Nigerian duo bound for Arsenal came through tough times to be world beaters
Kelechi Nwakali and Samuel Chukwueze came through tough times and bad luck to star for Nigeria and win the Under 17 World Cup. With the write guidance, the sky is the limit at Arsenal, writes Colin Udoh.
Nigeria's Kelechi Nwakali carries the Fifa Under-17 World Cup trophy on his head in the midst of a crowd gathered to receive the triumphant Nigeria U17 team, the Golden Eaglets, at Nnamdi Azikiwe Airport in Abuja, on November 11, 2015.
At the Diamond Football Academy Christmas party last December, Kelechi Nwakali did something totally unexpected.
He presented his FIFA Under 17 World Cup Bronze Shoe to Samuel Chukwueze, telling the gathering that the trophy rightfully belonged to his contemporary, and he was happy to wait until FIFA sent the second.
FIFA had admitted weeks earlier that the trophy was given to Nwakali by mistake because although both players had the same number of goals and assists, Chukwueze won the tie-breaker by virtue of having played fewer minutes.
Having already presented the award to Nwakali, they would send another to Chukwueze but Nwakali would be allowed to keep his. The youngster felt different and handed his trophy over.
Nigerian Samuel Chukwueze (C) celebrates his goal against Chile with teammates during their FIFA U-17 World Cup Chile 2015
Image credit: AFP
"He is a born leader, and he leads by example," says Morakinyo Abodurin, a Nigeria Under 17 team official. "All the players respect him and look up to him."
That is the kind of quality that will fit perfectly into Arsenal, where lack of leadership has, in recent years, made the whole significantly less than the sum of its parts, leading to over a decade without the league title.
There is still a long way to go until that point, however. For the time being, it is the raw football talent that has persuaded Arsenal to fork out, and Nwakali has that in abundance.
Converted from his loose cannon offensive midfield role to a more tactically aware defensive midfielder by Emmanuel Amuneke, Nwakali has blossomed into an all-round trequartista.
He may not look the most physically imposing of central midfield figures, but he has an abundance of strength on the ball and drive going forward, reminiscent of Patrick Vieira.
Where he trumps the Arsenal legend is his passing. Nwakali not only has the vision to see a pass, he has both the varied range to make the best decision, and the precision to deliver it.
It is something that would make him come across as the love child of Vieira and a female Mesut Ozil.
And yet, but for a fortunate bit of ill-timed bad luck, Nwakali might not be sitting across the table signing a contract to play for Arsenal.
In 2013, Nwakali, along with his brother Chidiebere, were part of the Nigeria Under 17 team preparing to play at the World Cup. But a late injury meant he failed to recover on time and was dropped from the squad.
He was devastated. It took the whole team, from coach Manu Garba down, to console him as he left the camp, and assure him that there would be another opportunity.
It wasn't long before the new chance came. Manu was moved to the Under 20s after leading his squad to the world title. His assistant Emmanuel Amunike took over and promptly called Nwakali up, handing him the armband.
He did not disappoint, as his skills and leadership helped propel Nigeria to successfully defend the title they had won two years earlier.
Nwakali was voted MVP. It would be the second time he would claim such an honour. In 2013, he also led his team, Emmanuel Amuneke Soccer Academy to win the Iber Cup in Portugal, and was also voted MVP then.
"He doesn't know how to believe that a match is lost, until the final whistle goes," says Victor Apugo, team manager of Diamond Football Academy. "That's one of his biggest strengths."
Samuel Chukwueze was also in that title-winning Iber Cup squad, scoring 12 goals in 5 games to emerge top scorer.
Like Nwakali, he was also in that 2013 Under 17 squad and like Nwakali, was also locked-in for a place in the final squad, until an ankle injury intervened.
Again like Nwakali, he may also not have seen much playing time two years ago. But that perceived misfortune has proven to be a blessing in disguise. Both youngsters were critical parts of the 2015 team, and while Nwakali orchestrated from deep, Chukwueze terrorized much higher up.
His penchant for attacking the space in front of him with pace and skill have drawn comparisons with Arjen Robben and, wait for it, Leo Messi.
"He can be as good as Arjen Robben," declares Abodunrin. "When a defender gives him the slightest space, he goes for it, and unless there is a second defender, he usually gets past his man."
Victor Apugo, team manager of Diamond Football Academy, who discovered him playing on the streets of Umuahia in south eastern Nigeria, says he can be much better.
"The first thing that struck me about Sammy the first time I saw him was his speed. He can do a lot with his left foot and he had great decision making at that level. He could be as fast as Messi or faster with the ball at his feet."
High praise coming from two people with close contact.
Chukwueze' one weakness was his reluctance to track back, and it almost cost him dearly. During the African Under 17 Championships, Amunike was forced to give him the hairdryer and even threatened to drop the axe on him.
The player listened, started to help his fullback, and kept his place. This willingness to take correction, to learn, will be vital in London, or anywhere else, especially in the event that Arsenal decide to send them out on loan.
While their football skills and abilities are not in doubt, it is what happens off the pitch in these early days that will prove decisive for their future.
Nduka Ugbade captained Nigeria to the Under 17 world title in 1985 and was assistant to Manu Garba when both players were in camp in 2013. He says the right support structure is crucial
"Coping with difficulties will not be a problem for them. It is coping with comfort that worries me," he said. "They have come from a place of hardship to a place of comfort. And there might be the tendency for them to believe they have arrived. If that happens, they might stop working as hard as they should and that will be a problem.
"So it is important that the club provides the kind of support system that keeps them grounded so that they understand that they have not arrived, but that there is still a lot of work to be done.
"Then, believe me, these boys will be the best they can be and the sky will be their limit."
Amuneke, who coached them to the world title, has no fears about their ability
"They have the ability to do well in England or anywhere else. It's about psychology. And I know that they have the right attitude and the talent to succeed.
"What they need is proper guidance and I believe they will get it. I am very happy for them."