Nigeria will battle with Ireland to nail down the international future of Southampton teen striker Michael Obafemi but England also haven’t given up hope of landing the Premier League newcomer.
The 17-year-old was parachuted to stardom on Sunday for becoming the second youngest-ever debutant behind Luke Shaw for the Saints. That adulation would have sky-rocketed further had he converted a late chance of netting the winner against Tottenham.
Yet, his impact was sufficient to spark an international tug-of-war, not that the tussle hadn’t already kicked off.
Obafemi has only represented one nation — his birthplace of Ireland — in a competitive fixture but holds a close connection to the homeland of his parents, Nigeria. A third nation is also vying for his allegiance and, as Irish fans know too well, England rarely miss out on their targets.
As the tyro has spent most of his life in England, having relocated at a young age from Ireland with his family, he is very much ingrained in their culture.
He has already attended some training camps at the invitation of the English FA but it is unclear if he is yet eligible as he or his parents would need to have obtained a passport.
What’s encouraging for the FAI, however, is that Obafemi accepted their invite into the U19 squad last September after those England training get-togethers.
Some element of fear had set in when he failed to appear for the initial trip to the Slovakia Cup at U18 level last April but those disappeared upon his arrival for the elite qualifiers in Waterford.
Obafemi featured in two of the three first phase games in Waterford as Tom Mohan’s side topped a group featuring Serbia to clinch an elite stage berth.
That Ireland squad have a couple of friendlies arranged for next month before they travel to Portugal to resume their competitive calendar on 21 March.
How Obafemi uses Sunday’s cameo as a springboard, coupled with international squad interest from elsewhere, will determine whether he has left the U19 level behind already despite being underage for another year.
Mauricio Pellegrino turned to the teen for the Spurs assignment after his compatriot Shane Long was struck down with illness.
After making such an impression, especially with Saints fans low on highlights this term, the latest hope for Irish football will probably keep his place on the bench for Saturday’s meeting with Watford.
“Michael is a really fast player and his speed is his most important quality,” said the Argentinian about the accomplished sprinter.
“I observed that Tottenham’s back four was really high up the pitch and Michael could have some chances.
“He came really close to getting on the end of one but this is still the beginning of his career. Southampton have had a good history with our home-grown players and Michael is one more.”
Nigeria’s ongoing interest in convincing Obafemi to jump ship will intensify. They have sealed their place at the World Cup in Russia and have a number of friendlies scheduled to experiment. This is one reason why his continual ascent isn’t all positive news for the FAI.
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