Nigeria vs South Africa: Can Tella to channel idol Henry in crucial 2026 WCQ?

Super Eagles forward Nathan Tella could seize the opportunity in the absence of Moses Simon and Samuel Chukwueze ahead of the 2026 FIFA World Cup qualifiers.

Both players are unlikely to be available for selection after picking up injuries at their respective clubs.

Tella helped Bayer Leverkusen win a maiden Bundesliga title. En route to that conquest, Leverkusen did not lose a single game.

The treble-chasing German giants completed their remarkable league run with a record of 28 wins and six draws after beating Augsburg 2-1 last Saturday – and they remain unbeaten in all competitions.

Die Werkself have now claimed the outright European record for invincibility, edging closer to football immortality. Xabi Alonso’s treble-chasing side also stretched their European record unbeaten run across all competitions this season to 51 matches.

The Nigeria international joined Xabi Alonso’s side on a five-year contract from Southampton in August following an impressive loan spell at Burnley, where his 17 goals helped them win promotion back to the Premier League.

However, Tella had to bide his time at the Bay Arena and made just eight appearances from the bench in the first half of the campaign before being handed his first start against RB Leipzig on January 20.

The 24-year-old winger went on to feature regularly in the Bundesliga after that, contributing five goals and two assists in 24 games as Leverkusen cruised to a historic first-ever title.

He has also scored one goal and registered one assist in 10 UEFA Europa League games for his club.

Nathan Tella: Style of play and Thierry Henry influence

Reflecting on his early influences, Tella revealed how legendary France and Arsenal striker, Thierry Henry shaped his aspirations and playing style from a young age.

“I’ve always been an Arsenal fan and at that time I’d look at Thierry Henry and say he was my biggest inspiration in football,” Tella told the Southern Daily Echo last year.

“He’s someone I tried to model my game after. Of course, at seven years old you can’t really say you play like someone, but the stuff he was doing in games I would try to do with my local team.”

“He was someone I looked at and I wanted to play my game like, especially because I moved to the right wing where he played.”

Nathan Tella to channel Thierry Henry in crucial Nigeria vs South Africa WCQ
Photo by Icon Sport

Tella began his football education in Arsenal’s academy, where he spent 10 years before joining the Saints in 2017.

Tella: Nigeria's trump card in the absence of key players

Nathan Tella’s playing style is a blend of speed and elusiveness from out wide. These attributes could make him an invaluable asset to the Super Eagles.

As a winger, the 24-year-old's ability to operate on both flanks provides the Super Eagles with much-needed flexibility, especially in the absence of key players like Chukwueze and Simon.

His pace and dribbling skills allow him to take on defenders with confidence, creating scoring opportunities either for himself or his teammates.

Nathan Tella to channel Thierry Henry in crucial Nigeria vs South Africa WCQ
Photo by Icon Sport

For Nigeria, Tella’s inclusion in the squad could be the strategic advantage they need. His experience at the club level, coupled with his eagerness to prove himself on the international stage, means he is likely to rise to the occasion.

In games where the Super Eagles will miss the creativity and flair of Chukwueze and Simon, Tella’s ability to replicate these qualities will be crucial.

Moreover, Tella’s work ethic and defensive contributions cannot be overlooked. He has occasionally been deployed as a wing-back at Leverkusen this season, suhc is his willingness to track back and support his team in regaining possession. This balance between offensive and defensive duties ensures that Tella can be relied upon not just to initiate attacks but also to stabilise play when needed.

As the Super Eagles gear up for their encounters with South Africa and Benin, Nathan Tella stands poised to be Nigeria’s trump card.

Nathan Tella to channel Thierry Henry in crucial Nigeria vs South Africa WCQ
Photo by Icon Sport

In a squad that will be looking to make up for the absence of some of its star players, Tella’s contribution could be the key to securing vital victories.

On November 10, 2023, Nigeria's head coach, José Peseiro, included Tella in the squad for the 2026 FIFA World Cup qualifiers against Lesotho and Zimbabwe, and the forward made his debut in the latter fixture.

He was also included in Nigeria's provisional squad for the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON 2023) but did not make the final list.

In March 2024, he earned another  Super Eagles call-up for the friendlies against Ghana and Mali but unfortunately he failed to make an appearance in both games, sparking speculation about a falling-out with new Nigeria coach Finidi George.

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Godfred Budu

Godfred Budu, a Ghanaian sports journalist, brings a dynamic perspective to the field with over a decade of experience. Having contributed to esteemed platforms such as Kickgh.com and Inkandkicks.com. Godfred is recognised for his insightful commentary and in-depth analysis of African football.
His passion for storytelling and commitment to accuracy have established him as a trusted authority in sports journalism in Ghana, captivating audiences with his engaging narratives and unparalleled expertise.
Godfred holds a degree in Integrated Development Studies (Social and Development Administration option) from the University for Development Studies, Ghana.