Ex-International Dimeji Lawal was the first-ever Nigerian player to sign for Spanish giants Real Madrid when he joined them in 1989 immediately after his exploits with the Flying Eagles at the World Youth Championship in Saudi Arabia earlier that same year.
A staunch Arsenal FC of England fan, he’s no stranger to young African players joining big European teams as he passed the same route some 27 years ago so he was understandably happy with the news that Golden Eaglets captain Kelechi Nwakali has signed a contract with the Gunners.
In this interview with Kayode OGUNDARE, the man popularly called Kabongo by his fans revealed what it would take for the Nigerian youngster to make a success of his Arsenal career as well as using his own time in Spain to guide him through…
How did you receive the news that Golden Eaglets star Kelechi Nwakali has signed for Arsenal FC?
Like every other Nigerian, I was happy for him and for the country as well because that’s one more quality player to add to our pool of national team players. And, of course, I’m happy that my team Arsenal have signed one of the best young players in the world as attested to by the MVP award he won at the U-17 FIFA World Cup.
Given your own experience when you joined a star-studded Real Madrid in 1989 when you were barely 18 years old, in what ways do you think this move will affect the youngster?
Well, we are talking about two different eras. The world has grown tremendously since 1989. That was almost 30 years ago and you can testify to the great strides we’ve made in globalization. We did not know much of the outside world unlike today where everything is on television and internet.
Back then, one of the challenges African players faced was the quota system where clubs are forced to have specific numbers of foreign players on the roster so it is usually difficult for a young player coming out of Africa to walk into a European team.
Also, there are a lot of foreign managers in the English game unlike in Spain where all the club officials I had to deal with were Spanish so you first had to learn the language, adapt to the weather, food and culture whilst still struggling to make an impact on the pitch to impress your coach.
Things have changed now and Kelechi Iheanacho’s rise is a shining example of what is possible if you work hard and you are willing to learn. If Nwakali also puts his head down, he will certainly make it.
Don’t you think anything his wrong with very young players joining big clubs?
There’s nothing wrong with it. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a win-win situation for both club and player. The club will pick up the player for a small fee and enjoy his services for a long time before selling him for big money when the time comes. On the player’s part, he has the opportunity of going to a club where he can learn the rudiments of the game by training with top players using the best facilities money can buy. This will also impact on his performance for the national team so the benefits to all concerned is immense.
Don’t you think the atmosphere and pressure of a big club could overwhelm him?
No, I don’t think so. You see, the age of breakthrough for players is increasingly going lower and lower. Look at Raheem Sterling at Liverpool and now Manchester City and our own Kelechi Iheanacho who’s doing great things this season. This is the best age to go to Europe and Arsenal have the facilities to help them settle quicker into life over there than even most of those so-called smaller teams.
What must Nwakali do to make it at a club like Arsenal?
The first thing is to keep his head down and be ready to learn. He must understand that what he has is potential which will not be worth much if he’s not helped to achieve the utmost possible with the talent he has. He must be focused on what he’s doing, determined to be the best, professional in attitude to work and have respect for his coaches and teammates. If he can do these, the sky will be his starting point.
What do you think the young boy can bring to this Arsenal squad?
It is not about immediate gains but long-term planning to turn his potential into something more concrete. Undoubtedly, Nwakali has immense talent and before he was scouted and paid for, the manger already has plans for him in mind. For a player to be voted MVP amongst his peers means he has that special something. Besides, Wenger is a manager renowned for blooding youngsters and bringing them up so if there’s a big club where the player can blossom, I think it is at Arsenal under Arsene Wenger. Nwakali will learn everything possible and will definitely become a better player in no distant time.
Thank you for your time, Kabongo
It’s my pleasure. Do have a nice day
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