On the night of 11 August 1985, in the ancient Chinese city of Beijing, a bunch of skinny, half-coached Nigerian teenagers outclassed their well-drilled German counterparts to lift the maiden edition of the FIFA U-16 World Championship. That surprising feat may have shocked the world to its balls, but it also opened its eyes to the raw footballing talents that abound in the most populous black nation on earth.
Since that time, many countries of the world have watched on with envy as Nigeria continued to churn out wonder kids in the mould of Victor Ikpeba, Austin Okocha, Nwankwo Kanu, Celestine Babayaro among others.
Some nations – mostly England – have been able to tempt away the likes of John Fashanu, Dele Alli, and more recently Tammy Abraham. However, talented stars such as Alex Iwobi, Ola Aina and William Troost-Ekong have shown that Nigeria is probably even more blessed than she was three-and-a-half decades ago.
There is, though, a new whizz kid on the block, turning heads and attracting admiring glances – Arsenal’s Bukayo Saka.
Saka emerged on the scene back in November 2018 when former Arsenal manager Unai Emery handed him his debut in a Europa League game at Vorskla Poltava. The 18-year-old wide man has since scored in Europe, starred in the Premier League and excelled in the English League Cup. A fairytale-like last 15 months it has been for the teenager and surely fairy tales don’t last forever, right? Right?! Wrong!!!
Despite the Gunners having been handled by 3 different managers in the first six months of the season so far, none of them has considered Saka unfit for the first team. None has demoted him back to the juniors.
The latest of them has even taken a special liking to the youngster, praising his attitude and aptitude.
However, with his club career following an upward trajectory, it is only a matter of time before a decision has to be made on which of Nigeria or England Saka should play for.
As the Chelsea duo of Fikayo Tomori and Tammy Abraham have made us aware, the lure to feature for the Three Lions can be more tempting than that of the Super Eagles. Especially when the England senior team seems like the next logical step for a London-born lad who is already a part of the England youth setup.
But the truth is that deciding to play for Nigeria is the smarter move for Saka. Why?
For one, Saka could realistically be a part of the Nigerian party to the 2022 World Cup. The three-time African champions are as well equipped as England to qualify for the Mundial.
But, while England manager Gareth Southgate may consider Saka only ready for the English U-21 side, Super Eagles coach Gernot Rohr has shown that he is not scared to give a deserving, talented rookie his chance. Just think of Samuel Chukwueze and the 2019 AFCON.
Another point to note is that Rohr’s Super Eagles still lack a natural left-wing forward to unleash in the German’s preferred 4-3-3 formation. The former Bordeaux head coach has tried out Samuel Kalu, Moses Simon and even Ahmed Musa in that position, but none can claim to have nailed the shirt down. At least, not in the way Wilfred Ndidi has made the team’s defensive midfield role his own.
If Saka comes in and does a fine job, that left side of Nigeria’s attack could be his to patrol for the next decade and a half.
And more importantly, it is the privilege of a lifetime to wear the same green and white colours once famously worn by legends such as Austin Okocha, Emmanuel Amuneke, George Finidi and Nwankwo Kanu. The likes of William Troost-Ekong have not regretted dumping a world power to play for Nigeria. Alex Iwobi is living a dream, following the footsteps of his mythical Uncle. And Victor Osimhen is showing that you can be a Nigerian, and still be a well-respected football star.
Gernot Rohr is currently building a young, talented and ambitious Super Eagles team that will, in the coming years, rule Africa and maybe rule the world. Bukayo Saka would do himself a world of good to be an active part of that, rather than earn a mere three substitute appearances in an international career that failed to kickoff with England.