When you think of Nigerian exports, you probably immediately think of oil, cocoa beans, and banter, but there’s one more— football players.
Nigeria’s national team had been teetering for a while, and the Nigerian Football Federation decided to take action. They fired national team legend and coach Sunday Oliseh, brought in Gernt Rohr, and began to push for many players of Nigerian descent who were honing their talents in foreign leagues. Nigeria’s national team had been teetering for a while, and the Nigerian Football Federation decided to take action. Their strategy was successful, and now, the Super Eagles boast a squad filled with promising talent, like Alex Iwobi, Oghenkaro Etebo, and Henry Onyekuru.
Henry Onyekuru is one of Nigeria’s brightest prospects, a player who, like many African footballers who now ply their trade in Europe, got his start at Aspire Academy. Aspire Academy was founded in 2004 to scout and develop Qatari athletes, and in 2008, they set up an academy in Senegal, where Henry Onyekuru made his name. Henry graduated and moved to Aspire’s affiliate club K.A.S. Eupen in 2015.
In 2016/2017, Henry Onyekuru burst onto the world’s radar. The Onitsha-born Nigerian scored 24 goals and nine assists in 41 matches, and several Champions League clubs took notice. In the January transfer window, Onyekuru was heavily linked to a move to Celtic. He wanted the move so much that he even went AWOL, yet returned to Belgium, apologized, and eventually, won back the hearts of Eupen fans with his brilliant performances.
Still, Les Pandas could not keep him for long, and in late June, Everton beat out competition from across Europe to sign the Igbo winger for £7m. With an aim at getting him a work permit as well as more playing time, Everton loaned him out to Belgian champions Anderlecht for the 2017-18 season.
Anderlecht has molded several raw prospects into ready-made European stars, like Vincent Kompany, Lucas Biglia, Youri Tielemans and Romelu Lukaku. Not only will Onyekuru get the chance to play at a world-class development club, he will also dip his toes into Europe’s elite competition, where he will go head to head against the likes of Dani Alves and Joshua Kimmich.
Onyekuru is blessed with wonderful pace and he matches that pace with his incredible agility, technique and dribbling. When running full speed at defenders, there’s no defender in Belgium that can stop him, and Royal Excel Mouscron learned that the hard way last May. He collects the ball deep in his own half, side-stepped one defender, blasted past five other defenders, and timed an expert finish in the corner with two defenders pursuing him.
Henry can play anywhere on the front line-right, in the middle, second striker-but he is often seen on the left wing, cutting in and doing damage. He’s a confident and composed finisher who can shoot from distance, and who uses his right foot to deadly effect. From his game, you can tell that Henry Onyekuru has received a very solid footballing education.
As with most prospects, Onyekuru is still very raw and is prone to making mistakes; do not be surprised if the Purple & Whites faithful grow frustrated at his poor decision-making this season. Having played in Belgium for the past two years of his life, Henry has not faced tough competition to give his game a fair assessment, but playing in the Champions League will be a great litmus test for him.
Furthermore, if Henry wants to have a shot at succeeding in the Premier League, he must hit the gym and bulk up. England is a league where the right balance of speed, strength and technique is required, but a year at Anderlecht will help with his physical development.
At 20, he can sometimes revert to an immature, selfish street footballer; he’ll often try to score or dribble instead of making the simple pass. But overall, Henry Onyekuru is an incredibly entertaining prospect, and by paying £7m for him, Everton are wagering that they can refine the raw gem into a polished diamond.
At Anderlecht, in the Belgian First Division, a league where he scored 24 goals last season, it would not be a shock if Henry, surrounded by better players this season, scores 30 or more goals in all competitions. Champions League football will provide a huge shock for him, especially with heavy hitters Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich in Anderlecht’s group, but this will provide an opportunity for Henry to test out his skills against the world’s finest defenders. Anderlecht will probably battle it out with Celtic for 3rd place, and if they do get 3rd, Henry will be able to shine against Europa League teams, perhaps even his parent club.
Internationally, Nigerians will be a bit apprehensive with Henry’s breakthrough; it’s yet another attacking talent. However, Henry is a major, once-in-a-generation talent for Nigeria, and can be a cornerstone for a while (if politics don’t interfere). At 20 years old, Henry will add to the already young and talented Nigerian core, chipping in goals and big league experience. It is a World Cup year, and with Nigeria seemingly having World Cup qualification in the palm of their hands, many players will be using this season as a launching pad for World Cup spots, and this hunger to be on the plane to Russia will definitely fuel Henry’s desire to improve.
Having made his debut for Nigeria in June 2017 and earning a move to Everton, the world is at his feet. With a year of regular football in Anderlecht and Champions League, Henry should come back to Everton as a much more polished player, ready to break into Ronald Koeman’s Everton squad. If Henry fulfils his potential, he will be another Nigerian cult hero at Everton, following the paths of Daniel Amokachi, Joseph Yobo and Yakubu Aiyegbeni.