I had planned to do this write up a while back, to call the attention of Sunday Oliseh, the coach of the Super Eagles, to Kelechi Iheanacho, in case he’s missing it.
Of course, anybody who has been following Nigerian football for a while, will remember the masterpiece on Oliseh himself, written by the Group Managing Director (GMD) of Complete Communications, Mumini Alao in the old Complete Football Magazine, some years ago.
The Super Eagles were, at that time in dire need of a Defensive Midfielder, and had tried several players in the position. Then Clemens Westerhof played Oliseh in that role at the national stadium against Ethiopia. What Alao saw that day, made him cast the headline, with a giant photograph of Oliseh as the focal point of the page: WESTERHOF, THIS IS YOUR DESTROYER!
The thought of the article, partly to recapture and recreate that Oliseh ‘Eureka!’ moment by Alao, had surfaced as the Super Eagles huffed, puffed and barely escaped with a point from Dar es Salam, as the Taifa Stars of Tanzania ran them ragged at the Benjamin Nkapa stadium in an Africa Nations Cup qualifier in September.
The lack of creative midfielder had sparked this thought of making a case for Kelechi Iheanacho, who continues to look the most creative player to emerge out of Nigeria since a young Mikel Obi.
But the creative master class displayed by Rabiu Ibrahim in the 2-0 win over Niger in friendly game just three days later, prompted a pause in the call for Iheanacho. Alas, that display has proved fleeting.
The two matches the Super Eagles played in Belgium would have been the perfect time to introduce the Manchester City youngster to the team: two games in four days on windows approved by FIFA for national teams, would have ensured his availability, as the continuous reluctance of Manchester City to release their “Special Talent” would seem to make a case for his continuous exclusion.
Plus, these games were friendly ties, so there would have been no pressure on the player, or on the coach.
Yes, it would have been a risk, given his lack of exposure at that level, but Oliseh had shown that he is willing to take risks, when against Tanzania he invited a raft of new players to face the Taifa Stars. He also took a chance on ‘the exile’ Haruna Lukman in that game.
But for the Belgium friendlies, the national team coach chose instead to give a first cap to Arsenal youngster, Alex Iwobi.
But less on that, more on the mercurial Manchester City youngster:
Why is it important for Oliseh to include Iheanacho in his team now? What is so special, about this youngster, that our principled national team coach should break his ‘top ranked players only” rule, and give him a seat at the ‘table of the elders’? Why should the Nigeria Football Federation work with Manchester City and Oliseh, to ensure that the feared over-exposure and burn-out will not end this Iheanacho-to-Super-Eagles experiment?
Because the boy is special, that’s why.
The last time a Nigerian youngster caused this much excitement in world football was way back in 2005, when John Obi Mikel emerged as one of the foremost talents in world football. That was before Jose Mourinho changed his football destiny, of course.
Mikel was so good, that the greatest manager in world football at that time, Sir Alex Ferguson, broke protocol and went in search of his signature, before the next best manager at that time, Mourinho, engineered a transfer that ensured Manchester United earned money on a player who never played a game for them. It was a first that has never, and may never be repeated in the history of the Red devils. Mikel Obi was that special.
And that same born-to-ball, the instinct that separates those who are gifted: born to play, from those who trained hard to hone their skills, is inherent in Iheanacho.
Trust me: Frank Lampard has had a glittering career in the English League and for the England national team, but anyone who had seen Glen Hoddle play would know the difference between genius and hard work. I won’t even bring Mark le Tissier into the conversation. The point I am trying to make is this – Iheanacho, if handled right can be in the same conversation as Mikel and JayJay Okocha. He is that good.
Manuel Pellegrini, the Chilean manager of Manchester City, has so far resisted the urge to farm the Nigerian out on loan, to further develop him. Instead, City filed for a special work permit, citing Iheanacho as “Special Talent”. It is noteworthy that the English FA agreed with the Citizens.
The next question to ask then is, has Iheanacho done anything to make a case for himself?
The evidence is compelling.
Iheanacho has grown in leaps and bounds since resuming at City in the midst of calls for him to choose a smaller club that would give him a chance at first team football and ensure development.
He had been a constant in City pre-season teams, and was so influential his first time out last season, that Pellegrini declared the Nigerian youngster a “big part of Manchester City’s future”. The battle to register him as Special Talent to circumnavigate the stringent 70% involvement in national team matches rule, to enable him get a work permit, backs that claim.
He has also proved a capable replacement for the City Big boys of Nasri and Silva when called upon, even scoring within minutes of making his Premiership debut against Crystal Palace. And his virtuoso performance against the same Crystal Palace in a League cup game, where he had a hand in three of the five golas scored, including scoring one for himself, marks him out as…a special talent.
There is a saying in football: “If he is good enough, he is old enough”. It simply means that any youngster that has the skill set to play with bigger boys, deserve the chance to do so. That is why we see U-12 players running out with U-16’s and we see 17 year old playing in Leagues across the world.
Iheanacho dazzled the world at the U17 World Cup, but we had noted his genius as he tore defences apart in Calabar all through the qualifiers. And we watched in awe, as he calmly stroked passes around established Premier players, creating plays for Manchester City and tearing Crystal Palace apart with measured passes, as the ‘Senior players’ looked on in the League Cup at the City ground.
Iheanacho is a Special Talent, the time to start integrating him into the national team set up, is NOW!
NB: The article was written when the initial list was released, BEFORE the Super Eagles coach called up Kelechi Iheanacho