By CHRIS SULEIMAN
The rising profile of Nigeria’s prodigy, Kelechi Iheanacho is only a testimony to the fact that Nigeria is the most successful country in the FIFA cadet competition. The Nigeria Golden Eaglets were five times champions of the FIFA Under-17 World Cup. Nigeria were champions from the first edition played in China in 1985 and also won the latest edition in Chile in the year 2015 to make it five trophies for Nigeria’s Golden Eaglets haven won in Japan 1993, Korea 2007, UAE 2013 and of course Chile 2015.
Needless to take us through the long history of the competition, it is on record that aside winning the tournament more than any nation in the world, Nigerian players have also dominated the individual awards in the global cadet soccer competition. From Philip Osondu in 1987, to Kanu Nwankwo, Wilson Orumah in 1993, Femi Opabunmi in 2001, Chrisantus Macurley in 2007, Kelechi Iheanacho, Kelechi Nwakali, Victor Osimhen are Nigerian players who have also distinguished themselves in this category as either MVP or top scorers.
In fact, Nigeria’s Victor Osimhen holds the record of the all time top scorer of the FIFA U-17 when he finished with ten goals and scoring in all matches played in the 2015 edition of the competition, which Nigeria won under coach Emmanuel Amuneke. It is however, unfortunate that Nigeria would not be there to defend the trophy after Niger Republic eliminated the Eaglets in the qualifying two-legged matches for the African U-17 Championship.
Pundits were however, worried that the success at this level has not been translated to the senior national team. The Nigerian senior national team; the Super Eagles have never gone beyond the second round of the FIFA World Cup. While the Flying Eagles, which are next to the U-17 won silver twice in the World Youth Championship in 1989 and 2005 respectively.
The biggest soccer success on the world stage by Nigerian team was in 1996 when the Nigerian U-23 code-named the Dream Team conquered the world to win an Olympic goal medal in the men’s football event; the first an African nation attained that feat. In 2008 the same U-23 won silver medal in the same category and a bronze medal in the just concluded Rio 2016 Olympic which now makes Nigeria to have won all the three medals at different times.
However the success story of the Nigerian U-17 is not in anyway tarnished. The competition was conceived for developmental purposes and helping to identify and raise talents in the round leather game. It is however, regrettable that, Nigeria pays more attention to winning the tournament than focusing on talents identification and this has affected the gains of the successes the nation has recorded. For instance, there was wide spread allegation of fielding over-aged players to prosecute this age-grade competition, which is evident in the level of progression of the players after a good outing in the tournament. Needless to go into details on this.
Nevertheless, Nigeria has reaped so much from this tournament. The soccer world cannot forget in a hurry the exploits of the legendary Kanu Nwankwo. His contribution and exploit on the world stage would go down in the anal of history anytime round leather game is been discussed. Kanu stood out among his other colleagues at the Japan 1993 U-17. The likes of Wilson Orumah, Festus Odini, Peter Anosike, Manga Mohammed, Ibrahim Babangida, Celestine Babayaro, Mobi Oparaku were among Kanu’s team mates. Kanu made it to the Super Eagles before his contemporaries, he featured in the November 16th 1994 1-0 loss of Super Eagles against the 3-Lions of England where David Platt did the damage with a header.
Alongside Finidi George in Ajax Kanu won the Champions League, he was the captain of the Dream Team that won the Olympic gold medal and the scorer of the first ever golden goal in global football tournament. That goal sent out Brazil from the gold medal chase and qualified Nigeria for the final match.
He won the prestigious African Footballer of the year award twice. No doubt, Kanu was the most successful player who played for the Nigerian U-17. He played the FIFA World Cup thrice and the Olympic, but never participated in the U-20 World Youth Championship, he was however, at the Mauritius 1993 Africa Youth Championship. Kanu captained the Super Eagles of Nigeria.
Unlike Kanu, Mikel played in one of the worst set of the Nigeria U-17 side. The team under Coach Augustine Eguavoen despite parading good and talented players failed to go beyond the group stage. Strangely, the team was eliminated through a toss of coin. The Golden Eaglets with their Costa Rica counterparts played three matches each, both teams tied on points and goal differences. In their three matches they both won one each, drew one and lost one. They scored three goals and conceded the same number and were left with zero goals aggregate as such ended with four points each. The same team, Even when they competed at the African U-17 Championship, they were stopped at the semi-final by war-ravaged Sierra Leone. Isaac Promise, Emmanuel Sarki, Awwalu Aminu, Ambruse Vanzakin, Omoh Attah, Ezekiel Bala, Chinedu Obasi Ogbuke, Solomon Okoronkwo were among Mikel’s team mate in the Finland 2003 U-17 World Cup..
Mikel was however lucky, as fortunes smile on him and few other teammates again when Samson Siasia picked some of them to prosecute the African Youth Championship and World Youth Championship. Siasia led the Nigerian side to beat Egypt in the final match of the AYC with Isaac Promise keeping to his name when he got a brace to give Nigeria victory in that competition. Though Mikel was not at the AYC, but participated in WYC where he shone like a million star. It took the brilliance of the Argentine led by Lionel Messi to deny the Nigerian Flying Eagles the trophy.
John Obi Mikel won the Silver Ball behind Lionel Messi. Many Nigerians were however, disappointed that Mikel has not been able to hold his own in terms of winning individual awards like Messi who many disputed his winning of the Golden Ball ahead of Mikel in 2005. The closer Mikel came near winning such an award was when he finished second behind Ivory Coast Star, Yaya Toure for the Africa Player of the year Award, besides winning the young African Footballer of the year some years back.
But Mikel has won titles with club and country. He has participated in almost all major football competitions in the world and has been very successful. There is no doubting the fact that, Mikel followed the legendary Kanu Nwankwo behind in terms of players who rose from the FIFA U-17 to the big stage in Nigeria. He is also presently the captain of the Super Eagles like Kanu Nwankwo.
Behind Kanu and Mikel, a lot of other young players with prospects are emerging. You can’t deny the fact that the likes of Kelechi Nwankali, Victor Osimhen, Chidera Eze, Chukwueze, Dele Alampasu are all prospective young talents waiting to explode. You will however, be economical with the truth if you fail to single out Kelechi Iheanacho for praises. His intimidating rising profile should draw attention of global soccer stakeholders as the next big thing to come out of Africa considering his age vis-a-vis his exploits.
After he emerged as the Most Valueble Player of the 2013 FIFA U-17, Kelechi’s profile has kept rising. He has broken into the senior national team, and his club performance is a commendable. It would be safe to say if Iheanacho continues this way, he would be the biggest world star in the round leather game in no distance time.
Needless to bore you with details of his club performance, the records are accessible with a click of a button. Kelechi presently working with one of the biggest coaches in the world and having playing time no matter how little in the star-studded Manchester City team for a young player like him should attract applause.
Nigerians were making efforts to celebrate his weekly wages after he signed the new contract in his club, in as much as I don’t have issues with that, but I would urge us to concentrate more on how we can support him to grow into the likes of Messi. He has got the quality! He can get there. But only with the right kind of support. No doubt so far, he has outclassed his mates as he stamped his feet of authority on the big stage. But the way to his rightful destination is still far, he can only get there if he holds his head straight and refuses to be overwhelmed with the beginning of the success he has seen. I am deeply convinced that, Nigerians, and indeed football stakeholders can help Kelechi get to greater heights of his career with the right kind of attitude and not the Pull Him Down (PHD) attitude in some Nigerians.
It is not a good testimony that Nigerian players hardly make it to the top three of the African Footballer of the Year Award and I see Kelechi Iheancho as a potential winner even the Fifa Ballon d’Or he can compete for it in no distant future.
It is not any attempt to undermine budding talents in Nigeria, It is only obvious and factual to state categorically, that the Manchester City star has shown promise and is looking like the next biggest thing in the world stage of football, if Nigerians and indeed major stakeholders would support him, he would surpass records already marked by Kanu and Mikel.
CHRIS SULEIMAN is the Abuja Editor of AUTHENTIC News Daily