Kelechi Iheanacho doesn’t mind wandering down memory lane to an autumn day in Marrakesh nine years ago. It was his first time representing Nigeria in an official tournament. He was in for, so they said, a baptism of fire against arch-rivals and tournament favourites Ghana.
The kid from a camouflaged academy in Imo State extinguished that script. Iheanacho sizzled and scored. The Golden Eaglets sensationally won 6-1 en route to FIFA U-17 World Cup™ qualification. The Black Starlets were left to watch the competition from home and would see UAE 2013 belong to Nigeria and its adidas Golden Ball winner.
Curiously, Iheanacho has never faced Ghana again. That is, nevertheless, set to change on an Autumn day on Cape Coast. There, the Black Stars will host the Super Eagles in the first leg of their play-off for a place at another FIFA competition on the Arabian Peninsula. FIFA caught up with Iheanacho to discuss his evolution as a player, learning from Sergio Aguero and Jamie Vardy, his Russia 2018 experience, the intense Ghana-Nigeria rivalry and the 25-year-old’s confidence his country will reach the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™.
FIFA: You’ve only played against Ghana once in your career: in a FIFA U-17 World Cup qualifier in 2013. You scored, Nigeria won 6-1 and you went on to win the global finals. Not a bad record to have against your arch-rivals, right?Kelechi Iheanacho: Yeah! (laughs) You’ve just reminded me, it was a long time ago. But I remember it, yeah. I scored, we got a big win – couldn’t get much better. It’s a good record but now I have to keep it going and help Nigeria get through against Ghana and to the World Cup. You played at the World Cup in 2018. Nigeria put in some good performances in a tough group, but a wonder goal from Lionel Messi helped Argentina pip you to a place in the knockout phase. How was that experience? It was a massive experience and one that everyone dreams of having. The World Cup is the biggest stage in football and every player desperately want to be there. It’s incredible to be there, to play in those games, in those atmospheres, against all the stars. We had a tough group but we managed to put in some good performances. We were a bit unlucky and we didn’t take our chances. But it was an amazing experience and you obviously remember playing against someone like Messi. But being at a World Cup makes you want to be at the next one even more. Hopefully we can get past Ghana and take our chances in Qatar.
Can you describe the footballing rivalry between Nigeria and Ghana? It’s not just a rivalry – it’s way more than that. It’s a lot of things. It’s a massive game. It means everything to Nigerians anyway, and this time it’s for a World Cup place. I really hope we can go through and make our people happy. You will be up against your Leicester team-mate Daniel Amartey. Has there been much discussion about the tie between you? (laughs) A little bit. He’s told me how he’s going to mark me, stop me, and I’ve told him how I’m going to help us score goals against them. But it’s just banter. It’s good rivalry.
Your strike partner Victor Osimhen is having a great season for Napoli. What do you think of him? Everybody knows he’s a fantastic striker. He’s a great goal poacher. He has great talent. I’m always very happy playing alongside him because I know his game, I know his strengths, and he knows mine as well. Sometimes I find myself playing behind him. I think we have a good partnership and hopefully we’ll work more together going forward.
How confident are you that Nigeria will emerge triumphant against Ghana? I’m 100-per-cent confident that we will go through. Obviously they have a strong team, a strong squad, good players, and they really want to win as well, so it’s not going to be easy. It’s going to be a fight. We have to work really hard and want it more than them. But I have so much confidence in this Nigeria team and the group of lads we have here. I’m very confident we will be at the World Cup. You were only born in 1996, but you must have seen footage of the amazing Super Eagles side in the World Cups and Olympics in the 1990s. What did you think of that team? It was a really happy time for the fans. It was a really fantastic side. They had amazing players, wonderfully talented attacking players. I think we have fantastic players as well. That team was together for a long time. We obviously have to work really hard, but hopefully we can become a fantastic side like they were. When I was growing up people would always talk about that side and people still have really great memories of them.https://www.youtube.com/embed/LtL861iQHQY?feature=oembed
On the subject of growing up, who were your heroes? Growing up I loved Ronaldinho. I loved his style of play, his confidence, the way he loved football. The way he dribbled, the way he played passes, his touches. He is one of the greatest players of all time. You have played alongside two great strikers in Sergio Aguero and Jamie Vardy… They are two legends. It was a really big pleasure to play alongside Kun. He’s a legend and I learnt a lot from him. And ‘Vards’ is another legend. He’s one of the best finishers you will see and I’ve learnt a lot from him too.
On a personal level, you have been a revelation over the past year, winning a Premier League player of the month award, playing the leading role in Leicester’s FA Cup-conquering campaign and scoring the only goal against Manchester City in the Community Shield… I think it was down to hard work. It’s a privilege to be in this team, it’s a lovely squad, great players and coaches. We worked really hard together and we had a great season. We won the FA Cup, which was a big achievement in the club’s history. And for me personally last season was a revelation. I’m really happy that I managed to play a part.