Nigeria's Kelechi Nwakali: Visa issues nearly derailed my career

By Debola AdebanjoBBC Africa Sport, Nigeria
Kelechi Nwakali in action for Huesca
Kelechi Nwakali is hoping that he will have the chance to prove himself at Spanish side Huesca

A light seems to have shone at the end of the tunnel for Nigeria's Kelechi Nwakali, as he attempts to get his career back on track with Spanish side Huesca

The 22-year-old was a 63rd minute substitute in newly-promoted Huesca's 1-1 draw at Villareal on Sunday as the new La Liga season kicked off.

Nwakali, who was player of the tournament at the Under-17 World Cup in 2015, has spent much of his time since August 2018 battling visa issues which have limited his chances to play.

Problems with red-tape and a lack of playing time while on loan from English side Arsenal to Portuguese club Porto left him very low on confidence.

"There was a time, I was having doubt in myself, I wondered if I was not up to it anymore," he told BBC Sport Africa.

"It was difficult mentally for me but my mind was made up, that I had to leave."

He secured a move to Spanish side Huesca in August last year from Arsenal but once again red-tape prevented him from playing.

Instead he was forced to sit-out the first six month of his contract in Nigeria trying to secure the documentation that he needed.

It led to accusations from some in Nigeria that he 'spent more time posting images on social media than actually playing football.'

"It was difficult mentally not playing for a year, so going through all of that and coming on the internet to see someone say, I am gallivanting, was hurtful, I was bothered," he explained.

"A lot of Nigerian fans had the impression that I am just sitting in Nigeria doing nothing."

His paperwork issues were finally resolved in January and allowed him to play Huesca's final five games of the season as they clinched promotion to La Liga.

"It is a new beginning, I have had my ups and downs, but this is the time to make it right again, this is the time to get it back on track," he insisted.

"As the season progresses, I believe I am going to play more, right now I also play as a Number 4, the coach is trying to see the roles for which he can always feature me' he explains.

"I can play as a number 10, 8 and 4 and I believe it's a great advantage for me and I can always help the team."

The start of a nightmare

Kelechi Nwakali training alongside Nacho Monreal at Arsenal in 2016
Kelechi Nwakali joined Arsenal after winning the 2015 Under-17 World Cup and ended up training alongside the likes of Spain's Nacho Monreal

A lack of work permit to play football in the United Kingdom saw Arsenal send Nwakali out on loan three times in the duration of his five year contract, the last of which was with Porto in 2018.

Two months into his time at Porto, a troubling battle with visa bureaucracy left him stranded in Nigeria, after a journey to represent his national team turned into a nightmare.

Gernot Rohr had called up the player to be part of Nigeria's squad to face Seychelles in a 2019 Africa Cup of Nations qualifier and a friendly match against Liberia.

"I didn't have a Portuguese resident card, it wasn't ready before I left, but I had to come to that game because that was my first official call-up for the Super Eagles and after I was stuck in Nigeria for three months," he explained.

"It was difficult getting a visa back to Portugal, I couldn't get back to my club for three months and by the end of the season no one wanted to take me, they said I hadn't been playing.

"I learnt a lesson that it is important you do well at your club side first, the National team is important, but some important decisions need to be made, that will help my career in the future and I didn't make the right one in the right moment."

Porto regrets

Kelechi Nwakali during his time at Porto
Kelechi Nwakali admits his loan move from Arsenal to Porto was a 'mistake;

Reflecting on his time with the Portuguese giants, the midfielder labelled the move a 'mistake' one that has also seen him part ways with the agency representing him since he broke into the limelight.

"I regret making the move, that was a mistake from me and the agency," he admitted.

"They (agency) have a lot of players and I needed to go to another place where they have my interest at heart and where they can focus on me.

"I was told when I moved that I would train and play with the first team and there was an option to buy me on a permanent deal which sounded good.

"But after three months of training with the first team, it wasn't looking like I would join the first team any time soon."

Catching up with the class of '15

Kelechi Nwakali with his Golden Ball trophy at the 2015 Under-17 World Cup and Victor Osimhen with his Golden Boot award
Kelechi Nwakali (left) is hoping his career can take off like that of his compatriot Victor Osimhen, who was the top scorer at the 2015 Under-17 World Cup

Signing for Arsenal at the age of just 16 after a phone call from former Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger confirmed the Nwakali's abilities after winning the tournament's best player award at the 2015 Under-17 World Cup where he captained Nigeria to the title.

The impressive signing put him shoulders above his peers from the tournament, however the setback now sees the midfielder playing catch up to some of those trailblazing teammates.

Golden boot winner Victor Osimhen and Samuel Chukwueze are now both enjoying success.

Osimhen, 21, despite early career struggles at Wolfsburg has gone on to become one Africa's most expensive signings when he joined Italian side Napoli from France's Lille in July.

While Chukwueze, who is also 21, enjoyed a season of top flight football with La Liga side Villareal.

The duo were also part of the team that won Bronze for Nigeria at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations in Egypt.

"I felt bad that things are not moving the way I want them to and the way I have planned, but not because I was seeing my colleagues doing well," he pointed out.

"I still speak to Victor and Samuel Chukwueze, I always call to check in on them, even though it is not working the way I want but it's life, I believe in time, and if it's not time for me, it is not going to happen.

"I have come to understand that people just want to be where it is moving fast and well, but life is about ups and downs, sometimes we just have to bring back our human feelings and support each other when things aren't going well."

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