Olarenwaju Kayode has good reason to forget the FIFA U-17 World Cup Nigeria 2009. The Flying Eagles striker failed to score in six games for the host nation, who eventually fell to Switzerland in the final.
“Don’t talk to me about our failure in Nigeria,” he told FIFA.com when asked to recall his first taste of international competition. “That tournament was a nightmare for me. I was totally lacking in confidence and focus.”
Two years is a long time in football, however, and having since graduated to the Nigeria U-20 team, Kayode is enjoying happier times at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Colombia 2011, where he and his team-mates have just won through to the quarter-finals. His confidence fully restored, the ASEC Mimosas front man is in the groove, scoring three goals as the Nigerians made regal progress through the group phase.
Dedicating this goalscoring run to his colleagues and to coach John Obuh, Kayode had this to say: “I’m back in the limelight thanks to the work of the team and my coach, who has always believed in my ability as a goalscorer. It’s never easy to start off a competition like this on the right foot but the coach has confidence in me.”
The striker is not the only veteran of Nigeria 2009 to reappear with the Flying Eagles at Colombia 2011. No fewer than eight members of the U-20 squad were on duty on home soil two years ago, when Obuh was also the man in charge.
“It was so frustrating to lose that final at home, although, at the same time, we also learned a lot from that defeat,” added Kayode. “We’ve changed the way we organise ourselves now, and we get together every day to go over our mistakes and improve as a team.”
Aside from that attention to detail, there is one other possible explanation for the upturn in Kayode’s fortunes: a change in shirt numbers, the front man having swapped his No10 jersey for Abdul Ajagun’s No9.
“I wanted to give my old number to Ajagun because nine is my favourite number,” he said, explaining the switch. “It’s the number my hero Obafami Martins wears. The No10 brought me bad luck in Nigeria, but the No9 has not let me down here.”
That last comment is something of an understatement. Opening his Colombian account against Guatemala, he was on the mark again in the match with Croatia and made it three goals in three games against Saudi Arabia.
“After my first goal I ran over to my coach to thank him for keeping faith in me,” he explained. “But against the Saudis I just let myself go and danced like Asamoah Gyan.”
The scoring sequence was broken in the Round-of-16 defeat of England despite a number of chances coming his way. That said, Kayode played an instrumental part in the only goal of the game, scampering into space down the left flank and sending in a measured cross that Edafe Egbedi converted with aplomb.
“I’m happy with my level but I can do even better,” he said, summarising his contribution so far. “I didn’t score against England but I helped set up the winning goal, and I’ll be making the news again in the quarter-finals.”
Beyond the finals Kayode is content to resist a move to Europe, where several of his team-mates are now based, and stay with Côte d’Ivoire club ASEC Mimosas, having moved there from Marvellous FC, the Nigerian outfit where he began his career.
“I’m still young and I need to take my time before moving to Europe,” he said, with a maturity beyond his years. “The most important thing at our age is to keep on progressing. I’ve always played in Africa and I’ve got no intention of rushing into things. I’m progressing slowly but surely and I’ll leave when the time is right.”
For the time being at least, Kayode has his mind firmly set on Sunday’s quarter-final tie against France, with confidence high in the Nigeria camp: “It doesn’t matter who we’re up against, because we know we’ll be there. On a personal level I know I can score against any team, especially in the last eight.”
Though something of a joker, Kayode is not making idle threats, as France’s defenders will do well to take note of when they come up against Nigeria’s well-oiled goalscoring machine.