The Leicester City ace is currently regarded as one of the world’s best in his position, but it could all have gone very differently
There is a cool calmness about Wilfred Ndidi every time he is on the football pitch. Whether he is making a rough tackle, cleanly intercepting an opponent’s forward pass, or heading out a dangerous cross, Ndidi does his job without fuss or furore.
He cuts the picture of a composed young man who knows the impossible place he is coming from, who appreciates the giant stride made, and who clearly understands that he is not yet where his potential can take him.
Unfortunately, Ndidi’s calm mien sometimes leaves him at the mercy of many who take his talent for granted and underrate him massively.
For instance, on Saturday, CAF suggested that Yves Bissouma is the best defensive midfielder so far at the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations by naming the Malian into the team of the group stage, ahead of Ndidi despite the Nigerian posting better stats.
#AFCON2021 Group Stage's BEST:— CAF (@CAF_Online) January 22, 2022
✖️1⃣ #TeamEquatorialGuinea#TotalEnergiesAFCON2021 pic.twitter.com/oSrAfcSjLn
The Leicester star has made the most tackles and recoveries of anyone in Cameroon while posting better numbers in chances created, interceptions, defensive blocks, and duels won than the Brighton Hove and Albion ace.
Ndidi does the simplest things expected of his role excellently well, he cleans up diligently behind the attackers in front of him, and he makes this hard job look so easy, which fuels the temptation to underestimate him.
Another continent, another championship, Ndidi would have no rival for that slot in front of the defence. But you will not catch him make a fuss about that slight, though.
Rather, wherever he is right now, he is eager to train and excited to help Nigeria beat Tunisia in Garoua.
That is the attitude that has helped the Super Eagles star weather several storms in his career, the worst of which nearly swept him away completely from football more than eight years ago.
After excelling on the local teen circuit with Nath Boys academy, Ndidi was drafted to the national cadet team. He excelled there and made the Golden Eaglets squad to the 2013 Africa U-17 Championship in Morocco.
But on the eve of the competition, Ndidi and two other Nigerian teens – Ibrahim Abdullahi and Emmanuel Asadu – were sent home after failing an MRI test.
A certain Kelechi Iheanacho and Isaac Success fired Nigeria to a second-place finish behind Ivory Coast on the continent.
Later in November that year, the duo teamed up with Taiwo Awoniyi to lift Nigeria’s fourth FIFA U-17 World Cup in the United Arab Emirates.
While these three forwards have gone on to play for the Super Eagles, nothing was ever heard again of Ibrahim Abdullahi and Emmanuel Asadu.
Ndidi refused to fade away like his other two unlucky compatriots, though.
He resurfaced with the Nigeria U-20 team the following year, and in January 2015, aged just 18 years, the youngster signed for Gent and moved to Belgium.
It did not take long for top football scouts to realise that Ndidi was a cut above the rest in the Belgian top flight and that his qualities would best suit the English Premier League.
And when Chelsea snatched Ngolo Kante off the hands of Leicester City, the Foxes swiftly signed Ndidi in January 2017 as the Frenchman’s replacement.
Five years and almost 200 appearances later, Ndidi has developed into one of the most sought-after defensive midfielders in the world.
The 25-year-old won his first club honours last year after Leicester lifted the FA Cup and the Community Shield.
Ndidi has been just as influential for the Super Eagles, racking up over 40 international caps in only six years.
The Lagos-born midfield dynamo represented Nigeria at the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. He was a vital member of the Super Eagles side that finished in third place at the 2019 Afcon in Egypt.
Ndidi has been one of Nigeria’s best stars in Cameroon. His contribution was critical to the Super Eagles conceding just once (via a VAR awarded penalty) in their first three matches.
Should the Eagles defeat Tunisia on Sunday and go on to win the Nations Cup, no one will savour the triumph more than Ndidi, a name which would have been just a footnote on the pages of history.