Weekly Wonderkids: Episode 18

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One of Football Index’s unique attributes as a platform is that it allows traders to pick and choose which players to buy and sell, which to stockpile, and which to keep an eye on in the future. Traders can spot a promising footballer, buy stock in said player, and watch them flourish as the player’s profile grows on the world stage. If you truly believe that a teenage prospect who’s only registered a handful of substitute appearances will go on to become a Golden Boot winner, you have the power to put your money where your mouth is and add him to your portfolio.

Each Monday, Zach Lowy will analyse a new U-23 player who Football Index traders should consider buying in a new weekly series called “Weekly Wonderkids.” With this series, you’ll be able to discover which youngsters you should place your trust in – and money – and why.

Name: Wilfred Ndidi

Age: 23

Club: Leicester City

Seven months after completing one of the most spell-binding miracles in sports history, Leicester City were in purgatory. Despite topping their group in their maiden Champions League campaign, the Foxes had regressed well below the mean. The goals had dried up for heroic marksman Jamie Vardy, the energy and passion that carried them to glory had all but dissipated into thin air, and the reigning champions were hanging onto their Premier League safety by a thread. The talk around the King Power Stadium no longer centered on whether or not to give Claudio Ranieri the keys to the city, but the keys to his office.

The spine of the team had largely remained the same, save one player: N’Golo Kanté. The diminutive Duracell bunny was vital in Leicester’s title charge, but after a £32 million transfer to Chelsea, it was Antonio Conte who was enjoying the fruits of Kanté’s labor, rather than his bespectacled, silver-haired compatriot. The Frenchman’s departure left a gaping hole in midfield that neither January signing Daniel Amartey nor summer arrival Nampalys Mendy were able to fill. With the threat of relegation lurking on the horizon, Leicester sporting director Jon Rudkin needed to get creative in the transfer market to find a replacement, and quick.

Enter: Wilfred Ndidi.

Early Beginnings in Nigeria

The son of a soldier and a trader, Ndidi was raised in a military barracks in Ikeja, Nigeria. In order to pursue his dreams of becoming a footballer, he did whatever he could to make money, from wiping down car windows to buying and selling pure water in a satchel. He gained a reputation for selling groundnuts on the streets of Lagos, so much so that he gained the nickname ‘groundnut boy.’ On his best day, he earned 8,000 naira (around £18), just enough to go out and buy a new pair of cleats.

His father, a strict military man, regularly disciplined him and saw to it that he solely focused on his studies. Whenever he was deployed on dangerous peacekeeping missions in northern Nigeria or Sudan, Ndidi seized the opportunity to go behind his back and play football.

“Any time my dad went to work, I would go and play,” Ndidi said in an interview with BBC World Service.”I would then get the signal that he was coming and go back to what I was doing, so he didn’t know I’d been playing. I got caught several times but was still going.”

Unable to afford an actual football, Ndidi would wrap sheets of paper together with Sellotape to create a ball. With the older kids playing on the main pitch, Ndidi and his friends kicked around the makeshift ball on the street, with two car tires serving as goalposts. He soon joined a youth team on the military base that was coached by ex-Nigeria international Nduka Ugabade.

Ndidi credits Ugabade with instilling him with a mental resilience that has not faded to this day. Despite being shorter, frailer and younger than most of his peers, Ndidi persevered through Ugabade’s daily triple sessions, his legs carrying him to the finish line even when his brain had abandoned him.

One day, he decided to skip class and try out for the Nath Boys Academy without his father’s knowledge. He was accepted, and quickly became a regular for the team, even winning the academy league. In 2013, Nigeria youth coach Manu Garba called him up for the U-17 African Championship in Morocco, and it was only then when his father learned about his son’s burgeoning footballing career. Rather than reprimand him, though, he gave him his blessing.

Ndidi never got to play in Morocco. A day before the competition began, the Confederation of African Football submitted every player to an MRI test, which studied the bone density of their wrists to ascertain whether or not the players were age cheating. Ndidi was one of nine players who were found to be over-age and was sent back on the next flight to Nigeria without so much as a second chance.

Nevertheless, he got his opportunity to impress on the world stage six months later, in the 2013 U-17 World Cup. He started at center back as the Super Eaglets soared to the Final, before lifting the trophy on November 8 in Abu Dhabi.

As fate would have it, though, his big break came during a tournament in Lagos that saw nearly 500 players compete against each other for the attention and respect of European scouts. In the sole match that Ndidi played in, he made a run through the middle of the pitch and played a one-two between the defenders, which his striker converted for a goal. It was good enough for then-Genk scout Roland Janssen, who offered him a two-month trial in Belgium.

Cutting His Teeth in Belgium

Going from the sweltering Nigerian summer to the frosty Belgian winter wasn’t easy for the 17-year-old Ndidi, nor was going from living with his family to living alone in a hotel. To facilitate his adjustment to Europe, Genk put him up with a local foster family.

Ndidi, who modelled his game after John Terry during that time, impressed in central defence during his trial, but due to UEFA’s non-EU player regulations, he was forced to return to Nigeria and wait another year for a contract offer. Genk kept in touch with him via email and gave him a first-team contract after he turned 18, paying Nath Boys Academy £78,000 for the transfer.

After debuting at left-back on January 31, 2015, in a 1-0 away defeat to Charleroi, then-manager Alex McLeish played Ndidi across the back four in his first season in Belgium. However, it wasn’t until the hiring of Peter Maes in the summer that Ndidi finally began to play in midfield.

Ndidi started the 2015/16 season opener in a 3-1 win against OH Leuven, but his baptism of fire would come a week later against reigning champions Gent. The occasion was too much for him, and he was subbed off at half-time. But after a run of games on the bench, Maes bequeathed him with a starting spot in October, and Ndidi never looked back. 

In the absence of Sergej Milinković-Savić, who left Genk for Lazio in the summer, and Bennard Kumordzi, who missed 18 months with a broken shinbone, Ndidi was forced to step up into a leading role. He became a mainstay in midfield, attracting interest from the likes of Watford, West Ham, and Newcastle United. However, it was Leicester City who won the race for the Nigerian, paying an initial £15 million, rising to £18.6 million with potential add-ons.

Instant Success in England

Ranieri threw him into the deep end without any hesitation, giving him his debut in an FA Cup fixture against Everton. Ndidi impressed in a holding midfield role, as Leicester came from behind to eliminate the Toffees. They moved onto the next round, where they were drawn against East Midlands rivals Derby County.

After drawing at the Pride Park, Leicester took the lead in the replay, before Abdoul Camara equalized to force extra time. In the 94th minute, Ndidi latched onto a pass from Riyad Mahrez, charged forward, and launched a shot from 25 yards out that careened off the post and bounced into the side-netting. In the blink of an eye, he had made the holding midfield spot his own, proving that he was not only capable of breaking up play and winning back possession, but of scoring golazos and knitting together passes.

Leicester’s results improved, but it wasn’t enough for the Tinkerman to hold onto his job. Interim manager Craig Shakespeare tried to shake up some of yesteryear’s magic by playing the exact same 4-4-2 that won the title, with the only difference being Ndidi for Kanté’s position. The Foxes ended up finishing ten points clear of the relegation zone, as well as eliminating Jorge Sampaoli’s upstart Sevilla from the Champions League at the round of 16 stage.

With Danny Drinkwater joining Kanté at Chelsea, and with new arrival Adrien Silva unable to play until January due to his transfer documents reaching FIFA a mere 14 seconds after the deadline, the defensive responsibility piled up on Ndidi’s young shoulders. He made the most tackles in the Premier League (138), 21 ahead of his nearest competitor, Everton’s Idrissa Gana Gueye.

Between club duty with Leicester and international duty with Nigeria, Ndidi became overworked and picked up a hamstring injury that sidelined him for the last month of the season. Nevertheless, he recovered just in time for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. Gernot Rohr’s Super Eagles barely missed out on advancing to the knockout round due to a last-gasp winner from Argentina’s Marcos Rojo in the final group stage match, but Ndidi proved that he was capable of going up against the best midfielders in the world and dominating.

Over the past year, Ndidi has taken his game up a level under the management of Brendan Rodgers, who replaced the widely unpopular Claude Puel on February 26, 2019. With the Nigerian at the base of midfield, Leicester’s full-backs Ricardo Pereira and Ben Chilwell have license to maraud further forward, whilst their advanced midfielders James Maddison and Youri Tielemans can focus on linking the attack rather than stopping counter-attacks.

With Ndidi in the line-up, Leicester are a force to be reckoned with, as their current third-place ranking proves. Without him, though, they’re an unbalanced midtable side. Ndidi missed several matches in January and February due to a knee injury, and as a result, Leicester’s defenders were left exposed and vulnerable, as Rodgers’s side stumbled to embarrassing defeats to Norwich City and Southampton.

Ndidi chased his dreams and became one of the best defensive midfielders in Europe, but he hasn’t forgotten his father’s dream either. He is currently studying Business and Management at the nearby De Montfort University and hopes to build an academy in Nigeria that provides children with not only top-class coaching, but a first-rate education as well.

‘“Back home so many kids aren’t able to go to school because their parents can’t afford it,” said Ndidi. “If kids don’t make it in football, I want them to think they can get a degree and work, instead of roaming the streets.”

Next Big Move?

There’s no telling that once football resumes, Leicester will have a line of suitors out the door for Ndidi’s signature. Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur will both be on the prowl, as Nemanja Matić and Eric Dier’s contracts are set to expire next year. Barcelona could potentially splash the cash on him to rejuvenate their aging midfield, with Arturo Vidal, Ivan Rakitić and Sergio Busquets all on the wrong side of 30.

Either way, expect Ndidi to be playing Champions League football next season, whether that’s at the King Power Stadium or a different venue.

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