Nigerian fans praise him in song. They join in his celebrations and hold up hand-made signs of adoration for their beloved No10. But Mexico’s defenders have nightmares about the lanky Kelechi Iheanacho. He swirled around them in the opening game, as if attached to wires in the rafters of the Khalifa Bin Zayed Stadium. He was irresistible in the first game of Group F, scoring four times in a 6-1 demolition of the holders that seemed to indicate a title defence was little more than fantasy.
“I’m sure they won’t feel great about that first result,” Iheanacho told FIFA.com after beating Sweden in Dubai in the semi-finals. “They’ll want to put pressure on us and we’ll have to be careful. We’ll respect them, but it’s hard to go against us when we’re playing our good football.”
All of Nigeria’s acclaim and adulation here in UAE is built on foundations of Mexican humiliation. The day after that opening game in Al Ain, a party was thrown by local dignitaries in honour of the four competing Group F nations. Iheanacho and his mates danced freely with Iraq’s young talents at twilight, the polite and blushing Swedes visited the buffet straight away. But Mexico’s players were nowhere to be found. They were exiled to their rooms thinking about that heavy defeat, that crushing loss to Nigeria.
Football is good at offering second chances, but Iheanacho – near the top of the scorer’s charts with five of Nigeria’s 23 goals – has bad news for the revived Mexicans. “We’ve got better since that opener,” he told FIFA.com under the bright lights in the corridor of the Rashid Stadium, press from back home clamouring for a chat with the young prodigy. “We’ve become closer and we’re going to chase them all over the field; we’re going to press them with our attackers and we won’t rest. We’ll go at them for 90 minutes until we’re sure the trophy is ours.”
Iheanacho has big tired eyes, looking always on the verge of slipping off to sleep. He hails from Imo State and his surname means ‘the wanted, or desired, one’ in his native Igbo language, suitable considering the rowdy Nigerian fans in Al Ain for the first game against Mexico were chanting “Call him up” – presumably to the Super Eagles senior team – even before he’d scored his fourth.
“They give us courage,” Iheanacho said of the Nigerian fans who’ve offered the tournament colour and swagger, their trumpets blaring for all of the Eaglets’ matches. “But you can’t play for the gallery, you have to play for your team-mates. But they do give us confidence and they cheer us up so that we can play in the right way,” he went on about the supporters who’ve sparked the venues of this Arab country with flashes of Lagos and Abuja.
Buzz from the terraces
Just as Mexican fans have their traditional taunt of Ole, a remnant of the nation’s bullfighting tradition, Nigerian football fans have their own way of inspiring their side and deflating the opponent. When Iheanacho and co get into their fast passing rhythm in attack, a squeal comes with each pass – aye, aye, aye in a high register, like a chirping bird, until the ball is lost. Then a low ooh of disappointment, almost disapproval.
“It’s a way Nigerians show their love of attacking football, fast, quick passes,” Sunday Oliseh, twice a World Cup participant for and a true legend of Nigerian football, said in a recent interview. “They’ve been doing it long before my time. It’s been there forever.”
The loudest aye comes when Iheanacho gets the ball, because – though it will be poison to Mexican ears – he’s gotten better as the tournament’s gone on. A four-goal opener is clear evidence that the young man knows where the goal is, but he’s since shown his ability as a creator, his seven assists marking him out as one of the best all-around players this junior world showpiece has ever seen.
Are you a playmaker Kelechi, or a scorer? A long pause. “I’m both,” he smiled. Another pause. “But I it’s not important to call yourself one or the other. If I’m in a good position to score then I’m happy to put the ball in the back of the net, but if I’m not, and I see someone in a better position, I’ll give it to him. It doesn’t matter in our team who scores the goals, who finishes top scorer or top player. It’s a collective effort.
“We have to work as a team, play as a team,” he added, knowing full well he and his mates have offered as harmonious a brand of football as any before at this age level. “This is how you win matches.” It is indeed, and with talents like Musa Yahaya, Taiwo Awoniyi and Abdullahi Alfa alongside Iheanacho, rest may not come easy for Mexico’s defenders in the wee hours tonight.