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Iheanacho: When talent alone is not enough

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Iheanacho: When talent alone is not enough

Not too long ago, Kelechi Iheanacho was one of the first names in the Super Eagles squad.

And he deserved his place going by his form and his contributions.

He was balling for his club and replicating his form for the national team. He was not just the future; he was the present, and every Super Eagles fan loved him.

At that time – less than 18 months ago – there would probably have been a riot if Iheanacho had been dropped from the Nigeria squad. Nobody even contemplated it.

But it has been all downhill this past one year for the young man who, without any doubt, is very talented.

The downward spiral of Iheanacho’s form has led to him being left out of the squad to the Africa Cup of Nations, which begins in Egypt next week. And he has been so horribly out of form in recent times that his exclusion from the final squad of 23 players for the African showpiece was expected.

That is how far he has rapidly descended from the pecking order of forwards.

So, what happened to this young man blessed with so much talent? Why is he in decline when, at just 22 years old, he should be improving and building up to his peak years?

The issue surely is not about his talent; it’s a gift that doesn’t just disappear.

But talent is clearly not enough. A professional footballer (and anybody in any other field really) needs drive, application, ambition and the right attitude to succeed. It is obvious that the ‘star boy’ of the national team lacks one or maybe more of these essential components to complement his natural gift.

There have been numerous cases of young footballers having too much, way too early, therefore struggling to be motivated to get more.

It is not inconceivable that this is the case with Iheanacho, who was already a global starlet by the time he was 16 when he was the best player at the 2013 FIFA U-17 World Cup.

His stock rapidly rose after that tournament and he soon joined one of the world’s richest clubs, Manchester City.

Suddenly, money, which is usually the driving force for African players with humble backgrounds, was no longer a problem.

Then came promotion to Manchester City’s first team and the opportunity to show the English public what he could do. And he did show them, taking full advantage of limited playing time and justifying the faith coach Manuel Pellegrini had in him.

Iheanacho’s numbers were decent at Manchester City (21 goals and eight assists in 64 senior games in two seasons despite playing mostly as a substitute) but the arrival of Pep Guardiola meant the Nigerian youngster had to eventually leave.

He did not do badly under Guardiola, but Iheanacho could not cope with the Spanish coach’s demands of working your socks off and pressing the opponents hard even as a striker.

Even then, he still played 29 matches in all competitions under Guardiola in the 2016/2017 season and scored seven goals (three assists). He started only seven of those games but scored in big clashes, including one against City’s bitter rivals Manchester United in the Premier League.

The performances were enough to earn him a big money move to Leicester City at the beginning of the 2017/2018 season and he was expected to fit right in at a smaller club with less pressure.

He did not exactly light up the King Power Stadium, but he was not a flop either, scoring eight goals (four assists) in 29 matches. Again, he was not established as a regular starter but big things were still expected of him.

After the not-so-great first season with Leicester, Iheanacho was still a shoe-in for the Super Eagles squad and he made the Russia 2018 squad as expected, although he did not make much of an impact. He was a late substitute in the 2-0 defeat to Croatia before starting the 2-0 win over Iceland and the 2-1 defeat to Argentina, where he was hauled off at half-time.

However, despite an impressive pre-season where he scored almost all of Leicester’s goals, the 2018/2019 season was a horror show for Iheanacho and his abject form invariably affected his Super Eagles chances.

After struggling in AFCON qualifiers against Seychelles and South Africa, and being left on the bench for the games against Libya, Iheanacho was eventually dropped from the squad for the qualifier against Seychelles and the friendly with Egypt, both in March. His cup was apparently full.

But, after questioning his attitude and urging him to shape up, coach Gernot Rohr gave Iheanacho a final chance by including the forward in the provisional squad for the 2019 AFCON. But no eyebrows were raised when the once golden boy was dropped from the final squad.

Coming off a season with Leicester where he scored just two goals in 39 games, and having scored his last Super Eagles goal in that famous 4-2 pre-World Cup friendly win over Argentina in 2017, it really was no surprise.

Iheanacho is still a young man with enormous talent, and an improved attitude and re-igniting of his inner fires will get him back on track.

He can then fulfil that Promise that his middle name implies.

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