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A New Nigeria By Lucas Morel

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In the world of professional soccer today, transfers are everything. Teams from every league are constantly trying to upgrade their current roster by buying players from other clubs, who then understandably look to replace the players who were sold. In the two transfer windows of the 2015-16 season alone, teams in the English Premier League spent over $1 billion on transfer fees. Clearly, transfers matter. A lot.

As a result of this modern cycle where talent is most often acquired when already proven rather than developed internally, it is rare that we see prospects emerge from a club’s youth system to become primetime players for that same club. If they begin showing signs of stardom at a smaller team, then larger sides inevitably swoop in with an offer that cannot be refused; if they begin at a larger club, then they are many times given too brief an opportunity to prove their worth before they are discarded in favor of the next “big thing.”

This reality makes the respective rises of Manchester City’s Kelechi Iheanacho and Arsenal’s Alex Iwobi that much more impressive. Both Nigerian, the two young forwards each started out in their club’s expansive and highly competitive youth system, rose to their side’s first team this season, and made the most of their chance.

Looking first at Iheanacho, the 19-year-old striker has been a timely revelation for Manchester City this season amidst the struggles, injury-related and otherwise, of the rest of the City attack. Already Iheanacho’s finishing prowess has earned him some significant adulation from his manager. Manuel Pellegrini is quoted as saying:
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“We let Jovetic and Dzeko go because I see Kelechi every day and know what he can do. I am very happy.”

After the season Iheanacho has had, Pellegrini’s praise makes a lot of sense. In 26 appearances for the club across all competitions this season, only seven of which have been starts, Iheanacho has put up a terrific statline of nine goals and four assists. This includes an FA Cup hat trick away to Aston Villa back on Jan. 30, as well as a goal against Tottenham Hotspur just two weeks later, who incidentally have allowed the fewest goals of any Premier League team this season (24).

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Iheanacho’s success for City will come as no surprise to those who know of his impressive accomplishments within the Nigerian national team system over the past few years. The forward has played for Nigeria ever since his U-13 days, and he was a part of the Nigerian U-17 team that took home the World Cup title for their age bracket back in 2013. Young, skilled, and devoted to his country, Iheanacho looks set to become a fixture of Nigerian soccer for years to come.

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Now, for his Premier League compatriot, Alex Iwobi. Compared with Iheanacho’s practically season-long rise to prominence, Iwobi’s journey to stardom is not quite as far along. The 19-year-old forward has only appeared 14 times for Arsenal (including seven starts) this season in all competitions, yielding a return of just one goal and one assist. However, despite this seeming lack of productivity, Iwobi’s impact on the Arsenal attack has still been turning plenty of heads.
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In particular, it is Iwobi’s last two appearances for the Gunners that have fans of the club so enthused. Although Arsenal lost 1-3 in their most recent Champions League game against FC Barcelona, his performance against last season’s UCL winners had everyone talking. Playing with obvious energy and hunger, Iwobi seemed like the most dangerous Arsenal attacker in the lineup. As James McNicholas wrote for espnfc.com:

“On his first Champions League start, the 19-year-old acquitted himself superbly. The highest compliment you can pay Iwobi is that he did not look out of place on the Camp Nou pitch.”

Following this promising display, Iwobi was granted his first Premier League start the following weekend away to Everton. He justified manager Arsène Wenger’s faith entirely, scoring a well-taken goal on a breakaway in the 42nd minute, slotting the ball calmly past Everton keeper Joel Robles just a couple of dribbles after bringing down a long ball from the back with a great first touch. After these two excellent showings, it does not look like Iwobi will be leaving the Arsenal starting lineup any time soon.

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While they do have much in common, Iwobi’s international career has been markedly different than that of Iheanacho. While the latter has represented Nigeria for years, Iwobi only recently chose to play for his home country rather than England, whose colors he had worn at varying youth levels since 2011. It was a somewhat messy breakup between Iwobi and the Three Lions, as The Guardian detailed in this interesting piece, but the young attacker is now officially a Nigerian international after being capped for their senior side in a match against Egypt last week.
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This is big news for Nigerian soccer. While traditionally a powerhouse within African competition, they have never progressed farther than the Round of 16 at any World Cup. However, there is now a tangible excitement about the team within Nigeria itself. The nation’s aforementioned game against Egypt drew a crowd of around 40,000 people, as fans scrambled to find any available vantage point from which to watch their beloved “Super Eagles.”

All in all, it is hard to blame them. Nigeria now have two of the Premier League’s brightest young stars leading their forward line. Both Iheanacho and Iwobi are only 19 years of age and play for massive clubs in Europe’s top league. They each have shown glimpses of brilliance this season, earning regular playing time in rosters filled with older, higher-paid players. If they are given time to mature and develop their obvious talent, it is quite possible that, in five years, Nigeria will boast the best attacking duo in Africa, and possibly even one of the best in any continent.

Look out, world, Iheanacho and Iwobi are coming for the top. And they are bringing their country with them.