Taiwo Awoniyi is making the most of his time. The Nigerian forward, just 16 years old, arrived in UAE expecting to learn lessons, supporting his older, more experienced mates from the bench. The No18 he wears on his back is a clear indication of his place in the pecking order behind No10 Kalechi Iheanacho, who has scored five goals so far at the U-17 finals, and Success Isaac, the first-choice No9 in this Golden Eaglets team.
“To achieve what we want here we have to have faith in every member of the team,” Awoniyi told FIFA.com after starting Nigeria’s Round of 16 win against Iran. “It’s not just about the boys in the first XI. We were all brought to the World Cup for a reason, because we can do a job. And when I’m in, it’s my turn to do that job.”
A late substitute in the opener against Mexico, he came off the bench again after 32 minutes of the next game with Sweden. It was a change forced on coach Manu Garba as his preferred striker, Isaac, pulled a hamstring. There was no time for Awoniyi to warm up, no time for him to be nervous. Garba shouted his name, he popped up off the bench and into the fray he went. “Whether I start or not, I will always put in my best effort on the pitch,” said the young man from Osun state.
He’s played every minute since. A tall striker with pace to burn, Awoniyi does the kind of hard work that only comes with limited chances, the hunger of having played second fiddle. He stretches opposition defences with his tireless and intelligent movement, providing outlets and options for playmaker Musa Yahaya. He’s a beacon, a target, and his smaller, more agile, mates buzz around him like flies.
It’s is a selfless role and Awoniyi scores few goals for his troubles. In his 256 minutes of football here in UAE, he has just one. Although it was a crucial goal, the third nine minutes from time in a 3-3 draw with Sweden, Iheanacho has five and Yahaya – not even listed as a forward – has four. Nigeria have scored 18 times in their four games.
Praise from Gyan, limited time
Awoniyi is the type of striker you only notice when paying close attention. One man who recognised his efforts at the Khalifa Bin Zayed Stadium on Tuesday was Asamoah Gyan, the Ghana striker extraordinaire who’s top-scored in UAE’s top-flight for the last two seasons with club side Al Ain. “I like him, that No18, Awoniyi,” said Gyan, who’s played in the FIFA World Cup™ and knows a thing or two about life as a striker. “He does all the work up there and creates a lot. This is my kind of player.”
When Gyan’s praises are passed on to young Awoniyi after the game, his face lights up like a bulb. “Wow,” he said bashfully, shuffling his feet on the floor. “He [Gyan] is such a great striker and he knows that it isn’t always about scoring. A lot of times you have to work hard so that your teammates can be the ones to get the goals.”
Awoniyi knows better than anyone that his time is limited. Every Nigerian press conference begins with a status check on Isaac’s fitness. Coach Garba pulled no punches after the Iran win about who he prefers up front. “When Success gets to 75 per cent fitness, we will use him again,” the coach said of Isaac, whose spinning volley against Sweden will go down as one of the best goals in tournament history. “Our attack revolves around him.”
While Awoniyi won’t like to hear his coach prefers Isaac’s 75 per cent to his 100, the No9 isn’t expected to hit that fitness mark until at least the semi-final stage. So Awoniyi will have another chance to give his all once more in the quarter-finals. “When you make yourself ready for great things, great things can happen,” he said, smiling shyly while teammates filed past and patted him on the shoulder, his coaches winking at him warmly, happy for his moment of attention.
The Uruguay game represents one more day in the sunshine, one more moment in the spotlight for this understated striker. “Success [Isaac] is a serious player and when he’s fit, he’s going to be starting,” Awoniyi admitted, a sadness creeping into his voice before quickly being replaced by determination: “But when I’m needed I’ll be ready.”