When Teslim Balogun signed with Peterborough United in 1955, he became the first Nigerian footballer to sign for a professional club in Europe. Although he had to wait a season before playing his first games in the English league, doing so with Queens Park Rangers, he could not have foreseen at the time how he paved the way for generations to come.
When Nigerian technical director Gernot Rohr announced his side's squad to face Zambia in the Super Eagles' first 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ match in the group phase of the CAF qualifying competition, all but two of the seven forwards selected by the German currently ply their trade in England's top flight. A sixth, Brown Ideye, spent a season with West Bromwich Albion before transferring to Olympiacos.
Kelechi Iheanacho is undoubtedly one of the rising stars, not only in the Premier League, but in world football. Last month the striker joined an illustrious club of just 16 players who had scored 10 Premier League goals before their 20th birthday.
What makes Iheanacho's record even more remarkable is that he needed just 30 games to achieve his tally and only four of the 16 players needed fewer matches. And if those statistics are not enough to convince everybody of his precocious talent, his 10 goals came from just 14 shots on target.
The Manchester City starlet said that the Super Eagles needed to put the disappointment of failing to qualify for next year's CAF Africa Cup of Nations finals in Gabon behind them. The west Africans have been drawn into the so-called 'Group of Death' for the World Cup qualifiers and will be competing against two other multi-World Cup veterans: Algeria and Cameroon.
“Our focus has to be on the next games. I will also work hard for my country as an individual; and we are going to work collectively as a team. We have to overcome Zambia first before we can talk about Cameroon and Algeria. However, it’s not going to be easy.
“To play in the FIFA World Cup will be a dream come true for me,” he said.
A Premier League line-up
*Like Iheanacho, Ahmed Musa (Leicester City), Victor Moses (Chelsea), Isaac Success (Watford) and Alex Iwobi (Arsenal) all earn their daily living by playing in the Premier League. To that list, Odion Ighalo should be added, but the Watford striker was left out of the squad to face Zambia as he will be in Nigeria following his father's passing.
With a forward line of such calibre, it is as much surprising as it is disappointing for Nigerian fans that the Super Eagles managed to score just two goals in their four matches in the AFCON qualifying campaign, which saw them finish second in their group behind Egypt. Rohr, who took the side over after they had already been eliminated, is aware of the issue. “Goals is what we need to triumph over Zambia. But we have the players to score them,” he said.
One of the players whom the coach will be hoping can provide the goals is Musa, who only joined the Premier League at the start of the season, when he signed for champions Leicester City from CSKA Moscow. After two break-out seasons with VVV Venlo in the Dutch Eredivisie, he already had the opportunity to sign in the Premier League in 2012. He explained recently why he decided against the move. “At the time I was only 19, and I felt that I was still too young to play in England, so I joined CSKA Moscow instead.”
When Leicester City approached him earlier this year, it was another former Nigerian Premier League player who convinced him to make the move. “Nwankwo Kanu is like a role model for me,” he said. “We always have contact with each other and I spoke to him before I came to Leicester. I was in Russia and he called me, because he always advises me what do do. He told me that I would enjoy it in the Premier League and England.”
Playing in England is not the only thing that combines the group as all but Iwobi of the Premier League-based players have already appeared on the global stage – be it the FIFA U-17 or U-20 World Cups or as is the case for Musa and Moses, at the senior level. And although Moses and Success have had to withdraw from the squad with injuries, it seems likely that Nigeria's line-up against the Chipolopolo will have a distinct English flair to it.