Man City target Kelechi Nwakali shines for Nigeria at U17 World Cup
Nigeria capped off an impressive tournament by securing their second consecutive under-17 World Cup triumph with a 2-0 victory over Mali in Sunday's final in Vina del Mar.
Striker Victor Osimhen took home the Golden Shoe as the top scorer, while Kelechi Nwakali received the Golden Ball award for the competition's best player.
Osimhen was a dominant force in front of goal throughout the tournament and set a new competition record with his final tally of 10 goals, which included at least a single strike in each of Nigeria's matches. A tall and athletic striker, he made the most of this physical attributes but it remains to be seen how well that will transfer to U20 level and beyond.
Indeed, over the history of the U17 World Cup, the Golden Ball winners have usually gone on to have more successful careers than their Golden Shoe counterparts. And on this occasion it was Nigeria's captain Nwakali who stood out as the player best-equipped to progress from here and eventually establish himself in the game.
A product of the ASJ Academy in Owerri -- also home to teammates Chukwudi Agor and Christian Ebere -- the 17-year-old is a right-footed playmaker with good technical attributes, a keen eye for a pass and a rasping shot.
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He often directed the game from the centre of midfield in Chile. He combined well with teammates, frequently brought the full-backs John Lazarus and Udochukwu Anumudu into play and also provided a good supply line to the forwards. No Nigerian player received or made more passes than their No. 10 over the course of the competition. He also produced a solid output in the final third, with three goals and three assists.
Perhaps most impressive given his age was his understanding of the flow of the game, forged through hours of playing and studying. "It's been that way since I was 11," he told FIFA.com earlier in the tournament. "When I'm not on the pitch, I'm watching matches on TV or playing football games on my phone."
That intelligence shone through in Chile, where Nwakali took on the responsibility of relaying coach Emmanuel Amuneke's instructions. He organised his teammates and initiated subtle changes in rhythm when appropriate.
Nwakali had been considered for the squad that won the 2013 tournament in the United Arab Emirates but it was felt that he was too raw at that stage of his development. His elder brother, Chidiebere, was part of that side and subsequently signed for Manchester City, who also have Kelechi Iheanacho, the Golden Ball winner from that tournament, on their books. The latter was promoted to the first team squad this summer and has already scored a couple of goals.
Yet it is another City player, Yaya Toure, whom Nwakali looks to for inspiration. "I love watching him play because he loves to win," he explains. "That's all he wants. You can see it in the way he plays, the way he runs and even in the way he walks on the pitch."
The road from U17 success to an illustrious career in the senior game is not an easy one to navigate and Nigeria have lost a couple along the way. Macauley Chrisantus, top scorer with seven goals in 2007, did not appear for the U20 side and at 25, is yet to be selected for the senior national team. The 2009 Golden Ball winner Sani Emmanuel enjoyed far less success with the U20s and at 22, is currently without a club.
The next step on that path for Nwakali and his teammates will be to prove themselves at U20 level. Nigeria have traditionally struggled to convert their U17 dominance into success in that competition, with just two final appearances since 1985. Physical differences are less pronounced in that age group, while overall levels of concentration and tactical awareness are much improved.
Even Iheanacho, the man whose club exploits Nwakali will be keen to replicate, was not quite as influential at U20 level as he was with the U17 side.
Amuneke also had words of caution for his captain.
"Nwakali needs to keep his head cool and remain focused in order to reach the zenith of his football career because it is not enough to have the talent to play football," he explained.
"One needs to be disciplined, for instance, to succeed in everything he does in life."
The next step remains uncertain. Nwakali trained with Manchester City in January but the club were put off by the £4 million price tag attached to him by his agents. They have, though, maintained an interest and will surely have been impressed by what they saw in Chile. He cannot officially sign for a European club until he turns 18 next June, so he still has time to assess all of his options, with additional suitors now certain to appear.
Nwakali still has a long way to go but on the evidence of his performances over the last month or so, he looks to have the necessary technical, physical and mental attributes to make a career for himself in Europe.
The next three-to-five years will be vital, but if everything goes to plan he certainly has the potential to develop into an international-quality midfielder.
Nick Dorrington is a freelance football writer. Twitter: @chewingthecoca.