Obinna’s stock keeps rising
The year 2008 has certainly been full of dizzying highs for Victor Obinna. Having spent the first half of the calendar year in Serie B with Chievo Verona, whom he helped secure promotion, the gifted front-runner now finds himself part of the team sitting pretty at the top of Serie A after his summer transfer to Inter Milan. The cherry on the cake of a whirlwind 12 months came in 19 December's draw for the first knockout round of the UEFA Champions League, which has pitted the Nerazzurri against holders and Obinna's boyhood favourites Manchester United.
On national-team duty with Nigeria, meanwhile, the fleet-footed forward also had a silver medal to celebrate from the Men's Olympic Football Tournament Beijing 2008, and the striker is determined to be a part of the Super Eagles' attacking armoury come the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™.
As Obinna's annus mirabilis draws to a close, FIFA.com made the trip to Inter's training ground in Appiano Gentile for an exclusive interview with the club's African rising star.
"I'll always look back on 2008 as a special year. From an overall point of view, Chievo's resurgence has brought me nothing but happiness. In Serie B, the pace doesn't let up, there are more matches and the season is physically very testing," said Obinna of his former club's promotion campaign.
"We had to be at our best throughout, otherwise it would have been difficult to last the distance. For all these reasons, winning promotion to Serie A remains a marvellous achievement."
"Just as winning a silver medal at the Olympics was," the player hastens to add. "In the year 2008 I experienced a thrill that will stay with me for all my life: taking part in the Olympic Games and ending up with a silver medal. It was fantastic!"
"The Games were a real battle from start to finish. Even before going to Beijing, we made hard work of qualifying," said the 21-year-old attacker. "We also had a difficult start to the group phase, where we faced the Netherlands in our very first match. Even though we were expected to lose, we managed to hold them to a goalless draw. Little by little we gained in confidence and collectively grew stronger."
"Taking on Côte d'Ivoire [in the quarter-finals] wasn't easy for us at all, because African teams are often tricky to play against," said the Inter No21 of Nigeria's last-eight opponents in Beijing. "The Ivorians are a compact outfit and know how to keep hold of the ball, but we were able to show that we were the stronger side," continued Obinna.
"The semi-final clash against Belgium, meanwhile, will go down as our best performance (at the Games)," he said of the 4-1 win. "It's a shame that we couldn't raise our game to that standard in the final against Argentina. That defeat was difficult to swallow because we felt like we were capable of winning."
Despite the disappointment of falling at the final hurdle against Argentina, Obinna can take heart from the way he clearly grew as a player during Nigeria's Olympic campaign. "I've been part of the national squad since 2005. We've grown up together and I've become a fixture in the team," he said.
"My team-mates considered me to be a key player throughout and our coach had faith in me. Their support helped me embrace my responsibilities out on the pitch and become a decisive goalscorer."
With Nigeria's expedition to Chinese soil now firmly in the past, Obinna feels it is time to prepare for the challenges ahead. "From now on we must focus on the 2010 World Cup. The fact that the competition will be held in Africa for the first time is a huge opportunity," he said. "This gives us the chance to achieve something good, to show the world that an African team can go all the way."
Of the African sides that could potentially be involved in South Africa, the former Enyimba goal-getter feels the Super Eagles have as good a chance as any: "Nigeria are up there among the best teams on the continent. But you can't forget Côte d'Ivoire, Cameroon or Egypt, who have won the last two Africa Cup of Nations. Africa has teams that are capable of springing a surprise at this competition."
At club level, the forward is hoping to build on what he has achieved so far this season at the Milanese giants. "My first goal in an Inter shirt, against Roma, was another big moment for me," said Obinna, recalling his strike in the 4-0 away win on 19 October.
"Scoring that goal gave me a special feeling, especially because I'd not been at the club long and they already had a settled team. At the moment, I'm keen to keep progressing and become an important player."
Are there are any other individual performances that caught his eye in the year gone by? "Frank Lampard's display in the Champions League final. I like Lampard's attitude and he scored a massive goal in the semi-final. He did it again in the final and, in my eyes, Chelsea deserved to win. They played better than United and I say that even though I've supported Manchester since I was a child."
And given the curious twist of fate that has ensured Obinna and Co will face Sir Alex Ferguson's charges in the next phase of the Champions League, what price the Nigerian finding the net against his beloved Red Devils?