Several Nigerian footballers had a memorable 2023, giving fans many unforgettable moments when little or nothing was expected of them.
Soccernet.ng‘s Imhons Erons highlights five of the most promising youngsters whose outstanding performances this year took breathes away and made admirers of many neutrals.
1. Gift Orban – KAA Gent
Very little was known about Gift Orban when he signed for Gent in January, as he had never featured for any of Nigeria’s youth teams.
But Gent knew they had acquired a gem as Orban had been named the Norwegian First Division Young Player of the Year for 2022.
The youngster wasted no time in announcing his arrival in Belgium, netting a brace on his Pro League debut in a 3–3 draw with Westerlo.
By March, he was the talk of the town after he scored four goals in a 6–2 away win over Zulte Waregem, becoming the first Gent player to do so in the 21st century.
Three days later, Orban made Europe sit up and take notice as he smashed home a first-half hat-trick in a 4–1 away win over İstanbul Başakşehir in the UEFA Europa Conference League round 16.
Orban’s hat-trick took only three minutes and 25 seconds, setting a new record for the fastest hat-trick in UEFA club competitions, breaking the previous record of six minutes and 12 seconds held by Mohammed Salah in the Champions League.
By the end of the year, Orban earned his first Super Eagles call-up, completing a fantastic first year in Belgium.
Orban has slowed down a bit in recent weeks, but at only 21, more is still to come from the Benue-born forward.
2. Victor Boniface – Bayer Leverkusen
Injuries and inconsistencies blighted Boniface’s time at Bodø/Glimt, and he would have hoped for better when he signed for Union Saint Gilloise in mid-2022.
Interestingly, Boniface got better and much more at Union SG, and by the time 2023 rolled in, he was in full flow.
The Real Sapphire academy product scored six goals in ten games to help USG reach the quarterfinals of the Europa League, while he finished as joint-top scorer with Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford.
Bayer Leverkusen swiftly snapped him up for just over 20 million euros this summer, and it appears to be the best zwanzig millionen the club has ever spent.
Boniface has picked up each of the first four Bundesliga Rookie of the Month awards in Germany and he added the Player of the Month for August as well.
The 23-year-old attacker has been Bayer Leverkusen’s star man as they claimed 20 wins from their first 23 games to stay top of the Bundesliga and their Europa League group.
Boniface’s excellent performances have also won him the admiration of Super Eagles head coach Jose Peseiro, who has handed the youngster five caps and named him in the provisional squad for the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations in Ivory Coast.
He has overtaken Alex Iwobi, Kelechi Iheanacho, Samuel Chukwueze, and Ademola Lookman to become Nigeria’s second-most-valuable player behind Napoli’s Victor Osimhen.
3. Igoh Ogbu – Slavia Prague
After excelling for Nigeria as the Flying Eagles impressed at the 2019 Africa U-20 Cup of Nations and the 2019 FIFA U-20 World Cup, Ogbu’s career went under the radar as he featured for a couple of Norwegian sides.
However, on 6 January 2023, the no-nonsense centre-back joined Czech Republic giants Slavia Prague and quickly became one of Nigeria’s best defenders in Europe.
A regular feature in Slavia’s lineup, Ogbu is one of the reasons why the Slavists nearly wrestled the league title from rivals Sparta Prague on the last day of last season.
The former Lillestrom star has kicked off the 2023/24 campaign in excellent fashion, helping Slavia Prague record some interesting results, including beating Jose Mourinho’s AS Roma in the Europa League.
Ogbu would be disappointed to miss out on Nigeria’s 40-man provisional squad to the 2023 AFCON, but it is only a matter of time before the 23-year-old becomes the pillar of the Super Eagles defence.
4. Akor Adams – Montpellier
Adams has enjoyed a sensational 2023.
The former Flying Eagles striker smashed 15 league goals and added two assists in Lillestrom in the first half of the year, convincing Montpellier to shell €4.5 million for his services in the summer.
Montpellier would be glad they parted with that princely sum as Adams has taken to the French Ligue 1 without trouble.
The 23-year-old forward has scored another seven goals in 17 league games in France and has attracted the attention of some of Europe’s biggest clubs, including AC Milan.
Big things await the former Sogndal ace – now valued at more than twice his transfer fee – in 2024.
5. Robert Christian Mizo – Bayelsa United
The only player in the Nigeria Professional Football League on this list, Robert Mizo has been one of the brightest youngsters in the domestic scene.
Mizo was the second-highest goal scorer last season, with eight goals, and he carried the momentum into this campaign.
After only 15 matches this term, the Bayelsa United star is at the top of the goalscorer’s chart with ten goals, which includes a hat-trick against Akwa United and braces against Kwara United and Abia Warriors.
Mizo’s excellence is even more significant considering Bayelsa United are struggling in the NPFL’s relegation waters and has only managed 19 goals so far.
A move to a more consistent team next year could see the 23-year-old attacker take his game to the next level and bring more entertainment to fans of the NPFL.