Nigeria's Nwakali finally has his permanent move, but must make it count
Arguably the best Nigerian transfer of the offseason was the one that happened just before the European deadline, and went almost unnoticed.
Kelechi Nwakali's early September move from Arsenal to SD Huesca in the Spanish second tier was, again arguably given he's not made his debut, the move with the most benefit to the player, and thus the Super Eagles.
Since joining Arsenal in 2016, Nwakali was shunted from pillar to post every season, to different middling clubs. From MVV Maastricht, to VV Venlo, back to Maachstricht, and then Porto B before this current move.
The key difference this time is that it's a permanent transfer, not a loan. It is also a move to a lower division team, which means the 21-year-old can focus on his development away from pressure, and with some stability about his immediate future.
Since that 2016 move to Arsenal, Nwakali's best times have come while playing for Maastricht in the Dutch second tier. A six-month spell at VV Venlo in the Eredivisie did not go well, and Porto's heavy focus on acquiring, developing, and selling South American talent meant he was always at a disadvantage there.
In the middle of those moves, Nigeria coach Gernot Rohr came under some fire for not selecting the youngster, at least for his provisional 2018 World Cup squad.
Those questions took on a shrill intensity when Nwakali and a posse of selected B-team players put on a show in an end-of-season friendly against a beat-up, if youthful, Atletico Madrid side.
But nothing in Nwakali's season supported such grandiose selection ideas and Rohr might have been perplexed as to why he even had to address an issue so patently obvious.
The reason is simple, to Nigerian eyes at least. Football fans in the country have a habit of latching onto a youth talent, especially one who exhibits any semblance of creative nous. Nwakali showed that at under-17 level as he captained Nigeria to the age group World Cup title in 2015.
With the Super Eagles midfield looking stodgy with John Obi Mikel hanging on, Nwakali had been installed as the natural mantle bearer in the minds of fans, well before the departure of the former Super Eagles captain.
And the thing about Nigerian football fans is that once their teeth are sunk into a player, you'd have an easier time getting a pitbull off a piece of steak.
Nwakali's performances with the age-grade teams cemented that grip even more. Recently, while playing for the under 23s, he helped orchestrate the defeats of Libya and then Sudan, even while failing to see action with Porto B.
Which then begs the question of why the midfielder continues to struggle at club level, a critical point for Rohr, who highly values regular playing time with club teams.
The answer may be that he is playing against players well below his talent level. Maybe. But there is a more reasonable explanation: He never spent enough time training at Arsenal or playing with their youth teams.
And when he did go out on loan, it would appear that the burden of coming from Arsenal placed him on a pedestal where the margin for error was not so much thin as non-existent.
Sources told ESPN that Nwakali was frustrated at not making the sort of career progress he had hoped for and pushed for a permanent move, one that would not only give him playing time but also smooth out the rough edges in his game.
Huesca appears to be the perfect choice. Spain's leagues are technical, which suits his game better than the blood and thunder of England. They are a lower division team, which allows him to make his mistakes without too much scrutiny.
His 2015 teammates Victor Osimhen [Lille] and Samuel Chukwueze [Villarreal] have gone through that second tier fire and have become regular members of the senior national team, as well as signing for top sides.
Rohr is building a team populated mostly by youngsters, one with an average age of 23. If ever there was a time for the new kids to make a run at international football with Nigeria, now would be it.
But Nwakali cannot hide behind youth any more. If this move does not work for him, it is doubtful anything else will.