Super Eagles top striker Odion Ighalo shocked his countrymen when he announced his retirement from international football only moments after leading Nigeria to a bronze medal finish at the Africa Cup of Nations.
The former Watford forward got 5 goals at the tournament after netting an incredible seven during the qualifiers. It was the most productive period in the 30-year-old’s time in the green and white.
But is the most populous black nation on earth left without other options?
Who is the next to pick up the goalscoring mantle left behind by Ighalo?
Kelechi Iheanacho? Paul Onuachu? Victor Osimhen? Henry Onyekuru?
A year or two ago, the answer to that question would have been as clear as spring water. None of the others named can hold a candle-light next to Iheanacho’s record in international football.
At just 16, he had won the biggest African title with the Golden Eaglets. But it was at the 2013 U-17 FIFA World Cup that his light truly shown bright: scoring six goals, providing numerous assists, and lifting the title.
He was ultimately named the Golden Ball winner, the next ‘big thing’ in world football. Nigerians simply could not wait to see him blossom and launched against the rest of the world.
And blossom, he did under the watchful eyes of the world’s best, Pep Guardiola. The Spanish manager gradually eased him into English football where he banged in 10 goals in 41 mostly substitute appearances, notching an impressive minute-to-goal ratio.
Kelechi soon made his debut with the Super Eagles and revved the fans up with seven stunning strikes in his first eleven international games. The fans went wild. “He’ll break Rashidi Yekini’s goals record,” some predicted.
However, with Manchester City not lacking in star quality in attack, it was generally considered a good move for his development when Iheanacho switched to Leicester City.
Scored six goals at U17 World Cup in 2013, won the golden ball award for player of the tournament. Then, he was dubbed the Nigerian Ozil. He performed wonders at City. He may be down now, but I believe he'll come back soon.
Kelechi Iheanacho. pic.twitter.com/OozHlQxkQA
— Trophy Zone (@Trophyzone1308) April 20, 2019
But things have not gone as planned since. He has only managed 4 goals in 44 appearances for the Foxes and his goal in Leicester’s pre-season friendly win a few days ago was his first in ten months for the club.
Finally! Iheanacho has scored in Leicester city's pre-season win over Cambridge United, his first goal in 10 months
Could that goal spark a return to form for the Super Eagles🦅🇳🇬 striker? pic.twitter.com/lyT0LVS3CU
— Pulse Nigeria Sports (@PulseSports247) July 24, 2019
IHEANACHO back 🔥🔥🔥 pic.twitter.com/3qFPlkwEYq
— Soar Super Eagles (@SSE_NGA) July 23, 2019
The story has not been different on the international scene with Kelechi managing just one strike in his last 15 matches for the Super Eagles. A major reason why he was axed out of the AFCON 2019 squad for a newbie Victor Osimhen.
Rohr Dropped Iheanacho from Super Eagles AFCON 2019 Squad.
Kelechi Iheanacho we thought would be the Okocha/Nwankwo Kanu of this age.
What happened to him? 🤦😪
— Osas Cruz (@OsasWrite) June 9, 2019
So, what exactly happened to everyone’s favourite left-footed forward before Samuel Chukwueze?
It’s a combination of several factors.
One, the 23-year-old is having trouble transitioning to a classical striker. Kelechi’s style of play is unique: he’s neither a true Number 10 nor a typical Number 9.
In fact, he’s had his most beautiful days playing in-between. In his glorious U-17 days, he thrived as an advance midfielder, almost as a supporting striker, scoring loads of goals in a withdrawn forward position. In a world where the 4-4-2 is going extinct and 4-2-3-1 is competing vigorously against the 4-3-3, Kelechi’s skill-set is less in demand and therefore less appreciated. But can he re-invent himself?
Two, the former Man City youngster is not playing enough football.
Just like he had Sergio Aguero ahead of him at City, Iheanacho is yet again playing second fiddle to Jamie Vardy at Leicester City. The Nigerian lad does not have the pace or the ruthless eyes for goal that the Englishman displays at nearly every turn.
He will never be a regular for the Foxes as long as Vardy wears that 9 jersey and Jamie does not look like he is going anywhere soon.
And, three, the Youngman is no longer enjoying his football.
That big, broad smile that always accompanies every goal has long faded. Iheanacho is often seen walking around the pitch like a man with heavy metals on his shoulders.
With his form gone, harsh criticisms have taken the place of earlier praises. His head dropped and his confidence plummeted. He did not apply himself that much any more, causing even his national team coach to question his attitude and professionalism.
Some things just have to change.
What then must Iheanacho do to get his groove back?
The Super Eagles forward must leave Leicester. Last season, Iheanacho made only nine starts and 20-odd substitute appearances for his club, registering a solitary goal. He cannot afford to repeat such ugly, boring numbers this fast-approaching season.
He needs his confidence back for his quality to shine through. And that only comes by playing regularly.
He will do well to switch to a club where he will be trusted with a striking role and granted just enough chances to master the tricks of leading the attack.
The Youngman must embrace the job and demands of a striker. He’ll never make a good box-to-box midfielder, anyway, so why not give scoring goals a good go?
Kelechi will only turn 23 in another 2 months, so his best years are still ahead of him. Score regularly enough and a proper contract from a top, top club will likely surface in another two or three years.
Yes, he may have to leave the cut-throat, toxic football atmosphere in England and nestle in any of the serene, healthy, growth-inclined leagues in Belgium, France, or Holland.
He may also have to take a pay-cut from his present mouthwatering salary of N30 million a week.
But would it not be better to be playing and scoring for Anderlecht or RB Salzburg than cheering others on from the Leicester City bench?
Odion Ighalo (China), Jamilu Collins (Paderborn) and Ahmed Musa (Saudi Arabia) have all shown that it does no matter where you are, as long as you’re playing regularly, you can make Gernot Rohr’s team.
Odion Ighalo’s premature departure has left a big hole in the Super Eagles’ attack. A back-to-goalscoring-form Kelechi Iheanacho can more than adequately fill that hole for the best part of the next decade. It is his destiny and it’s time to take it.