I don’t often rave about a player.
I’m not a pessimist, but I prefer taking a conservative and wholly rational approach to coverage, without opting for the hype that many choose to promote their newly discovered talents.
Saying all of that, however, I certainly rave about Ogenyi Onazi.
Few players have excited me more over the last 18 months than the Lazio defensive midfielder. Being a defensive minded player myself, and placing a huge value on the less fashionable aspects of the game – tackling, covering, marking and positioning – I have delighted in Onazi’s steady progression.
Many of my favourite players in the history of the game, the likes of Edgar Davids, Scott Parker, Michael Brown and Claude Makelele, have all operated in this position, interpreting the role in a myriad different ways. Thus, I was hugely excited to see such an accomplished youngster attempt to make the role his own during the recent Cup of Nations.
In truth, over 2012 almost all of the positions in Stephen Keshi’s starting XI were up for grabs, and the central midfield in particular is an area where Nigeria have vast reservoirs of talent.
Despite his injury concerns, Joel Obi still has time on his side, and may yet blossom into a central midfielder – perhaps offensive rather than defensive – of international class. Nwankwo Obiorah has featured sporadically in Keshi’s squads as he continues his tutelage in Italy, while Liverpool-born youngster Hope Akpan is champing at the bit to enter the national setup.
There are also the likes of Ayila Yussuf, Lukman Haruna, Dickson Etuhu and Sani Kaita who have held spots in the team over the last few years, only to find themselves cast into the abyss presently.
Indeed, come the beginning of the Africa Cup of Nations, it was Valerenga man Fegor Ogude who enjoyed the big boss’s favour, and commanded a midfield spot alongside the talismatic John Obi Mikel.
Ogude’s stint in the team didn’t last long, however, and after disappointing showings against Burkina Faso and Zambia, the hatchet man was replaced by the youthful Onazi.
The rest – as the cliché goes – is history.
The Lazio man flourished in a three man midfield alongside Mikel and Sunday Mba, and the trio held the balance and the dynamism to overcome the continent’s talent and march to Africa’s highest prize.
The Cup of Nations triumph was the pinnacle of an enormously formative and vastly successful year for the Jos-born youngster. Having tasted first team football with Lazio at the end of last season, Onazi forced his way firmly into the setup this term.
He was particularly impressive in the Europa League, and earned the praise of a broader audience with his performance in the 0-0 draw with Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane. As well as the Afcon title, he was also part of the Lazio side that beat arch-rivals Roma in the final of the Copa Italia at the season’s finale.
Onazi has taken to these exalted settings like a duck to water. Having long been the subject of media attention and public scrutiny in Nigeria, he has finally lived up to the expectation that has traced him since he was a prodigal teenager back in his homeland.
With a miraculous work ethic, a terrific commitment to the team, and an excellent maturity for one so young (Onazi is only 20), the midfielder has become a central cog in the Super Eagles line-up. He was a pivotal figure in the side’s run to the continental final.
I surely wasn’t the only one who feared the worst when the youngster was felled after receiving a knock to his knee in the recent World Cup qualifier against Namibia. While there was initially hope that the problem could be resolved, a scan has shown that it will impossible for Onazi to compete in Brazil this summer.
The news is far from welcome in Nigeria, where the side are already struggling with absentees such as Kalu Uche, Emmanuel Emenike and Victor Moses. The loss of another key player, described as the team’s “engine” by Keshi, severely dents their hopes of impressing this summer.
Speaking to the player earlier in the week, I asked Onazi how he felt about the prospect of going toe-to-toe with the likes of Xavi and Iniesta at the Confederations Cup. The former My People man gave a response that indicated his maturity and self-confidence; to him, the challenge of facing the world champions was just “another opportunity to play football”.
Sadly, that opportunity will have to wait.
As John F Kennedy once said, however, in disaster emerges opportunity, and as football’s fates frown on Onazi, they smile on Fegor Ogude, the man he replaced in South Africa. The anchor man is the natural replacement for Onazi, and looks set to have a second chance in the first team following his displacement during the Cup of Nations.
Nigerians will be hoping that he can fill the chasm left by the youngster’s mishap.
Article by: Ed Dove