“He is an introvert to the core but when he is with the ball, he becomes another creature entirely.

“Seeing him represent Nigeria at the U17 World Cup and also scoring against Australia still dominates my thoughts. I still feel like I’m dreaming.”

Olawale’s reserved demeanour off the field initially counted against him when he arrived at Tripple 44, with coaches initially believing he was too soft to make it as a professional.

That perception was soon shattered within nine minutes of his debut, though, as he netted twice to catch the attention of a number of onlookers.

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“When Peter first came to Tripple 44 aged 14, he was asked to play against the first team because the U15 side had gone to play in a competition,” Olatunji-Okuku told Goal.

“Despite playing against those older than him, I saw a fast, skilful and strong player who could create chances out of nothing. Unfortunately, he couldn’t complete the test game despite scoring two goals as he was substituted due to injury.

“He trained with my team for over two months and I was impressed at the level of his technical ability, his dribbling ability and his knack for scoring goals.

“Also, he is a player every coach would want to have in his team because he is hardworking and can play in any position…apart from goalkeeper!”

Following his return from the World Cup, Olawale attracted interest from Lille, Borussia Dortmund, Anderlecht and Besiktas while Turkish giants Galatasaray offered around €500,000 for the striker’s services, with Sevilla also having a bid turned down.

Dortmund in particular caught the imagination given their record for promoting young talents, but if Olawale was to make a move to Europe, he wanted to do so with a team where he would earn first-team opportunities right away.

"The issue here was that Borussia Dortmund wanted him but could not guarantee him regular playing time, and we don’t want a situation where the boy would head for a club where he won’t be given a chance,” Olatunji-Okuku said.

“Without doubt, Dortmund are a very solid team and they have a good project for young boys.

"Nevertheless, if you look at how the team is set up in the last couple of years, you will discover that most of their superstars have first made a name for themselves elsewhere.

“So for Olawale, who is still a boy, we feel it is better for him to go somewhere and develop himself. And if Dortmund comes later in his career, then, of course, it will be a very good move.”

Olawale ultimately picked Israeli second-tier side Hapoel Ra’anana as the destination where he will continue his development, with his transfer becoming official in August.

“That was not the initial plan, but the coronavirus pandemic which caught the world unawares played a key role in Olawale’s move to Israel because a lot of European clubs were very reluctant to sign him without trials,” said Olatunji-Okuku.

Nigerian stars such as Yakubu and Vincent Enyeama refined their game in Israel before moving onto more demanding European leagues, and Olawale will be hoping that the transfer to Ra’anana can represent a first stepping stone before moving onto bigger and better things.

He has made the perfect start having netted four goals in his first friendly appearance for Gal Cohen's side before again scoring for the club's U19s side over the international break as he awaits his full first-team debut.

"Going into the game, I had a strong belief that I will register my name among the goalscorers," Olawale told Goal following his first competitive strike for his new club.

"I was drafted in to play for the club’s youth team because of the international break. Now my focus will be on the first-team, and coach Cohen has told me we have a big match straight away.

“With luck on my side I hope to continue my scoring run."

Back in Nigeria, there is much excitement building regarding the current Super Eagles side and the emerging talents of Victor Osimhen, Samuel Chukwueze and Josh Maja.

If Olawale is able to continue on his current trajectory, perhaps he can be the jewel in the crown of Nigeria’s footballing future.