Talented Nwakali brothers risk fading away
Since his emergence onto the scene at the 2015 Under-17 World Cup, Kelechi Nwakali has come to occupy an esteemed position in the hearts of Nigerian football fans.
In Chile, he emulated his brother, Chidiebere who, two years prior, had won the same competition in the United Arab Emirates; he was named the best player in the tournament, and immediately became the subject of interest from all around the world, eventually signing with Premier League side, Arsenal.
The conviction of his talent has been so great that, for most people, it is more a matter of ‘when’ than ‘if’ he fulfils it. He has acclaimed the future of the Super Eagles midfield, to the extent that when national team manager, Gernot Rohr, elected not to include him in the 23-man squad for the World Cup in 2018, there was genuine dismay.
This reaction was far removed from the objective reality of the situation. Kelechi, for all his promise, has struggled to get his career off the ground. Loan spells with Maastricht, VVV-Venlo and Porto B have all culminated in disappointment, and the 22-year-old has barely played in the last two years. It might seem a little cruel but, in recent times, he has spent a lot more time posting images on social media than actually playing football.
This did not stop the clamour, of course.
Chidiebere has also endured a stop-start career so far. First, he was signed by Manchester City back in 2015 but was released after a number of underwhelming loans in Spain and Scandinavia. He was on the books of Swedish top side, Kalmar, and has had his contract terminated after being in the news for all the wrong reasons. Reportedly strapped for cash and unable to return to his Swedish club following the winter break.
It is difficult to understand the basis upon which they desire to see them integrated into the national team is based. Talent is all well and good, but in professional football, it is a bare minimum. Nurturing that talent to full potential by infusing it with dedication and passion is what elevates a player: down the years, Nigeria have seen such prospects as Alfred Emoefe and Bernard Okorowanta fail to reach their full potential, and it was not for a lack of ability.
It appears that most are holding on to the memory of what these brothers were able to achieve in the national youth set-up, as well as the fact that, two years ago, Kelechi thrilled the crowd with a dazzling performance during a friendly with a second-string Atletico Madrid team in Uyo.
However, should that be enough? After all, a number of their contemporaries have gone on to greater influence, and are playing regularly at club level in Europe: Taiwo Awoniyi, Kelechi Iheanacho and Wilfred Ndidi played with the older Nwakali, while Victor Osimhen and Samuel Chukwueze played with the younger.
There is only so long they can continue to be regarded as “young”. It has been over four years now since Kelechi took the world by storm, and over six for Chidiebere.
There is, naturally, some luck involved in the trajectory of a professional career, but how is it that, beyond even the uncertainty surrounding their present and future, they find themselves in the news for the wrong reasons?
Some have blamed poor transfer decisions for their troubles – both chose to join Premier League sides in their very first moves. All things considered, it is a difficult pathway for young Nigerian players, and directly led to their spate of loans.
While that is a worthwhile factor to consider, it is almost impossible to completely dull talent in this manner. Even when work permit restrictions prevent a player from gaining a foothold, there is nothing stopping him from applying himself during one of his loan spells and securing a permanent move away.
As an example, Kenneth Omeruo was loaned all over Europe for years while on Chelsea’s books, but crucially he always stayed involved wherever he was, putting in solid performances until a move to La Liga materialised.
Could it have been bad advisers? Again, this is possible. However, it is also a player’s responsibility to have a vision for his own career, as well as the discipline to see it through. As is clear from the conduct of these two brothers, there is a need to improve where the latter is concerned: what degree of professionalism is conveyed when an employee requires his employer to bail him out of a personal holiday?
For all the excuses that have been made, the truth is a lot has been done already to keep them involved. Almost in spite of a lack of club football, Kelechi was heavily involved with the national under-23 team from qualifiers through to the AFCON, where his lack of match fitness went some way toward undermining their Olympic qualifying efforts. To expect the senior national team to do the same would be a step too far: Rohr, for all his foibles, insists on picking players who are getting consistent minutes at club level.
Being labelled “the future” just will not do. Not when the likes of Joe Aribo have burst onto the international scene, and there is interest in players like Ovie Ejaria and Ebere Eze, all of whom are playing at a high level in the UK.
It is difficult to tell exactly where these brothers lost their way. However, if they are to avoid the pitfalls of early success, it is entirely in their hands now to change the narrative around themselves.
• This article was first published on OperaNews in January 2020.
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