By Scouted Football's PHIL COSTA
When you think of the world’s most iconic footballing nations, Brazil, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy and France all spring to mind. England and Argentina are never far from the headlines, with the likes of Denmark and Greece cementing themselves in history thanks to unlikely European Championship triumphs. But when it comes to Africa, there’s a growing feeling that one country in particular are just getting started.
That’s not to say success from the region is something entirely new to us. Ivory Coast won the 2015 African Cup of Nations and boasted a squad full of players based in Europe’s top five leagues. Algeria found themselves in the Round of 16 for the first time at the 2014 World Cup, after Ghana were extremely unlucky not to make a historic semi-final in South Africa four years prior.
However, it’s Nigeria whose future prospects look most exciting. The Super Eagles are no strangers to talent having produced Nwankwo Kanu, Jay-Jay Okocha, Uche Okechukwu and Sunday Oliseh in the recent past, but after just one major honour in 22 years, the next generation are ready to show their predecessors how it’s done.
Without a doubt, their two most promising players are Alex Iwobi and Kelechi Iheanacho. The pair became regulars in Arsenal and Manchester City's respective first-teams last season, and have started the new campaign in similarly fine form. After both players scored in a victory over Zambia last month, the signs are beginning to show that the duo - at only 20 years of age - are eager to take on responsibility for their country.
Iwobi has made a considerable impression in the Gunners starting eleven after making his debut just over a year ago. The low-socked teenager provides a calming presence on the left-hand-side, with his assured first touch and calmness on the ball offering a perfect balance alongside the more erratic and chaotic pair of Alexis Sanchez and Theo Walcott. Never looking rushed and regularly making the right decisions, these are skills usually found in a seasoned veteran rather than on the shoulders of a player only recently promoted to the first team.
Iheanacho has also impressed during his short spell in English football. Often guilty of drifting in and out of games when he first arrived, the Nigerian has refined his game to become more involved in City’s slick build up, but is also at the centre of everything inside the box. Always on the shoulder of the last defender, he detects space like a shark on the hunt for blood and is clinical in front of goal. Understandably behind Sergio Aguero in the pecking order, the former Taye Academy starlet has given a masterclass in making the most of your opportunities.
Their encouraging attacking options don’t stop there. Watford’s club record signing Isaac Success is highly thought of, alongside K.A.A Gent forward Moses Simon.
Success is quick and powerful on the pitch and can play across the frontline, but is most effective on the right; attacking vacant space in between the centre-half and left-back. Simon is a similar player to Success, but far more efficient when played through on goal and uses close control and skill to beat his opponents as opposed to sheer force. Both players are again just 20 and 21 years of age.
Despite a number of bright forward options, the side are far from top heavy. Anderson Esiti, also of Gent, and Onyinye Ndidi of Genk are two more Nigerians flourishing in Belgium. Industrious, energetic and dominant in the centre of the park, the pair could provide energy and defensive screening for a back four that have looked unconvincing of late. Still young but with plenty to learn, Super Eagles captain John Obi Mikel could be the perfect mentor.
Chelsea centre-back Kenneth Omeruo, currently on loan at Antalyaspor, is also one being earmarked for the future. Very much in the mould of a modern centre-back, the 22-year-old is incredibly quick across the ground and likes to defend in an aggressive and hands-on manner. However, prone to concentration lapses and awkward with the ball at his feet, improvements can still be made. 19-year-old Chidozie Awaziem is also making a name for himself at Porto.
Search even deeper and you will find diamonds within their U17 World Cup winning squad. Michael Dogo Kingsley, Samuel Chukwueze and Kelechi Nwakali (both now of Arsenal) formed a formidable midfield trio in Chile, behind the prolific Victor Osimhen - who was signed by Wolfsburg after netting 10 goals in six appearances.
The sudden passing of footballing legend Stephen Keshi was a shock to the nation. Keshi, one of only two people to win the Cup of Nations as a player and as a manager, was arguably the greatest African coach of his generation. They had made significant progress under his leadership, but now with Gernot Rohr, the Super Eagles are now unbeaten in their last five matches are the favourites to top their 2018 World Cup qualification group.
With a mix of youth and experience in the current side, Nigeria face Algeria on November 12 in what will be their biggest test yet. The Desert Foxes posses one of their strongest squads for years, with Yacine Brahimi, Riyad Mahrez and Islam Slimani making up a strong strike force. Victory in the Akwa Ibom Stadium would provide a solid foundation to build on, which is just what Nigeria's eye-catching talents need to go on and build the superstructure in years to come.