Golden Eaglets: Top 5 FIFA U-17 World Cup breakout stars in history

Nigeria has a rich history of nurturing young football talent, and the FIFA U-17 World Cup has often been a launchpad for future superstars.

Legendary names like Gianluigi Buffon, Ronaldinho, and Toni Kroos honed their skills on this global stage, and in the same way, several Nigerian footballers have used the U-17 tournament as a springboard to achieve greatness.

This success is no coincidence. Nigeria is a powerhouse in African football, consistently producing exceptional young players. The nation's passion for the beautiful game, combined with a strong youth development system creates a fertile ground for talent to flourish.

The U-17 World Cup provides the perfect platform for these rising stars to showcase their abilities on a global stage, attracting the attention of scouts and paving the way for professional careers in top leagues around the world.

FIFA U-17 World Cup breakout stars

This article takes you into the stories of five such Nigerian footballers who rose from the promise of the U-17 competition to become superstars in the world of football. From clinical strikers to dazzling wingers, these players have left their mark on the game, inspiring generations of young Nigerians to dream big and chase their footballing aspirations.

Nwankwo Kanu (Japan 1993)

Nwankwo Kanu's rise to stardom began at the 1993 FIFA U-17 World Cup in Japan. As part of the victorious Golden Eaglets, Kanu's impressive performance, including five goals in six games, turned heads. His talent caught the eye of Ajax, who signed him shortly after the tournament.

Kanu‘s journey in Europe started brightly. He bagged 25 goals in 54 appearances for Ajax, culminating in a remarkable achievement – a UEFA Champions League win in 1995 against AC Milan. This success was just a taste of things to come.

Kanu's legacy extends far beyond his time in the Netherlands. Arguably Nigeria's greatest footballing export, he enjoyed further continental success before joining Arsenal. He even added a UEFA Cup trophy with Inter Milan to his growing collection.

kanu

Kanu's trophy cabinet truly overflowed during his six-year spell at Arsenal. He became a key player, contributing to two Premier League titles and two FA Cups, including a memorable double in 2002. A highlight of his Arsenal career was his unforgettable hat-trick against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.

Kanu's impact transcended England. He continued his winning ways at Portsmouth, scoring the decisive goals in both the FA Cup semi-final and final in 2008. Adding to his impressive resume, Kanu also secured Olympic gold with Nigeria in 1996. He further cemented his legendary status with appearances at the 1998 and 2002 FIFA World Cups, contributing 13 goals in 86 international caps for his beloved Nigeria.

Victor Osimhen (Chile 2015)

Victor Osimhen‘s rise began with a bang at the 2015 FIFA U-17 World Cup. He shattered records, scoring a remarkable ten goals as Nigeria secured a dominant fifth title. This phenomenal performance earned him the Golden Boot, Silver Ball, and the CAF Young Player of the Year award. Osimhen remains the highest scorer in a single U-17 World Cup tournament.

Despite early promise, injuries hampered his initial spell at Wolfsburg in Germany. However, he persevered, finding his footing on loan at Sporting Charleroi and then excelling at Lille in France.

In 2020, Osimhen made a big-money move to Napoli, and his impact has been undeniable. He played a key role in their first Serie A title in 33 years, scoring 26 goals in his first season. His scoring prowess continued in 2022/23, where he netted an impressive 31 goals in all competitions.

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Osimhen broke the Serie A scoring records of legendary African strikers like George Weah, Obafemi Martins, and Samuel Eto'o, becoming the highest-scoring African in the league's history. He also holds the distinction of being the first African top scorer in a single Serie A season (a feat unmatched in 125 years).

His impact isn't limited to club football. Osimhen is currently third on the all-time goalscorers list for the Super Eagles of Nigeria, scoring 21 goals in 35 appearances. He has also won the 2023 CAF African Player of the Year award.

Kelechi Iheanancho (UAE 2013)

Kelechi Iheanacho's talent blossomed quite early. While he started representing Nigeria at the U-13 level, it was on the U-17 stage that he truly made his mark. At the 2013 FIFA U-17 World Cup, Iheanacho orchestrated Nigeria's path to victory. His impressive performance, including six goals (one in the final) and seven assists, earned him the prestigious Golden Ball award for the tournament's best player.

Iheanacho's impact extends beyond the U-17 competition. He played a crucial role in Leicester City's historic FA Cup win in the 2020-21 season. His winning goal against Southampton in the semi-final at Wembley Stadium secured their place in the final, a moment etched in Leicester City folklore. The Foxes ultimately lifted the trophy, adding another chapter to Iheanacho's story.

Further solidifying his legacy at Leicester City, Iheanacho followed up with the winning goal against his former club, Manchester City, in the 2021 FA Community Shield. Iheanacho's journey from U-17 starlet to FA Cup hero exemplifies the potential that can be nurtured and unleashed on the world stage.

The Super Eagles star has scored 13 times for Nigeria’s senior men national team.

Victor Ikpeba (Scotland 1989)

Victor Ikpeba's talent was unearthed on the world stage. At the 1989 FIFA U-17 World Cup in Scotland, his skills caught the eye of Belgian club RFC Liège, who signed him and had the opportunity to play alongside compatriot, Sunday Oliseh.

Ikpeba's journey continued at AS Monaco, where he arrived at the age of 20 after a prolific season with 17 goals. Though his initial spell under manager Arsène Wenger proved challenging, Ikpeba persevered. After a strong showing at the 1996 Olympics, he truly blossomed, scoring 13 goals and helping Monaco secure the league title. He further solidified his position as a top scorer by finishing second in the 1996-97 UEFA Cup.

Taribo West / Victor Ikpeba
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Ikpeba's exceptional performances were recognized with the prestigious African Footballer of the Year award in 1997. He also played a significant role for Nigeria on the international stage, accumulating 31 caps and scoring seven goals. Ikpeba was part of the Super Eagles squad at the 1994 World Cup and etched his name in national memory by scoring the only goal against Bulgaria in the 1998 World Cup.

Beyond the World Cup, Ikpeba contributed to Nigeria's victories in the 1994 Africa Cup of Nations and the 1996 Olympic Games, even scoring a goal in the thrilling 4-3 semi-final win over Brazil. Ikpeba's story exemplifies how the U-17 World Cup can serve as a springboard for talented young players, propelling them to international recognition and success.

Samuel Chukwueze (Chile 2015)

Samuel Chukwueze's dazzling left foot captivated audiences at the 2015 FIFA U-17 World Cup in Chile. He earned the Bronze Boot, contributing significantly to the Golden Eaglets' victory.

Chukwueze's brilliance wasn't limited to the World Cup. He played a key role in Nigeria's triumph at the 2015 U-17 AFCON, where he not only scored two goals but was also named the tournament's best player. His crowning achievement was scoring the only goal in the final against Mali, a remarkable feat for a player who had just turned 17.

Football – 2023 Africa Cup of Nations Qualifiers – Nigeria v Sao Tome and Principe – Godswill Akpabio Stadium – Nigeria
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Since then, Chukwueze has blossomed into one of Africa's brightest prospects. He established himself at Villarreal CF in Spain before securing a summer move to AC Milan. On the international stage, he contributed to Nigeria's bronze medal at the 2019 African Cup of Nations in Egypt.

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Toyosi Afolayan

Toyosi Afolayan is a sports journalist who breathes life into the games we love. He loves to combine insightful analysis with historical background, creating a richer understanding of sports. Afolayan's expertise ranges from captivating narratives to live broadcasts, captivating audiences across platforms like Ojbsport, AllNigeriaSoccer, TVC Entertainment, Bounce Networks, Kwara TV, ICIR, EaglesTracker, and NFF TV. His background in History and International Studies adds depth, revealing the connections between sports, politics, and national identity.