- Ogenyi Onazi reflects on Nigeria’s return to the top
- Super Eagles midfield dynamo shares the roots of his versatility
- Looks towards Russia 2018 and Argentina reunion
For much of the four years since Ogenyi Onazi made his FIFA World Cup™ debut with Nigeria, things have been somewhat trying while wearing Super Eagles green. After equalling their best-ever finish by reaching the Brazil 2014 Round of 16, serious stumbles followed for the then reigning African champions.
After failing to qualify for successive CAF Africa Cup of Nations for the first time in over 40 years, they were at a low ebb. “At that moment we had a lot of trouble in the country, with the federation, between the players and there was a lot of confusion in the team,” Onazi admitted to FIFA.com.
So, for fans to see their beloved Nigeria grouped with Africa’s current cup holders Cameroon, Algeria and Zambia on the road to Russia, doubts unsurprisingly bubbled – but not in the dressing room.
“We didn’t give up because we had the opportunity to prove we were really a team and we were able to make it,” the midfielder recalled, having topped their qualifying group in style. “We just told ourselves we have to do this for everybody; we gave all our hearts from day one to the very last.”
The Eagle's heartbeat
Heart is very much something the Trabzonspor man brings to the Super Eagles side, pulling on the captain's armband a number of times. Operating within Nigeria’s core, his boundless energy provides a rapid beat to their midfield and, when mixed with a steely determination, it creates a frustrating cocktail for opponents to contend with both offensively and defensively.
At just 5’8”, in the past the 25-year-old would have been written off as too slight to cope with the rigours of being a dynamic figure in the midfield. However, he and the likes of Frenchman N’Golo Kante are disproving the notion that size matters. “Football today is beyond size, weight and physique. Most important is to try to be fit in every aspect of life.
“For me, this is about modern football. Modern football is: if you can be there before your opponent, that’s the most important thing. [Central midfield] is one of the most difficult positions in football because you determine how the game is going to be played – fast or slow – and how it unfolds tactically.”
Adept around the field, this partly dates back to 2009 when his Nigeria side strode to the FIFA U-17 World Cup final. “When I was growing up I used to play as an attacker, from the right or left wing, or even as a striker. In the under-17s, when I played with coach John Obuh I played virtually all positions – it was only the goalkeeping position I didn’t play [laughs].”
That versatility is complemented by an enthusiasm he radiates both on and off the field. “I’m just trying to do things the way I feel it’s right and I believe so much in personality and trying to be someone who is going to make people happy,” the 25-year-old explained. “This is my objective in life: To make people happy and to make sure that they have hopes that things are going to be better in life.”
That is why these fallow few years hurt so much, and qualification meant the world to Onazi and his team-mates. “It was a really good moment for us. We had to celebrate it very well with our captain John Mikel Obi.”
With the tournament closing in fast, and preparations already well underway – a 1-0 win over Poland was soured somewhat with a 2-0 defeat by Serbia this week – their Group D opponents are quickly coming into focus. While European duo Iceland and Croatia will propose stiff tests, a reunion with Argentina is the real eye-catcher.
Having felt the sting of a thrilling 3-2 defeat four years ago, Onazi is intent on not succumbing to La Albiecelste again. “What cannot kill you makes you stronger,” he said defiantly. “This is the mentality we want to use. The true Argentina is one of the best in the world and it’s not going to be easy.
“When you do something, you try to learn from what you’ve done to be better, so we’ve learned from our mistakes in Brazil and now it’s time for us to correct them and do the best we can.”
Should Onazi manage to convert his heart and commitment into three points against Leo Messi and Co., that life objective of making others happy will be able to be checked off for another day, as he’ll likely hear the cheers from Abuja all the way in Saint Petersburg.