The highly rated youngster is not yet close to taking the mantle of the national side, contrary to popular expectation
On the 23rd of May, 2018, Super Eagles coach Gernot Rohr faced something of a mutiny from the local press corps.
The day before, a mishmash of a Nigeria selection had drawn 2-2 with a largely reserve Atletico Madrid team. It was a curious game: low on quality, but decorated by some eye-catching goals, one of which flew in off the boot of youngster Kelechi Nwakali.
The question then with which Rohr was set upon centred on the exclusion, from his provisional World Cup squad, of the former Nigeria under-17 captain. If he was good enough to score a curler of such immaculate beauty, why was he not an option in a midfield that was struggling for creativity?
The reaction must have come as a bit of a surprise to the German coach. For one thing, and as he rightly pointed out, an end-of-season friendly against a side that had endured a gruelling run to the Europa League final, and therefore had understandably opted to give some of their kids and fringe players a run was hardly the proper measure for anyone’s readiness for a World Cup.
Secondly, and perhaps more pertinently, there was nothing to suggest, from the season the 20-year-old had had at club level in the Netherlands, that he deserved a look-in at all.
Two months on, the 2015 Under-17 Golden Ball winner is set to begin another loan from parent club Arsenal, this time in the Portuguese second division with FC Porto’s B team. Perhaps this shows that Rohr was right after all?
Nwakali is a player of whom a lot seems to be expected.
This weight of expectation hangs with even more urgency and heft due to the imminent winding-down of national team captain and talisman John Obi Mikel. For most, the same sauntering swagger and daring with which the Super Eagles captain emerged into the public eye is visible in Nwakali.
As such, this transfer window, perhaps more than any other, was a crucial juncture for the young midfielder
The decision to join Porto and play for the reserve side, therefore, has led to a great deal of exasperation, especially with the inability of his representatives, Stellar Football Ltd., to get a better deal for a player of his talents.
However, what if the answer is a lot simpler, and the problem is not with his agents, but with the estimation of his abilities back home?
Perhaps the correct answer is the simplest one: Nwakali is just not as good as we like to believe he is.
Getting hung up on players based on performances at youth level and in one-off matches is nothing new. Mikel himself was a victim of this for so long with the national side, and should perhaps have served as a cautionary tale for how players can sometimes grow away from the blinding light of expectation.
Perhaps the player will impress so much in the second tier that Porto exercise their option to make the deal permanent, but, by Nwakali’s own admission, he will need to develop a lot more in order to be the player he can become.
“My main goal is to develop and evolve as a player,” he admitted in an interview with Porto’s official website. “Improve my qualities and the other aspects that I know I need to correct to help me grow in the way I play.”
In there lies the kernel of a truth that has escaped so many: there is a streak of showiness and superfluity to his play at times which, while he idolizes Porto legend Deco, is more reminiscent of the earlier play of France’s Paul Pogba.
It might have thrilled the teeming crowd at the Godswill Akpabio Stadium, Uyo, but it was much less impressive for Eredivisie side VVV-Venlo, for whom Nwakali played less than 300 minutes across the first half of last season, before being sent to the second tier.
He had a much better time of it with MVV Maastricht, scoring four times and assisting once in the second half of the season. However, three of his four only came against the league’s bottom five.
Still only 20, there is plenty of time for Nwakali to grow and force his way into the mainstream. There is some frustration that he is not quite the prodigy most expected, but that does not preclude him growing into a very good footballer.
Perhaps the lesson here is that we ought not to expect too much.