Kelechi Iheanacho belted in a free-kick into the box. As usual, Nigeria’s star striker Victor Osimhen rose to collect a ball, aiming for a goal in one of his much-dreaded headers. Yet something odd happened. The ball bounced off a Sudanese defender, bobbled into Taiwo Awoniyi’s face, and rolled into the goal for Nigeria’s second goal.
The match was Nigeria’s last Africa Cup of Nations game as they strolled into the knockout rounds. They played Sudan, a vastly inferior team that had no chance against the Super Eagles. Villarreal’s Samuel Chukweuze netted Nigeria’s first, and from then on, it was a living nightmare for Nigeria. But for Taiwo Awoniyi, it was a moment to fondly remember.
As he wildly celebrated, viewers asked why the Union Berlin star only had four caps to add to his resume. He is the core of a lively attack challenging for a top-six spot in the Bundesliga and has clubs like West Ham vying for his services. Union Berlin themselves value Awoniyi at over 30 million euros. So it might be somewhat confusing to see aging veterans Ahmed Musa and Odion Ighalo get more chances at starts than Awoniyi. It all dates back to a romp through the 2013 FIFA U-17 World Cup, countless loan journeys, and a bad time to be a Nigerian forward.
Loans all across Europe and frustration
Before Taiwo Awoniyi was heading in goals for the Super Eagles in the Africa Cup of Nations, he was a starry-eyed teenager representing Imperial Academy in the U17 World Cup. An attacker for a local, albeit prestigious Nigeria youth academy, Awoniyi was called up for the 2013 U17 World Cup in the UAE. Along with names like Kelechi Iheanacho and now-unknown Musa Yahaya, Awoniyi dominated.
En route to a first-place finish, Awoniyi scored four times and provided incessant attacking play and motivated pressing. His performances fell under the radar as Best Player Iheanacho scored six goals and assisted seven more. Awoniyi rose through the Nigerian ranks and even broke through to the Nigeria U23 squad as an eighteen-year-old. It all landed him a move to Anfield, with many pundits predicting success for the young attacker.
After his 400-thousand-euro move in 2015, Awoniyi immediately headed on loan to 2. Bundesliga squad FSV Frankfurt. His time there was not all that impressive, as he scored once in 14 games for the relegated German side, but Liverpool still saw promise in him. The season was slightly better when he moved on loan to Dutch club NEC, but not what the heads at Anfield hoped. In another season where Awoniyi suffered relegation, he scored thrice and had one assist in 22 games.
The following loan to Belgian club Royal Mouscron may have saved him from a permanent move away from Liverpool. At Mouscron, Awoniyi logged a successful season by scoring ten times in 31 games. Although Mouscron paled in comparison to the pearly gates of Anfield and Awoniyi was running on borrowed time to prove himself, the stint was promising. After a rather disappointing period at Belgian side Gent(he scored three goals in 22 games), he returned to Mouscron and posted some of his best-ever stat lines. He scored eleven goals in sixteen matches after leaving Gent midway through the season and earned himself plaudits as one of the better players in the Jupiler Pro League. His search not only to prove his worth but also for a work permit in England, seemed never-ending.
At this point, Anfield supporters largely forgot about Awoniyi. His loan move to Mainz did not trend on Twitter, nor did it grace the front cover of the Sun. Fans of the Super Eagles already had a surplus of attacking to choose from, so a season where Awoniyi only found the net once in twelve games did not worry anyone. Anyone but Awoniyi. In 2020-21, when the Bundesliga played with a reduced amount of spectators, Awoniyi headed to Union Berlin.
Berlin and a much-awaited senior cap
In one of the biggest football cities in the world, Berlin, Awoniyi had a season to remember. He helped Union Berlin, who placed eleventh in the previous Bundesliga season, qualify for the Europa Conference League in a climactic ending to the season. Awoniyi scored five goals and assisted twice in one of his most productive seasons yet. He led Berlin in xG with 6.9 and added an additional layer to a lethal attacking corps. Yet no one could forecast the breakout season and international acclaim Awoniyi would gather from there.
The Ilorin native started strong, scoring four goals in Berlin’s first five matches. He most notably netted a brace in a 4-0 win over Finnish foes KuPS. In October, Awoniyi netted his second brace in the season against former club Mainz in a 2-1 victory, bringing his goal to eight in twelve matches. It was all downhill from there, as Awoniyi continued to find the net for The Iron Ones. His goal count has risen to fourteen in 32 games. But an impressive scoring record that currently rivals Serge Gnabry and Moussa Diaby might not even be his biggest accomplishment in his breakout season.
Awoniyi made his Nigeria debut in an early November afternoon, eight years after winning the U17 World Cup in the UAE. It was not his best performance, as he notably scuffed a shot from point-blank range. It was not the result Awoniyi wanted either, as the Central African Republic netted a last-minute winner for an unexpected win. Yet it was still a moment to remember and a signal that more was to come from the Bundesliga prodigy. And he delivered. Notably, Awoniyi scored his first goal for the Super Eagles in the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations against Sudan. In his three matches, he delivered four shots on target. There is more to come for Awoniyi as qualification for the 2023 Africa Cup of Nations starts. The question is how much?
What’s next for Awoniyi?
Ernesto Valverde. Laurent Blanc. Jose Peseiro. All of these people, from LaLiga winners and World Cup champions to everyone else in between, are managers that the Super Eagles are considering for their vacant managerial role. Whoever NFF boss Amaju Pinnick chooses will significantly change how many caps Awoniyi can win.
Someone with a bold attacking brand of football like Valverde or Blanc would be a great fit for Awoniyi considering his advanced position and the vast depth of Nigeria’s attackers. Yet a manager like long time PSV gaffer Phillip Cocu, who prefers to get up the pitch with as few passes as possible, will prefer a quicker and more agile striker. The future is in Pinnick’s hands, and with the array of Nigerian attackers that the future manager has in store, the move will be a vital one for Awoniyi.
Yet with the future out of Awoniyi’s hands, and international football still some months away, the best Awoniyi can do is complete a stellar season for his club. He faces an uphill challenge to bring the DFB-Pokal to Berlin on the 20th against Leipzig while fighting for a rare berth in a European continental competition. Looking to grow from his current goal tally of 14, his performances will catch the eye of everyone, from Berlin to Lagos. To keep his foot in both cities, he needs to keep up his terrific form and show him why Liverpool saw promise in Awoniyi some eight years ago in the UAE.