Kelechi Iheanacho raced to the corner flag, the entire Nigerian team chasing after him. He raised and pumped his arms, extending his fingers to the heavens. His knees followed along in rhythm. He was conducting the crowd, a massive throng of fellow Nigerians, and they mimicked his movements. A whole stand at the Khalifa Bin Zayed Stadium in Al Ain was doing this strange dance, in raptures over the Golden Eaglets’ first goal of the FIFA U-17 World Cup.
Was it a traditional dance from Iheanacho’s native Imo state, in the south of Nigeria? “No, no, no,” the player laughs, fidgeting on the marble floor of the stadium’s main entrance. “This is the celebration move of my favourite professional wrestler,” Iheanacho explains. Daniel Bryan is this Nigerian boy’s favourite wrestler, a bearded American from the outskirts of Seattle who occasionally goes by the moniker, the American Dragon. “I watch him on TV and I love the way he whips up the crowd this way, so I decided to copy it. The fans seemed to like it, too,” he added with a broad grin.
It’s easy to forget these young players here in UAE are just kids, especially one as monstrously talented as Iheanacho, who scored four goals in a 6-1 demolition of defending champions Mexico. But that’s precisely the beauty of this junior event. For players not yet professional, not yet jaded or corrupted, there can be true improvisation, true sensation, and weird and wild celebrations.
“I was totally over the top with joy when that first goal went in,” he added. It showed too, and he kept up the same WrestleMania-inspired dance party after every goal, and then again at the end of the game when the players grabbed green-and-white flags from the stands and partied like they’d just won the whole tournament.
The theme song of Iheanacho’s favourite wrestler is Europe’s The Final Countdown, which is suitable considering this Nigerian side are now favourites to play in the ultimate match in Abu Dhabi on 8 November. And Iheanacho, with his electrifying style in a withdrawn striker’s role, is now all alone at the top of the scorer’s chart.
“I’ve scored four goals in a game many times, but only in the streets with my friends,” he insisted with a beaming smile, the confidence of youth and a huge successful day spilling from his pores. “But never in an international match, never for my country. The feeling is amazing.”
Coach’s belief goes a long way
Before the game, Nigerian coach Manu Garba told FIFA.com about his potent attack, how Total Football would be the order of the day. But he failed to mention just what an outrageous talent he had in this tall, speedy spark-plug, a player who reads the game with maturity and patience well beyond his teenage years. “The coach gives us the freedom to be ourselves, which is the reason why we look so comfortable out there,” Iheanacho said as sad-faced Mexican players shuffled toward their team bus.
The player’s respect for his coach couldn’t have been clearer in the 82nd minute when he was withdrawn to a standing ovation. Iheanacho strutted right up to Garba, bowing deeply before shaking his hand. “He’s the boss and if we’re smart we’ll listen to what he says, because he knows what he’s talking about.”
Sweden and Iraq are the next teams in Group F that will feel the sting of these Golden Eaglets, who are here in UAE hoping to win their fourth U-17 world title. With Iheanacho’s orchestrations, and his near telepathic understanding with striker Success Isaac, there’s no telling how far they can go. “Sure, it’s a big win in our first game,” he added, a little seriousness creeping into his voice, before he heads off to whip up the Nigerian fans who stuck around for one last glimpse of their young heroes. “We have to have courage now and determination to keep going, to go all the way."