At the start of the FIFA U-17 World Cup, Nigeria's Sani Emmanuel looked destined to fulfil a mere supporting role for the U-17 hosts and holders but Lady Luck, combined with an unfortunate injury to one of his team-mates, has nudged him into the glare of the spotlight.
As the final Group A game kicked off against Argentina, the young striker took his place on the substitutes' bench for the third time in a row. From that vantage point, he saw La Albiceleste open the scoring early in the game, followed by his own team's immediate response, delivered by Omoh Ojabu. A welcome turn of events for the Golden Eaglets, but not necessarily for Emmanuel. As often happens in sport, however, one man's calamity can become another man's chance.
After half an hour's play, Ojabu was forced to leave the pitch with an injury. To everyone's surprise - including the interested party - Emmanuel was instructed to replace him. "Of course I was amazed! I hadn't played a single minute since the beginning of the tournament and suddenly the coach calls on me for such a crucial match," he told FIFA.com with a smile just after the final whistle. "The vote of confidence provided me with real motivation. I felt for Omoh, but I just told myself that I couldn't pass up this opportunity."
And opportunity was to present itself to him again less than five minutes later, when Aigbe Oliha's 25 metre rocket was spilled by Ignacio Arce, the Argentinian goalkeeper. The ball landed at the feet of the substitute who, on the point of celebrating his entrance with a goal, contrived to shoot over the bar from point-blank range. "I still don't understand how I put it over," he says. "I'd never missed such an easy chance in all my life. But it was my first goal-scoring opportunity - I was possibly a little tense and hadn't quite found my touch yet. If the chance had come around a few minutes later, I'm sure that I would've scored."
But in such a high-octane match, there was no time to dwell on it. At least that was the impression given by Emmanuel, who proceeded to make incisive and lung-bursting runs for the rest of the match, demanding the ball as often as possible. "Funny thing is, I couldn't get it out of my head!" he admitted. "I kept thinking that if we lost, it would be down to me. All I wanted to do was to make up for it." He would have to put in an intense 15 minutes of work in the second half to achieve that goal.
A goal for My People
Having started the move that ended with Olarenwaju Kayode being brought down in the box, Emmanuel then placed the ball on the spot himself, as Stanley Okoro, the usual penalty-taker, had just been substituted. This time there was no mistake as he dispatched the ball into the Argentinian net. "I couldn't miss it - I owed it to all of our supporters," points out the forward from the My People club, responsible for making his compatriots jump for joy.
"It's a reward for all of the work that I've put in each day. Even when you're not playing, you still follow the same routine as the starting eleven - you train just as hard, you put in just as much effort, you're part of the same adventure as everyone else. I'm happy to have contributed towards it."
The Golden Eaglets do not yet know if Ojabu will be fit to face New Zealand in the Round of 16, but what they do know is that in Emmanuel they have more than just a bit-part player. An exemplary team-mate, hard-working and always smiling, the Nigerian number 14 is obviously hoping to play and get on the scoresheet against the Kiwis, but is also looking even further ahead.
"Please don't take this as arrogance, but we're not just thinking about our next match. From the first day onwards, we've only had one thing in mind: to become champions," says the luxury substitute before getting on the bus taking the Nigerian team back to Abuja. "I don't know if I'll be in the coach's plans for the upcoming matches, but if he puts his confidence in me, he won't regret it," he promises by way of conclusion.
It's the kind of language that could well be translated into the term 'first-choice' when the next teamsheet appears.