Of course there are always exceptions, but the biennial FIFA U-17 World Cup has sometimes been a pretty good indicator of who will be the stars of tomorrow.
The USA’s Landon Donovan was named the tournament’s best player when it was held in New Zealand in 1999, and since then the likes of Cesc Fabregas and Toni Kroos have followed suit to claim the award, too. The Brazilian Anderson—an £18 million flop at Manchester United—also won it in 2005, but let’s skip over him for now.
In 2013 it was the Nigerian forward Kelechi Iheanacho who took the honours, and the 19-year-old has impressed in fits and starts for UEFA Champions League semi-finalists Manchester City this season—scoring nine goals in 29 appearances, usually from the bench.
He was the inspiration behind Nigeria claiming their fourth world title at that age group in the UAE three years ago; when the fifth arrived in Chile last year, it was another Kelechi, the midfielder Nwakali, who was to the fore, with the Diamond Football Academy star scoring three goals as he captained his side to glory.
His talent was immediately obvious, and it wasn’t long before Arsenal—who have long-standing links with the under-17 World Cup, having signed Fabregas a month after he was voted the tournament’s best player in 2003 and Carlos Vela a month after he finished as top scorer in 2005—were being linked with both the teenager and his teammate Samuel Chukwueze.
And then things escalated.
Gunners manager Arsene Wenger was quickly quoted talking up the player’s qualities, telling a press conference in January, as per ESPN FC: “We identified Nwakali as the player of the (Under-17 World Cup) tournament basically, and as a top player.
“Of course there are work permit issues. There are medical issues because they have to make medicals, but it's progressing well. If we can get it over the line now during this transfer period, we will do it.”
And then, almost unnoticed, Nwakali was in the building.
Photographs with Wenger and Mesut Ozil were posted on Twitter, and Gunners fans were getting excited about the prospect of one of the top young talents in world football turning out in the famous red and white shirt.
Nwakali was excited too, telling allnigeriasoccer.com (via The Telegraph):
“I just came back from London, I have signed a five-year contract with Arsenal.
“So many teams were interested in me but it has been my dream at a tender age to play for Arsenal.”
Those “so many teams” included Manchester City (where Nwakali’s brother is in the academy), Chelsea, West Ham United, Sporting Lisbon, Olympiakos and Udinese, according to that Telegraph report, but at a club where there have always been impressive young players, just what can he bring to the team when he makes the permanent move from Nigeria to north London in June?
He’ll be 18 by then, and if Wenger is still around then, perhaps he should be brave and throw him straight into contention for the first-team squad.
That kind of exposure hasn’t done Iheanacho any harm at Manchester City, and nor did it for Fabregas when he was thrust into Wenger’s plans following his move from Barcelona in 2003.
With age and injury problems catching up with Santi Cazorla this season, the usual issues surrounding Jack Wilshere, and Mikel Arteta and Tomas Rosicky both seemingly on their way out of the club, it has been left to Francis Coquelin and Mohamed Elneny to form an impressive central-midfield partnership in recent weeks, as Aaron Ramsey has been injured.
But this is an area in which Wenger could use some revolution, never mind evolution, next season, and in Nwakali, he would have an energetic presence who would be a good fit to play alongside a more experienced midfielder in the centre.
With an impressive range of passing, he’d slot in well, and at a time when there is an air of stagnation around the Emirates Stadium, he could just be the breath of fresh air that the Gunners need to inspire them in these testing times.
Of course, he could just be another young footballer who fails to live up to his potential, as well.
Will he sink or swim? There’s only one way to find out.