Two years ago, he was a bit-player with the Nigerian under-17s at the FIFA Under-17 World Cup in the UAE. Success Isaac was the preferred frontman while he was just a back-up for the man, who now plays in the Spanish top flight with Granada CF. Anyway that was just after the first game in which he came on as a substitute for Chidera Ezeh in the last 18 minutes of the 6-1 win over Mexico in Al Ain City.
In the second game of that tournament, Isaac had to make way as early as the 32nd minute and the then Nigeria Under-17 team head coach, Garba Manu, now manager of the under-20s, sent on starry-eyed Taiwo Awoniyi. It was Awoniyi’s goal in the last 10 minutes that secured a point in a 3-3 draw against Sweden. Awoniyi went on to play against Iraq, Iran, Uruguay, Sweden and Mexico, and notched up four goals in total.
Awoniyi relived that winning feat and his rise to first-team to supersport.com: “It was one experience I won’t forget. And I thank God for the chance and the coaches for believing in me when our main striker got injured.”
Ever since the 18-year-old has not looked back, and has become some sorts of a cult hero within his own standards, and is already drawing comparisons with a former legend, who passed away almost three years ago.
There have been a number of players, who have been likened or touted to fill the vacuum left by late Rashidi Yekini – Nigeria’s all-time leading scorer at senior level. Recently Super Eagles and Fenerbahce striker, Emmanuel Emenike, was compared to the legendary striker for his bulldozing nature in front of goal, but the Fener man has hit a bad patch.
Now that ribbon is dangling on the neck of teenager Awoniyi, who is even yet to play for the Super Eagles. Awoniyi in recent weeks has shown his predatory instincts as a striker and those characteristics were evident in the 2-1 win in Lusaka when he scored twice to down Zambia’s under-23s despite being called into the Nigerian team few days before the game. His goals at the National Heroes Stadium ensured Nigeria’s passage to the men’s football event of the All-Africa Games in Congo in September this year.
His recent shows for the under-20s and now the under-23s of Nigeria have seen him not just getting plaudits, but also a big comparison to Yekini. Awoniyi said he is happy with such comparison but still feels they are just words of “encouragement that should keep me working hard.”
“I thank God Almighty, the author and creator of all things. Well he [Yekini] was a legend I heard about, but as a little boy just growing up, praying and hoping to get there. I believe it is just a word of encouragement that should keep me working hard in getting and surpassing where he got to, Awoniyi told supersport.com this week.
Former Super Eagles captain, Nwankwo Kanu, has already described the teenage forward as Nigeria’s “hottest kid” which has left Awoniyi saying he is excited and privileged to get such comments from a big figure like the former African Footballer of the Year winner.
The Flying Eagles star has boldly said he does not feel any pressure with the amount of plaudits and comparisons he gets. Awoniyi responded that he is only focused on his career as a footballer, and believes that being compared to any of the legendary players in the country will only serve as “a way of praise” for him.
He also spoke of the chance of becoming Nigeria’s next number nine and was, however, philosophical about it.
“Not at all [am I under pressure]. Like I said earlier I believe it is just a way to praise me. But with God’s help and hardwork I can get there. I am not under any pressure at all.
“God knows best and makes all things happen. He knows what we humans don’t know and I believe everyone is destined for a purpose on Earth. I am just starting but I believe God’s will, will be done [as per being Nigeria’s next number nine],” he said.