Two players with the same first names, who received global acclaim as teenagers find themselves and their careers at crossroads knowing fully well that whatever they do in the next few months will determine if they can halt their imminent decline.
Kelechi Iheanacho won the Golden Ball as the tournament’s best player to lead Nigeria to her fifth triumph at the 2013 World U-17 Championships. The best clubs in the world were so attracted to this precocious talent that it was no surprise when he ended up at Manchester City, a team on a destined journey to the top of English football.
Two years later, another Nigerian wunderkid took a similar path to the top. After narrowly missing out on the 2013 Golden Eaglet squad for being too young, Kelechi Nwakali, refusing to let his head drop, returned to captain the Nigeria team to yet another gold medal outing at the Mundial. And just like Iheanacho 24 months before him, Nwakali was recognized and honoured as the best U-17 player in the world as he took home the Golden Ball Award.
Only great things were expected of the youngster afterwards and when it was announced that he had joined former English champions Arsenal, there seemed to be no better place to continue his development than under the tutelage of the master of teen-managers – Arsene Wenger.
But things have not gone to plan for the Kelechis. Iheanacho did enjoy an eye-catching breakthrough season at City, scoring 8 league goals in his debut season mostly from the bench. But he managed only 4 goals the season after that in 20 league appearances and Pep Guardiola’s patience thinned.
The Citizens smartly cashed in on him that season end, sanctioning a £25 million move to Leicester City also in the Premier League. The Foxes desired a backup striker for Englishman Jamie Vardy and saw the Nigeria international as the ideal goal getter to pick the mantle when Vardy drops it.
Ironically, Vardy has shown no sign of slowing down while the former Golden Ball winner only managed a single strike in more than 30 league matches last season.
That, amazingly, is more than Nwakali has done for the Gunners since he joined 4 years ago. Days ago, he was released from his contract by the Emirates lords and allowed to move to Spanish second division side, Huesca. He didn’t make a single appearance for Arsenal’s senior team.
He spent seasons on loan in Holland and Portugal but with all his undisputed talent, Nwakali could not force his way into first team reckoning in North London.
However, there are far less pressures on an attacking midfielder than there are on a striker. Even though modern football is a number’s game, a few goals and assists in the lower-tier league in Spain should bring Nwakali’s game back into national and international focus.
Whoever is tasked with working on Nwakali’s weaknesses would do well to pay close attention to the lad’s ball retention skills and his decision making abilities in the final third. The 20-year-old also makes far too few late runs into the opponent’s box, a stat that must improve for his goal count to receive a boost.
The Super Eagles have a short queue of stars waiting in line for that coveted playmaker role in the team and while Alex Iwobi has put in a decent shift until now, a player with a natural instinct for that role in the mould of Kelechi Nwakali will offer the national team more. A few fans have even called for Nwakali to be drafted into the team to understudy the Everton winger. But nothing good comes easy.
Work, work, work. That should be the motto for Nwakali going forward. Nigeria cannot afford to watch him go into obscurity like Sani Emmanuel and Macauley Chrisantus, two former U-17 World Cup stars who faded into oblivion when challenges demanded that they fly rather than fail.
Victor Osimhen, another of Nigeria’s famous U-17 heroes, faced such challenges at Wolfsburg. Victor Osimhen rose above those challenges at little-fancied Sporting Charleroi when it was easier to surrender and let go. Today, Osimhen is one of the finest stars of the French Ligue 1.
Nwakali can show in the coming weeks that he’s got the quality to be playing in a better league and at a higher stage than Huesca and the Spanish Segunda. It would be sad to see him fail to shine there and go unfulfilled as Kelechi Iheanacho on the Leicester City bench. The time to make the most of that precious, God-given gift is now.