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Hugo Ekitike: Europe's top teenage goalscorer out to emulate Mbappe

8:00 PM MYT 28/12/2021
Hugo Ekitike NXGN GFX
The 19-year-old has scored eight goals in the first half of the Ligue 1 season for Reims, marking him out as one of France's brightest talents

If you're planning a football-based quiz to pass the time with family and friends around the New Year period, then one question sure to stump any supporters who do not follow Ligue 1 closely is: 'Who is the top scoring teenager in Europe's 'Big Five' leagues through the first half of the 2021-22 season?'

The answer? Reims striker Hugo Ekitike.

Nineteen-year-old Ekitike may not yet be a household name outside of his native France, but the form he has shown in the opening months of the campaign suggests that he soon will be.

Ekitike's breakthrough marks the latest step on a journey that began when he was around 10 years old and playing for local amateur side Cormontreuil on the outskirts of Reims.

One summer, the youngster was invited to holiday with the family of his football coach Jean-Philippe, AKA 'Nano', at their mobile home in the region of Allier.

"When we arrived, we opened the cupboards and found a Stade de Reims jacket," recalls Nano to GOAL. "The kids tried it on; it was too big for my son, but it fit Hugo perfectly, so he kept it.

"Shortly after the holidays, he signed a non-solicitation agreement to join the Reims academy."

Nano, who coached Ekitike as an Under-7s player all the way up to U12s, had been telling his young charge that he would be signed by the former European Cup finalists for quite some time, but the modest child refused to listen, instead just focusing on becoming the best player he could be.

"At Cormontreuil, he scored a lot of goals without ever getting carried away," Nano explains. "For example, he would never be able to say how many goals he had scored in a tournament.

"He was a winner who didn't show off, always listening to improve himself but not to be the number one. In matches, if he could make a pass despite being in front of the goal, he wouldn't hesitate, because he knew that it was the most intelligent choice."

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On Reims' eventual interest, Nano adds: "They must have been fed up with Hugo scoring goals every time their teams came to play against us!"

Eight years on from joining the club, Ekitike is now a key member of the Reims attack, with his eight goals in 17 Ligue 1 games including strikes against Marseille and Lyon. Seven of those efforts, meanwhile, have come in his last 10 appearances, while he has also provided three assists for team-mates.

He has undoubtedly been one of the breakout stars in France's top flight so far this season, with his emergence coming just a matter of months since he took the brave move to head on loan to Denmark in search of first-team football.

Ekitike made his Reims debut in October 2020, but after appearing in just one further game during the first half of the season, he accepted the offer to join Vejle, where he would get the chance to pit himself against experienced defenders who have played European football, rather than those he was coming up against in the French fourth tier for Reims' reserve side.

The spell in Scandinavia went well for Ekitike, who scored three goals and provided two assists in his 11 games (seven of which were starts), though it was a move that almost did not happen when he, a club representative and his agent were turned away at Copenhagen airport in January.

At the time, Denmark was in lockdown and not allowing travellers from abroad into the country, with Ekitike only allowed to enter after a high-ranking army officer who happened to support Vejle intervened, albeit under the proviso that his agent departed after 48 hours, leaving Ekitike alone in a new country.

However, he was not fazed.

"When he realised that, he looked at his agent and said, 'don't worry, I'll manage'," a source close to Ekitike tells GOAL. "He was 18 and showed great serenity, even though he was arriving in a country with health restrictions, the cold and the language barrier."

Described as being down-to-earth but single-minded by those close to him, Ekitike lives a lifestyle that belies his rising profile in the world of football.

"At Christmas, you are not going to see him go to Dubai," one of Ekitike's close friends tells GOAL. "He will stay with his family, spend time with his grandparents and take time for himself to think, rest and go to the movies.

"He also watches what is trendy on TV. In recent weeks, the trendy series is Squid Game. He has just started Game of Thrones after finishing Breaking Bad too."

From a footballing perspective, meanwhile, Ekitike does not hide his ambition, stating that he is out to replicate Kylian Mbappe as much as possible.

"That's what it means to be a top-level player and that's what I aspire to become," he told Foot Mercato when discussing the Paris Saint-Germain star. "Over the last few years, he is the player I watch the most, who inspires me, and not necessarily only on the pitch."

As a comparison, Mbappe scored 15 goals in his first full Ligue 1 season at Monaco in 2016-17, although he was a year younger than Ekitike is now. That said, there are some similarities in their games, particularly when it comes to Ekitike's desire to cut inside from the left and curl shots past despairing goalkeepers with his right foot.

Tall and slight at 6'2" (189cm), the France U20 international possesses a smooth running style, and though not electrifyingly pacey, he makes up for it with smart movement, particularly inside the penalty area.

"He has the mentality of Kobe Bryant in a 19-year-old's body," one of Ekitike's friends says. "If you tell him he's only got 10 minutes left in a game, he's not going to hide, but take it as a challenge."

As well as observing others, Ekitike is also keen to appraise his own displays, with his performance when coming off the bench against PSG back in August one he was particularly unhappy with, so much so he went home that evening to review his own performance, with one incident where he lost the ball to Marquinhos making him feel particularly "stupid", according to a source.

Ekitike will be out to put that right when Reims take on the Ligue 1 leaders again on January 23, and he will do so as a player who has become one of Europe's hottest teenage strikers in the meantime.

Marquinhos, Mbappe and co. have been warned - if they do not know who Hugo Ekitike is already, they likely soon will do.

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