But for a welcome stroke of misfortune, Kelechi Nwakali and Samuel Chukwueze almost did not make it this far, to the point they are about to sign for Arsenal.
Both players were members of the 2013 World Cup winning Nigeria Under-17 team that included Kelechi’s brother Chidiebere and a certain Kelechi Iheanacho. And they were well on their way to making the final World Cup squad until late injuries left them with shattered dreams, especially Nwakali.
“He was devastated,” says Nigeria Under-17 coach Emmanuel Amuneke, who was assistant to Manu Garba at the time. “And he was not alone. Everybody felt bad for him because we knew he deserved to be there.
“But we told him that God knows why and he should wait for another opportunity.”
Two years later, Amuneke had been elevated to the top post after Manu was promoted to the under 20s and he promptly called up the youngster and made him captain.
Perhaps their destinies are intertwined.
Both players are no strangers when it comes to playing together.
In 2013, Amuneke cobbled together a group of youngsters and led them to win the under 16 version of the Iber Cup, a youth tournament in Portugal.
Nwakali and Chukwueze were the standout performers. Nwakali was voted tournament MVP, while Chukwueze’s 12 goals in 5 games earned him Golden Boot honours.
Nearly two years later, they were winning similar prizes at the highest level, the FIFA Under-17 World Cup, although this time, Victor Osimhen’s goalscoring heroics relegated Sammy Sparkle to the bronze shoe.
With the players ahead of them in that 2013 squad, it is doubtful either player would have been starters
“He might not have played much,” says Morakinyo Abodunrin, press officer of the Nigeria Under-17 team about Nwakali. “The team had players who were slightly better at the time.”
In Nwakali, Arsenal may have unearthed a really special gem. He is at once midfield enforcer and general, a cross between Patrick Vieira’s unyielding presence and Mesut Ozil’s visionary accuracy.
“The first time I saw him, my first thought was Patrick Vieira,” says Victor Apugo, the team manager of Diamond Academy. “He was playing for All Stars junior academy in Umuahia. Everybody agreed we had to sign him.
“He was doing everything right in midfield. And he was everywhere.”
At the time, Nwakali was an offensive midfielder with the license to roam. It was at the national team level that Amuneke converted him to a deeper-lying player with more defensive responsibilities.
That statement is something Nwakali’s brother Chidiebere contests. The Manchester City starlet claims his younger sibling is a better player, and he may not be far from the truth.
That slight tweak has made him a much better all round midfield player. “I never knew I could play defensive midfield before then,” admitted Nwakali, who is at his best when allowed to just enjoy his game, but has now turns his biggest weakness, lack of defending, into a strength.
Not so much for Chukwueze, for whom the process remains ongoing. The forward was only slightly less torn apart by his 2013 injury than Nwakali and bounced back equally quickly, attacking the slightest of spaces in front of him with pace and eye-catching skill at every opportunity.
Such is his skill level that both of the officials closest to him have compared him to two of the world’s best left footers.
“He could be as good as Arjen Robben,” Abodunrin says. “He has the speed and the skill to do so. But he needs to be properly guided.”
Apogu takes it up a notch
“He can be as fast as Messi with the ball at his feet. Or even faster. That speed was the first thing we noticed about him when he saw him playing in the streets of Umuahia.”
Like those two, Chukwueze is not the best at tracking back, and it almost cost him a place in the World Cup squad. At the African championships, the winger began poorly, which led to Amunike reading him the riot act. He promptly cleaned up his defensive game. And by the time the World Cup rolled around, he was bursting his lungs to help his fullback.
Beyond their talent, it is this ability to learn and adjust quickly in the interest of the team that will prove crucial for these boys.
England presents a different challenge. It is not clear if Arsenal intend to keep the boys around or loan them out. But one thing is clear, they have left the familiar comforts of Nigeria, for strange lands.
Sometimes, such a major uproot can prove fatal, but Apugo says not in this instance
“These boys have been taking part in international tournaments for the last two years. They have played in Europe and South America, so they will not be overwhelmed too much.”
Nduka Ugbade, who was Nigeria Under-17 captain when they won the first World Cup in 1985, and also coached the boys as assistant to Manu Garba in 2013, says the support structures must be spot on.
“These are young boys who are leaving their country to stay abroad permanently. It is important that the club provide them with people who will guide them.
“I am not worried about their talent or their ability to cope under harsh conditions. They can do that very well. It is their ability to cope under comfortable conditions that is important.
“They are coming 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 will lose motivation and their performance will drop.
“But if they have people who will constantly advise them that this is only the beginning, then the sky will be their limit.”
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