Nestory Irankunda, Australia's latest wunderkind will become a Bayern Munich player on July 1, 2024, after a deal was announced between the German champions and A-League club Adelaide United last week.
Various European powers at one point or another had been circling the prodigal attacker for months, but the links with the Bavarian giants had been the strongest and most persistent since they emerged, to the extent that many in the Australian footballing scene had long considered it a fait accompli well before Fabrizio Romano tweeted that a deal that including a transfer fee worth a base of £3 million with add-ons was on the verge of being signed.
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Reports from Australia and Germany have since cast doubt on that figure, with Sky Sports Germany reporting the initial fixed fee will be in the six figures with bonus payments attached. Adelaide would say only it was a "club-record" sum, and the prevailing sentiment is that the deal is, at least initially, less than Romano reported.
Regardless of how much the transfer fee is, though, it is a monumental step in the journey of a player born in a refugee camp in Tanzania after his parents fled the Burundi Civil War. After arriving in Australia as a three-month-old he hasn't waited around; honed in South Australia's NPL before bursting onto the national radar after making his debut for Adelaide at the tender age of 15. Since then, he has gone on to become one of the most exciting prospects Australian football has produced.
Signing Irankunda makes a lot of sense for Bayern regardless of whether the fee is on the high or low end, because it will ultimately be a drop in the ocean for a club the size of the German champions in return for a highly touted prospect.
Now, where does Irankunda rank in a contemporary global and historical Australian context? It's impossible to answer, and not useful to try. Such comparisons are inexact and prone to being tainted by the hindsight of what came next. Progression and development aren't linear. Irankunda is his own person, with his own journey that will be governed just as much by everything in his life away from football as much as on it. Amid the excitement, it's important to keep that in mind when contemplating the future of a 17-year-old. He has started just three senior league games. Three. Even if society deems it acceptable to scrutinise a teenager to the nth degree because they are an athlete, there's a person at the core of it all.
Nonetheless -- and here's where the hypocrisy comes in -- Irankunda is also an incredibly talented young footballer who has spoken of embracing the challenges and journey associated with that. His playing style is one that generates an inordinate amount of excitement because it's a rare combination of enormous potential and unabashed fun to watch. In full flight, there are few players in A-League history who have been able to produce the kind of moments that Irankunda has.
This is highlighted by something that feels more akin to a howitzer than a right foot; a weapon so fearsome that one can forgive a goalkeeper for thinking more of their safety than keeping the ball out of the net. Irankunda's shooting technique not only makes his thunderous attempts at goal replicable, but also allows him to display almost unnerving precision to go with all that power: guiding shots into areas that keepers struggle to get to even if they aren't hit with such venom.
This proficiency extends to dead-ball situations; his effort against Melbourne City in late October left Jamie Young, a former England youth international and one of the best pure shot-stoppers in the history of the A-League Men, unable to do anything other than watch it sail into the top corner of the net.
This is combined with a sense of determined and aggressive purpose when on the ball, and a fierce desire to burn past his man and either find the byline or cut inside. In round one of the 2023-24 campaign, in which Irankunda's Adelaide recorded a comfortable 3-0 win over reigning champions Central Coast Mariners, he was clocked running at 37.02 km/h in his first senior league start. That would have been the fastest top speed reached in Irankunda's future home, the Bundesliga, in all of last season. Needless to say, he is lethal in transition.
Irankunda supplements this with excellent bodily awareness, a strong sense of balance, and an understanding of how to use his frame to his advantage. At times against the Mariners, it almost appeared as though the Reds were deploying their version of basketball's iso-ball tactics: Clearing out to give Irankunda a one-on-one matchup with a defender in space, where his power and speed could go to work.
Out of possession, though, his positioning and defensive work-rate, though not something Irankunda is going to make his money on, will need work if he wants to break through at Bayern. So too, will his close control in crowded areas, which can let him down at times when confronted with the speed of the game at a senior level, as can his decision-making in the final third; when to pass and when to wind up his wonderous right foot. His primary use as an off-the-bench weapon when games are stretched, in combination with Adelaide's predilection for transition, means Irankunda will need to adjust to playing in a ball-dominant environment like Bayern's, who lead the Bundesliga with 62.2% possession.
Thus, there's also some level of maturing to do. His red card in round three of the against Melbourne Victory earlier this month, when his frustration bubbled over and he received a second yellow card for dissent, is a case in point. Early in 2022-23, Irankunda served a club-imposed suspension for a lack of professionalism, and failing to meet the off-field standards set for young players at the club. National team staff have also needed to work hard with him to keep him on track during junior international camps and tournaments. Opponents have developed something of a blueprint for getting under Irankunda's skin.
Though called into camp as a train-on player earlier this year, Socceroos coach Graham Arnold hasn't felt the need to rush him into the team ahead of schedule. At 17, there's a cognizance that there is plenty of time for Irankunda to make his mark along well-established pathways to the senior team -- as there will be at Bayern.
"I was away with him at the [Australian] under-17s in Thailand," Arnold told ESPN. "Pretty much I went there to watch the 17s, the Joeys, just to watch Nestor play and see where he's at.
"He's an outstanding talent. But there is also the under-20 national team, then the Olyroos [under-23 side] before the Socceroos.
"Going to Bayern would be a massive move but also a massive task for a young kid. He's 17 years old, he'd be going to a country where he wouldn't be able to understand the language. So he'll need a lot of support along the way. Sometimes, it's not just about rewarding a young kid straight away, sometimes he's got to go through the right pathways."
None of this from the national team boss should be surprising. Irankunda is only at the beginning of his career. While moving too quickly to Europe and disappearing into the churn of youth teams and loan moves is often decried as one of the great evils of young Australian players transferring abroad, in Irankunda's case it could prove one of its great blessings.
In Munich, coaches wouldn't care that he's been tapped as the next big thing in Australian football; they're employees of Bayern Munich, not Football Australia. He'd be one of dozens and dozens of talented kids at the Säbener Straße, and not even the first A-League Men player to make a move in the past few years: Sarpreet Singh, now with Hansa Rostock, moved to Munich in 2019, and Anthony Pavlešić made the jump from the Mariners academy to Bayern's reserve team earlier this year.
As he progresses through the system, the crushing weight of expectations in Australia will be still present but a world away. Maybe Irankunda will be with the senior team, following in the footsteps of former MLS and Canada prodigy Alphonso Davies, as some reports have suggested. But he could also start with the youth side and play in competitions such as the UEFA Youth League. And that's ok. Mathys Tel arrived in Bavaria after a €20 million transfer from Reims as a 17-year-old and has yet to make a league start in 2023-24. There's no rush. Managed expectations are good.
Irankunda is pure raw talent. With immense potential. But there's also where the caution lies. He's a diamond, but an uncut one. There is significant development to be done but given time and with work, he can be special.