A huge weekend for the rare 14-goal scoreline. France beating Gibraltar 14-0 is impressive if you like your football humiliations international, Var-pocked and with Olivier Giroud bicycle kicks. More excitement back home for Arsenal’s under-16 side, who beat Liverpool’s 14-3 on Saturday.
Chido Obi-Martin, 15, scored 10 of those goals and the compilation industrial complex had them on social media within hours. There is plenty to admire, not least Obi’s height and air of dominance giving the impression of Brian Glover’s schoolmaster cosplaying as Bobby Charlton in Kes. Obi has a better touch than Glover, making his opponents look leaden. He rounds the goalkeeper, drifts past sliding defenders, heads in with power, finishes with ease. He looks untouchable.
We have of course seen similar teenage promise unfulfilled. The underachieving child prodigy is such a football trope that the names trip off the tongue. The road to glory is littered with Freddie Adus, Cherno Sambas and Sonny Pikes.
Chido Obi-Martin scored 10 goals for Arsenal Under-16s against Liverpool U16s today in a 14-3 win. 💫
Obi-Martin has already trained with Mikel Arteta's first team and is eligible to represent Denmark, England and Nigeria. 🇩🇰 🏴 🇳🇬 pic.twitter.com/THIkFvT9u7
— Chris Wheatley (@ChrisWheatley) November 18, 2023
There is good reason to believe that Obi will avoid that fate. He has already trained with Mikel Arterta’s first team, a level never reached by poor Sonny Pike whose football career rose and fell with a trial Ajax at the age of 13. Obi is not yet featured on Football Manager, being below its minimum age of 16, so cannot be invested with the hopes of a million wannabe Artetas, as Samba once was. And he has played youth football for Denmark (as well as being eligible for Nigeria and England). As such, he does not carry the weight of a nation looking for its Pele, like Adu.
There is another category of hyped footballing teen who have stellar careers. Scott Parker, star of a McDonalds advert at 13, played for 20 years and won FWA Footballer of the Year in 2011. Joe Cole, singled out for glory at West Ham at about the same age as Obi, won the Premier League three times with Chelsea and both domestic cups. Even a player like Jermaine Pennant, who Arsenal signed at 15 for a then-record £2 million from Notts County, eventually reached Liverpool, Zaragoza and a Champions League final.
These are careers most young footballers, let alone most people, would kill for. And yet even with someone as garlanded as Cole, anyone who can remember his teenage hype might feel shortchanged. This is because potential is exponential in the imagination. It is assumed any player who looks oceans apart from their opponents at youth level will continue on that path. Easy to forget that once they reach senior football most of their peers were once also unplayable teenage geniuses.
Better to have your talent identified early within the game but only become more widely appreciated once you are playing first-team football. Erling Haaland, with whom Obi is being excitedly compared already, took a wisely low-key path. Two years in Norway, two more at a bigger club in Norway, two in Austria, Borussia Dortmund and now Manchester City. No one accuses him of failing to reach his potential, because most people only became aware of it when he was scoring regularly in the Champions League.
You want your youth football recounted years in the future via shaky phone footage in a documentary, not played out in social media highlights away from the pressure of crowds. Obi’s 10 goals this weekend came at under-16 level only because the under-21s and 18s, who he is usually playing for these days, did not have a game this weekend.
Football now, especially at a club with Arsenal’s resources, should be set up to prevent Sonny Pike scenarios. This is if players can avoid the uncontrollable factors which can derail a career: significant injuries, off-field distractions or a loss of the competitive mania required to thrive. The education in football provided by a top academy should make a career in the game viable and be holistic enough to suggest a future away from it too. Arsenal have the rare example in Martin Odegaard of a player earmarked for glory and playing first-team football at 15 who survived a big stage setback (at Real Madrid) who is now thriving in his mid-twenties anyway.
So there is certainly cause for them to be excited about Chido Obi. For now, Arsenal’s fans should try their best to forget his name. Nothing is better for young footballers than obscurity.