The Arsenal teenager is likely to make his competitive Three Lions debut in October, thus terminating any hope for a Super Eagles career
Another one that got away — except Bukayo Saka just isn’t any ordinary player.
Maybe it’s recency bias, perhaps not, but seeing the Arsenal youngster potentially feature for England in their Uefa Nations League game on October 11 against Belgium at Wembley or Denmark at the same venue three days later will rankle.
Many Nigerians had dreamed of arguably the most-talented Premier League youngster at the moment representing the three-time African champions. The loss of Chelsea pair, Tammy Abraham and Fikayo Tomori, last year was felt initially, but the general feeling afterwards indicated that supporters of the West African nation had moved on in a trice.
Having drawn up fantasy formations including Saka in the Nigeria set-up — in a 4-3-3 alongside Villarreal’s Samuel Chukwueze on the right flank and Victor Osimhen at centre-forward or in a 4-2-3-1 with the Arsenal youngster in a front four together with the aforementioned forwards and possibly Alex Iwobi in the hole — the sensation’s inclusion in Gareth Southgate’s 30-player squad saddened many in the West African nation.
Further rubbing salt into the wound was the fact the news broke on Nigeria’s national day, October 1, when the nation celebrated the 60th year of her sovereignty. While the breaking story was probably inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, in a sporting sense, missing out on the 19-year-old felt like a kick in the teeth.
Of course, the Super Eagles will move on, just as they did when Abraham and Tomori chose the Three Lions. The continued rise of Osimhen as one of the brightest young frontmen in Europe means nobody rues the Chelsea striker’s decision now. In fact, there’s a feeling the Napoli frontman has a lot more about him and will be Nigeria’s number nine for years to come.
As for the centre-back, despite his promise and composure in possession, the 22-year-old hasn’t developed as many imagined after a bright start to 2019/20 as a Premier League defender.
As it is, the Blues youngster hasn’t added to his solitary England cap — picked up against Kosovo in November 2019 — while he’s arguably not significantly better than the current options at Gernot Rohr’s disposal.
For Abraham’s part, there was always going to be uncertainty over his long-term international career, especially with Harry Kane unlikely to be displaced as England’s primary frontman. Also, the form of Everton striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin and the presence of Manchester United striker Markus Rashford suggests there isn’t a clear path to regular game time for the European nation.
Given the odd antipathy that grows after Anglo-Nigerians reject the African nation, the schadenfreude that’ll follow if Abraham and Tomori fail to cement their place for the Three Lions will be extreme. This is largely due to a feeling among fans of the Super Eagles that, despite the lure of playing for England, the 1966 World Cup winners have never seemed to integrate them satisfactorily into the side — except for possibly Dele Alli.
While John Fashanu, John Salako, Gabriel Agbonlahor and Carlton Cole immediately spring up as players who spurned Nigeria — Fashanu has since revealed this wasn’t the case — but never really flourished, there’s a fear that the same may eventually befall Abraham, Tomori and Saka.
The aforementioned quartet played a combined 17 fixtures for the Three Lions, many of which were non-competitive fixtures, and their careers with the English national team never got off the ground.
Then there’s the pair of Jordon Ibe and Dominic Solanke, two players who pledged their allegiance to the European nation but have just one cap between them — a friendly against Brazil in 2017 for the former Chelsea and Liverpool attacker.
Ibe, who rejected Nigeria in 2015, was never given a chance by the Three Lions, leading to harsh criticism for the former prospect from fans of the Super Eagles.
While the jury remains out on Abraham and Tomori, there’s seemingly been a poor trend with Nigerians with dual citizenship who opt to play for the Three Lions, prompting fears concerning Saka.
What isn’t considered, however, is the talent level of the Arsenal academy graduate compared to his predecessors who either didn’t get a look in or have their paths to consistent game time shrouded in doubt and uncertainty.
With the 19-year-old, there seems to be a high ceiling that, ceteris paribus, indicates he could develop into a gem of a player in his prime.
Saka’s adeptness in different roles makes him an asset for any England boss now or in the future — although many observers feel his versatility could hurt his development as a player — something Nigeria may have benefitted from with his proficiency at left-back and out wide on both flanks.
Months ago, the Nigeria Football Federation President Amaju Pinnick stated that the country would cease to place players with dual nationalities on pedestals, an assertion that was welcome by supporters owing to previous embarrassing snubs.
“Saka is an excellent prospect but we have other players in his position who are playing so well,” Pinnick said in an Instagram Live chat in July. “We have talents everywhere so we won’t beg people to play for Nigeria.
“It is about ardour and fervour. If it’s their desire and they merit it, they’ll be given a chance to represent Nigeria.”
It’s safe to say Saka merited a place in the side following his meteoric rise at Arsenal, but evidently never yearned for a Super Eagles career.
In that sense, Nigeria leaves with her pride intact. However, given the supreme talent he possesses, supporters will wear a rueful grin when they consider what might have been had the youngster chosen the West African giants.