The cycle for Nigeria U20 teams is pretty much a cliché at this point. Flush from the promise of a splendid showing at U17 level, the graduates invariably stumble at the next age-grade. In doing so, the nation comes to a sobering realisation: perhaps they weren’t as good as perceived after all.
What follows is a pitiable scattering to the four winds; players are forgotten, careers sputter but fail to spark into life, and attention is turned to the next set of U17s.
This pattern has been repeated once more, following the disappointment of the Flying Eagles’ performaces in New Zealand in June, but this time, there are a few welcome exceptions. Kelechi Iheanacho has shaken the unflattering and pessimistic comparisons to Femi Opabunmi to rise to a place in the Manchester City first team. He will now be joined in English football by team-mate and striker Taiwo Awoniyi.
The imposing centre-forward has signed a deal with Merseyside giants Liverpool, and will spend the rest of the season on loan at 2. Bundesliga side FSV Frankfurt. This brings to an end a long transfer impasse with Swedish side FF Kalmar, with whom Awoniyi had previously signed a pre-contract agreement. According to reports, the Red Brothers received a sizeable compensatory fee to extricate him from the contract.
In truth, it was always unlikely the 18-year-old’s light would remain under a bushel, no disrespect to Kalmar.
He shone in 2013 at the U17 World Cup after an injury to first-choice striker Success Isaac thrust him into the spotlight, scoring four goals; then served notice he was no flash in the pan by deservedly holding on to the spot even after the Granada man recovered. It is of course brilliantly apt that a finisher as proficient as he has thrived by seizing an opportunity brought on by the inadequacy of others.
Awoniyi | The Shadow of Yekini
His performances, much like those of the team, were not quite as eye-catching in New Zealand, but still he scored twice and laid on two assists in four games.
There is a lot to admire in his game, his pace and power make him a handful, and he is already remarkably advanced physically for his age. His style has drawn comparisons with legendary Nigerian striker Rashidi Yekini and, far from being hype, it is instructive to note the late former African Footballer of the Year only really blossomed into a ruthless finisher late in his career.
In that sense, Awoniyi has a significant head start, and Melwood is just the place to cultivate his budding talents. The sticking point was always what sort of move he would make next; his talent is redoubtable. The display of patience and good sense that has led to this Liverpool move hint of a maturity that belies his youth; to think, just before the World Cup in New Zealand, Tunisian side Esperance were reported to be keen on a deal!
However, all the potential and humility in the world will not suffice to succeed in England. He must strive to minimise his weaknesses and not just maximise strengths, but add to them. For all of his assets, there remains a rawness to his play—his runs are great but not consistently well-timed yet, as Germany found out to their glee at the U20 World Cup.
Most significantly, his all-round game needs work. He lacks finesse on the ball, understandable perhaps considering he prefers to play on the shoulder of the defence, but he will have to improve in this area. He could also do more in terms of bringing others into play, and positioning himself intelligently. Often, he can seem not so much a part of the team as an appendage of it, albeit the most important limb of all.
It may seem like a lot to burden an 18-year-old with, but it is hard not to get excited by a player who, at that age, is already a member of the U23 set-up. Once there, he proceeded to score a brace on his competitive debut in a high-pressure second leg qualifier against Zambia. The challenge of English football will not faze him.
First though, he must prove his worth in the second-tier of German football, having been loaned to FSV Frankfurt.
He would do well to consider the journey of fellow Nigerian striker Anthony Ujah, who interned brilliantly at FC Koln, his goals guiding the Billy Goats to promotion. This is surely too lofty an ambition for Awoniyi's young shoulders; Frankfurt's best season in the last 15 years ended in disappointment in 2013 as they finished fourth, narrowly missing out on a promotion play-off place. In that time, they have fought their way up from the fourth-tier, but appear to have found their level in the 2. Bundesliga midtable.
This presents Nigeria's next big goalcorer with just the sort of no-pressure situation in which to establish himself and play regular football. Much of that will come down to how he beds in with a somewhat different culture and language; if his personality is anything to go by, he will be just fine in Germany's South-West.
Liverpool have, for their part, made a fantastic deal, beating off reported interest from Monaco and Porto. Possession though, for all its worth, is only nine-tenths of the law. Now they have their man, they must forge this keen teenager into a weapon of cold steel.