Still only 27 and already an African champion with over 50 caps for the Super Eagles, Onazi is a success story with the national team. But none of these would have happened if the late gaffer had not taken an interest in the former Lazio man.
Denizlispor midfielder Ogenyi Onazi has credited late Nigerian coach Stephen Keshi as the man who gave his football career the boost to reach heights he never thought possible.
Onazi first represented Nigeria at the 2009 FIFA U-17 World Cup, where the country, even as hosts, finished as runners-up to winners Switzerland. But Sani Emmanuel, Stanley Okoro, and Olanrewaju Kayode were the stars of that team, not Onazi.
A disappointing period followed for the defensive midfielder as he was overlooked for selection for the 2011 FIFA U-20 World Cup two years later, despite participating in the training camps in Portugal. It seemed his international career, like countless youngsters before him, was over even before it began.
But Onazi managed to find his way to Serie A side Lazio, featured in a Europa League tie against Spurs in 2012 and was fortunate to have Keshi among those in the stands.
The then-Nigerian coach handed him his Super Eagles debut shortly after, and the following year, they both played crucial roles as Nigeria triumphed for the third time at the AFCON in South Africa.
Onazi and Kenneth Omeruo became the only members of that 2009 Golden Eaglets team to lift the 2013 AFCON title.
Onazi is still grateful for that Keshi impact, as revealed in an interview with the Super Eagles Media Team via Instagram.
“Coach Stephen Keshi personally watched me playing against Tottenham Hotspur in the Europa League when I was in Lazio.
“That was when he asked Enebi, the Team Secretary if I was a Nigerian and he said yes, he said he wanted me in the national team, so that’s how I came to the Super Eagles.
“I have so much respect for the Big Boss, I’ll never forget about him, he’s a legend and may his soul rest in peace, and God bless him wherever he is, he contributed massively to my football career.”