Dedicated Nwakali eyes more family glory
It would be stretching the truth a little to say that Nigeria playmaker and captain Kelechi Nwakali already knows what it means to win the FIFA U-17 World Cup.
“I was in the pre-World Cup training squad in 2013 but I didn’t make the squad that went on to win the trophy,” he explained in an interview with FIFA.com. “My brother Chidiebere was there, though, and of course I felt proud and happy for the other players.”
Nor did Nwakali have the opportunity to travel to United Arab Emirates to cheer on his brother, a defender who contributed two goals to the Golden Eaglets’ triumphant campaign. Explaining why, the younger of the two Nwakali boys said: “I had to train at the academy and it would have been impossible for me to go. I didn’t have any contact with him during the tournament because he had to focus on playing. Obviously, I watched all the games on TV though.”
Eighteen months younger than his sibling, Kelechi was not even at home to welcome the returning hero, with football once again the culprit: “I was away playing in a tournament and I only saw him a week later. We spoke about everything and he said that what drove him on the most was his desire to make the people of Nigeria happy.”
So what is driving the No10 on at Chile 2015? “Winning. We came here to retain the trophy. We want to win the title and we haven’t come for anything less.”
Beating Brazil On the basis of his side’s performances at Chile 2015 so far, Nwakali seems to have every chance of achieving his goal, with Nigeria going into their quarter-final duel with Brazil as favourites, not that he is getting carried away about that: “It’s a mistake to say that simply because we beat Australia 6-0 and they beat New Zealand 1-0. It doesn’t matter how they won. They won because they were better and that’s all we should be worried about.”
The two sides faced off in a friendly in Korea Republic a few months ago, the Nigerians emerging 3-2 winners. Again, however, the Golden Eaglets’ skipper, who has two goals – both penalties – and two assists to his name so far at Chile 2015, refuses to see that meeting as a pointer: “It was just a friendly, and this game will be totally different. It doesn’t matter what others say because we’ll never underestimate anyone, least of all Brazil.”
Focusing on what the Nigerians need to do to win the game, he added: “We’re young players and the one thing we have to strive for is to get better in every game. The only way we can win this competition is to surpass ourselves in each and every match, and we do that by listening to the coach. He’s the one who’s brought us here and he has the experience that’s needed.”
A born leader It is no surprise that Nwakali should mention coach Emmanuel Amuneke, given the key role he plays for the Nigeria boss on the pitch: “I am sort of his right-hand man because he usually gives me instructions to pass on to the rest of my team-mates.”
Yet, as Nwakali went on to explain, as soon as the whistle sounds, Amuneke lets the players take control: “The coach always tells us that when the game starts he can’t be on top of us all the time. He encourages us to think for ourselves and to make our own decisions.”
Rare is the moment when Nwakali is not thinking about football. “It’s been that way since I was 11,” he said. “When I’m not on the pitch, I’m watching matches on TV or playing football games on my phone.”
His role model is Yaya Toure: “I love watching him play because he loves to win. That’s all he wants. You can see it in the way he plays, the way he runs and even in the way he walks on the pitch.”
Though Nwakali is still at the academy where he learned his trade, he has hopes one day of going on to bigger things: “I want to play for a side that’s going places, like Manchester City.” Should he do so, he would be following in the footsteps of brother Chidiebere, who has signed for City and is currently on loan with Spanish side Girona.
Talking of his older brother again, did he get any advice from him before setting off for Chile? “None. We’re close but he’s got his own career to think about. We haven’t even spoken about it and nor will we. Just as he did two years ago, I need to concentrate on what I’m experiencing here. I have to focus on improving so that we can be champions.”