In this piece, Bleacher Report takes a look at Ogenyi Onazi, a Nigerian prodigy who looks set to have a big impact in the world of football.
While I could have chosen one of a number of more obscure players to report on in this piece, I felt that the claims of the youngster Onazi, as well as the early strides he has already taken in the game, make him an ideal subject for this work.
While Onazi was a key player in Nigeria’s recent Africa Cup of Nations victory, this was not the first time that the 20-year-old has been brought to the public’s attention. In fact, few players have been raised and developed with such expectation and anticipation as Onazi. His progress has long been a subtle narrative for Nigerians.
In 2008, influential pastor T.B. Joshua, a famous televangelist, minister and healer, founded his own football team My People F.C.
Joshua’s intention was to use the club as a philanthropic vehicle for keeping the unemployed youth from the streets, giving young people a purpose and direction and for allowing children to appreciate the many benefits of sport.
The non-profit enterprise has an overtly Christian message, and following its much-publicised origins, gained a major following in Nigeria after some impressive early victories. Games against the national youth teams and some established Premier League sides gave the club the momentum to recruit and grow.
Its early successes attracted the attention of Swedish side Bodens BK. The team were so impressed with Joshua’s approach, as well as some of the young talent on show, that they offered to give a platform to some of My People’s most promising players.
Following this, Onazi and his compatriot Sani Emmanuel were selected for the Nigerian U17 team. Before too long they both earned moves to Europe, and to Italian giants Lazio.
Initially, I would argue that Sani was the more promising of the pair. He was top scorer and best player at the 2009 U17 World Cup, and was reported to have trialled at both Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur according to the Mirror. While only the latter offered him a permanent contract, he was eventually wooed by Lazio and chose to make the move to Italy.
Since the transfer, however, it is fair to say that he has struggled to live up to the early promise shown. Still only 20, it is obviously still early days, but the diminutive striker has failed to cement a position within the national setup, and has struggled when loaned out to Italian and Swiss lower-league sides.
Onazi, on the other hand, has flourished, and at the time of writing has taken his game to another level to that of Sani Emmanuel.
The Jos-born midfielder was promoted to the first team last season and made his debut in the final game of the campaign, replacing Senad Lulic late on as Lazio beat Atalanta. It was a sign of things to come, and over the summer he was groomed for a starting role.
It was clear that was to be his destiny this term.
Employed as a defensive midfielder in the heart of the side, Onazi was instructed by Bosnian boss Vladimir Petkovic to protect the more creative Cristian Ledesma and to use his strength and energy to regain possession and enforce the team’s shape.
It has perhaps been in the Europa League that Onazi has been the most impressive.
During an impressive campaign, Lazio topped their group and continued unbeaten until their defeat away at Fenerbahce in the quarterfinal.
The Nigerian was often key to their resiliency, particularly in an away 0-0 draw at White Hart Lane against Tottenham Hotspur. Despite enjoying the lion’s share of the chances, Spurs were unable to break down the visitors, and Onazi looked composed and mature in his treatment of Gareth Bale, Aaron Lennon, Mousa Dembele et al.
By the time Onazi made his Nigeria debut there was enormous expectation surrounding the player’s re-emergence in the land of his birth. The religious origins of his development, and the quirk that he was born on Christmas Day, have generated a great deal of intrigue and goodwill concerning his progress—particularly in Nigeria’s predominantly Christian south.
The debut came in an Afcon qualifying match against Liberia in October in Calabar. Onazi impressed as the Super Eagles ran out 6-1 winners, booking their place in the South African spectacle.
Here was where hope became reality, where optimism became belief and where Stephen Keshi’s Super Eagles rolled back years of disappointment to claim the nation’s third African crown—ending a wait of 19 years.
Despite not starting the competition, Onazi entered the fray as a substitute in the team’s opener against Burkina Faso. It was clear that he was keen to snatch his opportunity at the continental high table, and by the knockout stage he had muscled into the first XI at the expense of Fegor Ogude and Nosa Igiebor.
Operating as part of a midfield three alongside Sunday Mba and John Obi Mikel, Onazi predominantly worked as the water carrier, or the defensive shield, working relentlessly to provide a platform for the other two, regaining possession and keeping the ball moving sensibly.
As the season comes to a close, Onazi is performing strongly. A delicious strike against Internazionale in Lazio’s recent 3-1 victory brought him to the attention of a wider Italian audience, while he looks set to continue his international instruction at this summer’s Confederations Cup in Brazil.
A place in next summer’s World Cup awaits, and while there is still learning to be done in the Italian capital, Onazi is clearly a young man keen to continue his impressive trajectory. He has identified Chelsea—currently enjoying massive popularity in Nigeria due to the presence of John Obi Mikel and Victor Moses—as an ideal future home, and Blues fans would surely be licking their lips at the prospect of such an exciting young talent.