Wooing European players of Nigerian origin for the Super Eagles is apparently becoming a norm for the eggheads of the Nigeria Football Federation, NFF. Chelsea’s new kid, Ola Aina is the latest player likely to be wooed by the NFF and may join Nigeria’s 2018 World Cup qualifying train. Kunle Adewale reports
Last weekend, Ola Aina made his Premier League debut as he replaced compatriot; Victor Moses in Chelsea’s 3-0 defeat of defending champion, Leicester City.
After the game, the right-back took to Twitter to express his delight. “So buzzing right now,” he wrote on Twitter before adding, “Another huge milestone for me. Really pleased to have made my Premier League debut @Chelseafc.
Chelsea’s boss, Antonio Conte, was happy to hand the 20-year-old his Premier League debut.
“Today, I’m pleased because I saw the things we have been working on this week. Above all, I’m pleased for the players because when you work so hard during the week, it’s logical you want to see a good result and a good game.
“Now we have a whole week to work and to see who is in the best shape to play the next match. The players know I want to see the right commitment and work-rate, after that I decide the formation. Another young player from the academy, Ola Aina, played his first Premier League game, and showed he is really able,” the Chelsea boss said.
Chelsea have long been criticised for failing to provide a pathway from their all-conquering youth sides, who have been crowned European champions in the past two seasons, to the first team but Conte intends to change that.
According to him, “People who know me will know I don’t gift a place to anyone,” Conte said. “Only those who deserve to play will play for me. It is important for Aina to understand this. In the future, he can play from the start. Age is not important. I made my first appearance in Serie A at only 16.”
Already, Super Eagles’ captain and Chelsea team-mate, Mikel Obi, has already called upon the England Under-20s to represent Nigeria as against the country of his birth after Aina impressed in Chelsea pre-season debut against Bristol Rovers.
“I keep asking him: ‘When are you going to come and play for Nigeria?’ and he jokes: ‘Whenever you come and invite me I will play. I think it is something that we would have to discuss, ” Mikel told Goal.
“If he wants to play, we would have to speak to the federation and make sure he really wants to play for Nigeria. If he is ready, we can talk about that, but in the few times we have talked about it, he hasn’t given me a very positive, decisive answer to take back to the FA. I need a positive answer for me to take the case forward to the FA. We will see what happens,” Mikel said.
Aina’s performance stood out to the midfielder during Chelsea’s pre-season tour of Austria and the United States, where the youngster made three starts and several substitute appearances to force his way into manager Antonio Conte’s plans.
“Aina is a very, very good player,” he added. “He has improved quite a lot after playing in a few friendly games and he played really, really well. I was quite impressed by his performance and it is only a matter of time before these kids break into the first team.”
In a telephone chat with THISDAY from his base in America, former Nigeria midfielder, Paul Okuku said he had watched some of Aina’s clips and feels that he has a place in the national team if he decides to play for Nigeria.
“It is left for the football federation and the national team manager to decide if he is good enough to play for the team, but from the little I have seen of him I have no doubt in my mind that he has a place in the team, if not now, surely in the nearest future,” Okoku noted.
Continuing he said, “when you consider the fact that Nigeria is in a very tough group in the World Cup qualifier, we therefore need our best legs notwithstanding where they are from to prosecute the qualifying campaign. In fact, the fact that Aina is a defender is an added advantage as the defence was the weakest link in our first game against Zambia with too many errors of which we cannot afford to repeat in matches against tougher opponents like Algeria and Cameroon which we are still going to play.”
Asked if the trend of relying on Nigeria foreign-based players for Super Eagles matches is not a wrong signal to the local league, Okoku said: “Unfortunately, that is the situation we have found ourselves. The Nigeria League is not as lucrative as it was during our days whereby the bulk of the national team players were home-based. But thank God for the effort of the League Management Company, LMC, that is trying to revive the local league and with the way it is going, the league’s glamour will soon return and the national teams will benefit from it.”
Aina’s love for his motherland has never been in doubt. Early this year, the Chelsea player exhibited his philanthropic nature when he revealed his plans to ship off all his old football gear to the less privileged in Nigeria and the kind gesture has endeared him to the Stamford Bridge faithful after he announced on Instagram that he would be sending his used “boots, balls and kits” to the less privileged in Lagos.
The 19-year-old was born in Southwark, London and has represented England youth sides for years now. He has played in England Under-19s, Under-18s, Under-17s, and Under-16s and has also won trophies with Chelsea Under-21 Premier League 2013/14; FA Youth Cup 2013/14, 2014/15, and UEFA Youth League 2014/15.
Aina signed for the club as an Under-11 and started his career as a right-winger before establishing himself as a highly mobile full-back, who is also capable of playing as a central defender.
He made his youth team debut as a schoolboy in the 2012/13 season and went on to start in both legs of the semi-final and final of the FA Youth Cup.
In his debut season as a scholar, Aina featured regularly for Adi Viveash’s Under-18s and was an ever-present on the way to Youth Cup success. European Under-19 and domestic Under-21 debuts followed, with the defender utilised as a centre-back as the senior age group won their domestic title.
Aina’s prominence in the Youth Cup continued in 2014/15 when he won the trophy for the second time. His run of 18 consecutive appearances in the competition across three seasons is unprecedented. He also played in every game in the Under-19s’ triumphant UEFA Youth League campaign, scoring in the group opener at home to Schalke, while establishing himself as an Under-21 regular. Aina signed a first-year professional contract in October 2013 committing him to the club until the end of the 2015/16 season.
It remains to be seen if Aina would follow the pathway of Super Eagles players such Moses and Alex Iwobi that dumped England for Nigeria after initially representing them at age-grade level.
And with the shaky defence put up by the Eagles against Zambia, with many elementary errors, NFF eggheads might have little choice but to woo the young Chelsea defender.