Known for its dangerous slums, party lifestyle and undying devotion to Afropop, the former Nigerian capital of Lagos is currently generating a reputation for producing some of the nation’s most gifted footballers.
Lagos is the largest populated city in Nigeria, despite having a relatively small land area by comparison, and has nurtured Nigerian Internationals including Taribo West, Odion Ighalo and Obafemi Martins, all of whom who have transcended from Ajegunle, a slum without running water and an extraordinarily high crime rate that engulfs and overshadows many areas of Nigeria.
Wilfred Ndidi is the latest and potentially the most promising export from the Lagos production line, as the 20-year-old continually adapts to the Premier League and attempts to fill the N’Golo Kanté-sized void left at the King Power Stadium. While he did not grow up there, Ndidi often played against other youth prospects in Ajegunle, a gold mine for budding footballers, in spite of all the other issues.
At his tender age, the 6ft2in midfielder has shouldered a staggering amount of pressure after being identified to replace the French international, who has won the past two Premier League titles as well as last season’s PFA Player of the Year Award.
Kanté joined Chelsea in July 2016, but his replacement would not arrive until December, when the Premier League champions completed a £17m deal for the Nigerian youngster, who moved from Belgian side Genk.
Ndidi, whose father was a Nigerian army sergeant, grew up in a militarized zone just outside Lagos. Knowing the value of education, his father was adamant that his son focus on his schooling rather than his passion of football. Wilfred’s father spent time away from the family due to his work commitments, time that allowed his son to alter his focus towards his football.
Roland Janssen, formerly Genk’s head of scouting, was pitch-side in Lagos as ten of the best academies from the country took part in a tournament showcasing their talented youngsters to scouts from European clubs which also included Villarreal and Anderlecht. Janssen, now employed by Manchester United, spotted the 16-year-old who was playing as a defender for local side Nath Boys, a team where he won numerous accolades.
On a dusty, patchy and uneven pitch among hundreds of other participating prospects Ndidi showed composure, athleticism and technical ability that inspired Janssen to arrange a trial at his club side in Belgium. The leggy, physical talent impressed during his trial at Genk through his work ethic and application that propelled him towards a promising career in the Jupiler League.
Transfer restrictions meant that the Belgian side had to wait until the promising Nigerian turned 18 before eventually signing him from his youth side for £78,000, becoming then-head coach Alex McLeish’s first and only signing. His initial experiences for the team saw him play cameo appearances as a utility defender across the back four, but he failed to force his way into the side with
McLeish favouring familiarity over the rough diamond from Lagos.
The Scottish manager left Genk at the end of the season after his contract was not renewed and the club appointed Peter Maes as his successor. Ndidi worked hard in the home stretch of the season and his performances in pre-season forced him into Maes’ plans for the forthcoming campaign. The Belgian coach was searching for a defensive midfielder after Sergej Milinkovic-Savic joined Lazio and the prospect from Nigeria had all the attributes that Maes was looking for.
Wilfred Ndidi excelled under his new manager and his performances over the next two seasons generated a lot of attention from major European clubs. The defensive midfielder, as he was now established, had a knack of scoring important goals and was recognised as the third best player in the league at the end of the 15/16 campaign. His spectacular volley against Cub Brugge also earned the youngster the accolade of 2015/16 Belgian goal of the year award.
The teenager was a huge favourite among his teammates and somewhat of a golden boy for his manager, who grew proud of the youngster’s development in his stewardship. Ndidi was nicknamed ‘teddy bear’ by the rest of the squad as they constantly teased and made fun of the humble boy from Lagos. Claudio Ranieri completed the signing of Ndidi in December 2016 and the Nigerian made his debut for Leicester on January 7 in an FA Cup win over Everton at Goodison Park. It was another Nigerian, Ahmed Musa, who stole the headlines with a match-winning brace, but Ndidi’s Foxes career was off to a winning start. Another cup-tie produced a further first for Ndidi, as he scored his first goal in the extra time of an FA Cup fixture against Derby County, where his 25-yard strike put the Foxes 2-1 ahead and into the hat for next round. Since arriving at Leicester, Ndidi has become a reliable and composed fixture at the heart of the midfield, whilst emerging as a fan’s favourite during his continued development in the Premier League. The young Nigerian looks at home in the middle of the park with an ease and control that belies his inexperience and youthfulness.
His list of attributes is long and he is the embodiment of a modern holding midfielder, with his athleticism and physicality making him a nuisance for most sides. He has developed his timing and understanding of the game, which has led to one of the best tackle success rates in the league. This, coupled with a high rate of attempted tackles, has forged a potent combination and established the Nigerian as one of the most promising midfielders in European football. The former Nath Boys defender has worked hard on the training ground, which has led to a dramatic improvement in his range of passing and his ability to play
intricately between the lines. His astonishing leaping ability adds a welcome dimension to Leicester’s midfield, an attribute not shared by his predecessor.
The 20-year-old has endured and persevered through managerial changes once again as Claudio Ranieri was replaced by Assistant Manager Craig Shakespeare in March 2017, with the champions struggling to replicate the title winning form of the previous year.
Whilst excelling domestically, Ndidi has also enjoyed a rich vein of form for his national side and is now looking forward to his first ever World Cup in Russia this summer.
The midfielder will go into the tournament as a key player within the Super Eagles squad alongside other exciting prospects such as Arsenal’s Alex Iwobi, Chelsea’s Victor Moses and Leicester teammates Kelechi Iheanacho and Ahmed Musa. The African side boast a squad full of talented individuals with a bright future and there can be no doubt that Wilfred Ndidi will play a pivotal role in any impending success.
The Super Eagles became the first African team to qualify for the 2018 World Cup after a 1-0 win against Zambia with Alex Iwobi’s goal sending the nation to the finals at the end of the season. Arriving at the King Power stadium brought with it clear and understandable comparisons to N’Golo Kanté, but Ndidi is emerging from those with an identity of his own. The wily midfielder, undoubtedly purchased as a replacement for the Frenchman, has become an integral part of the immediate and future plans at Leicester and is thriving through his performances both domestically and internationally.
Leicester announced the appointment of Claude Puel as Craig Shakespeare’s successor with vice-chairman Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha describing the French manager as “a perfect fit”. The former Southampton and Lyon manager was unemployed after leaving the St Mary’s stadium in June after guiding the Saints to 8th position in the league and the final of the Capital One Cup, a final they deserved to win.
Puel, who won a French Ligue 1 title with Monaco in 2000 is known for his astute tactical prioritisation but most importantly for Ndidi, his new manager favours the development of youth. This focus and strategy will greatly benefit the boy from Lagos, who should excel under his new manager, in a partnership that is sure to benefit both the foxes and the super eagles in the coming years.
By: Harry Collins/@HarryCollins9