It was Pele, perhaps the greatest footballer of all, who famously predicted that one day an African nation would win the World Cup – and if Kelechi Iheanacho and his cohorts continue their progress, it could be Nigeria lifting the greatest prize in football.
Iheanacho is only 19 but has already made rapid progress in the game, from being an under-17 World Cup winner with Nigeria to being a match-winner with Manchester City in the Premier League.
Yet it could have been different for the teenager who started his career at Chelsea, the youth academy in West Africa.
‘I started in an academy in Nigeria, which they named after a Premier League team – Chelsea,’ explains the teenager as he sits in Manchester City’s state-of-the-art training centre.
‘I played a few times there then I went to the Taye Academy where I was recognised by a team in town. From there I started playing competitions for my state and country and went on to play at under-17 level in the African Nations tournament and World Cup.’
If his progress sounds easy, it is because Iheanacho has an inherent love for the game and some would say an innate talent – not surprisingly when you know his middle name is Promise. ‘I love playing football so I think I will play it to any level. I love the game and it’s natural in me.’
The young forward travelled to the African Nations youth tournament in Morocco in 2013. ‘It was a good experience for me to represent my country. It was my first time at under-17 level.
‘I didn’t think I would be there because there are a lot of very good players. I worked hard to be in the tournament and it was great to be part of the team. I had a knock before the tournament so I couldn’t start the first game. I came on for ten minutes of the first game, then ten minutes of the second game. Then I started the third game. I was able to score four goals in the competition, in five matches.’
The under-17 World Cup, later that year in the United Arab Emirates, was next. ‘It was a nice experience – playing in that World Cup was a big thing. I was excited and happy being among the team and players to represent Nigeria.’
Not only did Nigeria win the cup, Iheanacho won the Golden Ball as the player of tournament after scoring six goals and setting up seven more.
‘We didn’t expect to go that far in the competition,’ he conceded. ‘We had four or five key players not there. We were young and didn’t think we were going to go far in the competition but we started well and won the first game. Then we won the rest of the games to become champions. It was an amazing experience for me.’
His performances in 2013 put him on the world stage.
It was the fourth time Nigeria had won the youth World Cup (eclipsing Brazil) and they went on to win it again last year, suggesting it cannot be long before they are challenging for the real World Cup.
‘There’s a lot of talent in our team because we have a lot of good players from the back and our goalkeeper with midfielders and attackers who can finish well. And some of us have been able to play in Europe now – one is at Granada in Portugal, another at Tottenham and I’m here with City so we will have a very good squad with Nigeria in the future.
‘If Nigeria can bring them all together, Nigeria will definitely do well at the World Cup.’
His performances in 2013 put him on the world stage and the big clubs came flocking. Arsenal and Sporting Lisbon showed their interest but it was FC Porto that attracted the youngster most.
‘There were a lot of clubs coming and at first I chose to go to FC Porto because I thought I would get the chance to play. Then Manchester City came along.
Kelechi’s breakthrough came last summer.
‘I wanted to go to FC Porto but my father said I should go to City because I will have a better future. That’s why I’m here and I’ve no regrets at all. It’s good here. Nigeria is a nice place to live, but you have to work hard to get a living.’
But it was not easy at first, as he recalled: ‘It was hard when I first came. It was cold and I was freezing on the first run-out I had at the academy. And in my first game I was freezing and I said to myself: “I don’t know if I’m going to cope with this”. But now I’m enjoying it and I’m enjoying the weather as well!’
Kelechi’s breakthrough came last summer. ‘It was quite a surprise to me. I went to pre-season in Scotland and I was expecting to come back to Manchester afterwards. But the manager told me I was going to the pre-season tour in the US. I was surprised and a bit scared. The other players gave me confidence to keep going. And then I played in my first game and scored my first goal and I was very happy.’
Iheanacho made his Premier League debut as a late substitute in August and two weeks later made an even bigger impact when he went on late in the game at Crystal Palace and scored the winning goal.
‘It was a great moment. I won’t say it was the best moment in my life, but one of the best moments. I scored to get the three points for the team and keep us at the top of the table of the Premier League so I was very happy.’
He made his debut for Nigeria in November and is starting to become recognised.
Now he admits he has many ambitions. ‘I’m just going to keep working hard in training and games. When you work hard, you get the rewards. And when you are in the game you work hard for the team and I’ll get there.’
He made his debut for Nigeria in November and is starting to become recognised when he returns home to see family.
‘When I go to my country people come around me and all that. But I don’t think I’m that popular because there are better known people than me in Nigeria. I’m just an up-and-coming young player so I don’t worry.’
But if the Manchester City prospect can help Nigeria thrive at the senior World Cup, as he did at the youth version, it is fair to assume that soon everyone will know all about him.