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Akanji: A rising star lost to Europe

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Festus Abu, Saint Petersburg

Manuel Akanji  is still  earning rave reviews for his slick movement and  robust playing style despite  crashing out of the 2018 World Cup in Russia with Switzerland.

The  young Switzerland  centre-back also added  another dimension to defending  with his marauding runs down the right flank. He is 6ft1in  but he turned many heads with his   incredible  speed, athleticism and  strength  in the four matches he played for the Red Crosses, who  tumbled out of the tournament following their 1-0 loss to Sweden in the World Cup’s round of 16 in Saint Petersburg on Tuesday.

Incidentally Sweden’s Emil Forsberg’s shot deflected off  Akanji, who was born to a Nigerian  father and  a Swiss mother,   past goalkeeper Yann Sommer  to send Blagult (The Blue-Yellow) to the quarterfinals where they face England  at Cosmos Arena in  Samara on Saturday.

 The versatile defender will be distraught about the goal. Yes, he was.

 “It hurts that I deflected the ball into the net,” he said.

“I tried to stop the ball because it came in my direction.  It was  a hot shot.  Some of my teammates came to me after the  game saying ‘you played a good tournament’. Of course it was nice how they tried to cheer me up. Gelson (Fernandes)   told me that  it was not my last World Cup.”

Having a hand in Sweden’s winning goal has not in any way downplayed the 22-year-old  former Basel defender’s overall performance in Russia.

Akanji, who will undoubtedly emerge as one of the revelations  of  Russia 2018,  has received a hero’s welcome in Switzerland, with the media in the country applauding his showing in the championship.

 Some sections of the English and  Russian press have  highlighted  his  performance in  the World Cup, giving good grades.

Former  Manchester United  star Phil Neville, who was blown away  by Akanji’s performance,  says  the youngster  has all the capabilities to become an exceptional modern day defender.

“I think this boy could be absolutely special. A modern day defender,” the former England player told BBC.

Liverpool fans are not left out of the show. Akanji was linked with a move to  the Premier League giants before he was snapped up by Borussia Dortmund from Swiss side Basel  in a deal reportedly worth €22m in January.

The Reds fans, who sent Twitter into meltdown, heaping praises on Akanji,  say they are disappointed their club didn’t sign the player, who  has claimed he was never contacted by Nigeria to play for the Super Eagles.

 It took  Akanji  a few  games under his belt to convince Dortmund  fans that Signal Iduna Park  boss  Michael Zorc  went for the right player after former Barcelona centre-back Marc Bartra left for Real Betis.

“I knew that when I play  for  Dortmund, I  will have my chance at the starting line-up. That worked, “ Akanji  had told  Sport-Bild.

He added, “I knew that my chances in the starting XI of Switzerland will  increase, if I play regularly  at  Dortmund and show good performances.”

After his World Cup showing, the player is being tipped to transform into a major player for the country of his mother. He has also been tipped to follow in the footsteps of Swiss legend Stephane Chapuisat, who spent most of his career with Dortmund, and Alexander Frei, who is  Switzerland’s  all-time leading scorer with 42 goals in 84 games.

With Akanji’s rising stock, many Nigerian fans will  be gnashing  their teeth about  another loss of a talented Nigerian player to  a European country. It is painful Akanji, who  is set to become the next big thing in world football, will be addressed as Switzerland great, with the accolades going to the Central Europe nation  which shares a border with Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein, Italy, and France.

In recent times Nigeria lost the services of good players such as  David Alaba (Austria), Dele Alli (England), Emmanuel Adebayor (Togo), Stephano Okaka (Italy), Sidney Sam (Germany),  Angelo Ogbonna (Italy), Oguchi Onyewu (USA) and Ikechi Anya (Scotland).

Youngsters with Nigerian roots Dominic Solanke, Joshua Onomah, Ademola Lookman, Sheyi Ojo, Ovie Ejaria  and Fikayo Tomori helped England win the 2017 Under-20 World Cup in South Korea, and so far  there’s no evidence to show that they will represent the country of their fathers.

German-born Nigerian  defender  Kevin Akpoguma is another talented  player Nigeria look set to lose to Germany.

The 23-year-old Hoffenheim and Germany Under-21 team  centre-back has a good chance to break into the senior  team setup with  Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels  both  29  nearing retirement from international football.

However, the Nigeria Football Federation and Gernot Rohr deserve some credit for ensuring that Dutch-born  duo Tyronne Ebuehi and William Troost-Ekong, as well as German-born defender Leon Balogun, English-born Ola Aina and England-raised Alex Iwobi pledged their international loyalty to Nigeria.

Akanji would not be drawn into saying categorically if he would have pledged his international allegiance to Nigeria, the country of his father, if he had been invited.

 “Nigeria never called me to play (for the Eagles). There was no question  where I should play because Switzerland asked me if I wanted to play for them. I heard nothing from Nigeria.  So It was my decision,”  the player  told  reporters  during a  post-match interview after Switzerland’s defeat by Sweden  at Saint Petersburg Stadium on Tuesday.

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