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  • Writer's pictureJose Campo

Irankunda's journey hits spiralling pressure as he navigates increasing demands

Despite securing a dream move to Bayern Munich, the 2023/24 season has been gruelling for Nestory Irankunda. The media scrutiny and seemingly increasing expectations set by Adelaide United and manager Carl Veart are starting to reflect in Irankunda’s performances and perceived attitude, which have gained a mixture of praise and criticism towards the 18-year-old in his third season of professional football.

Nestory Irankunda's performances received criticism from Adelaide United manager Carl Veart last week. (Image: Ben Blaess/BDb.media)


The talented winger is facing mounting criticism about his recent displays, which have been falling below par with the goals the club has set him, should Carl Veart's comments following last week's 3-3 draw with Perth Glory be anything to go by.


The attention Irankunda has gained since day one of his A-League Men career is due to many factors; his talent, primarily, and the speculation and rapid ascent in the professional game has led to him being dubbed one of, if not the, most exciting young Australian talent.


Having made 51 senior appearances for the Reds, Irankunda is now one of the focal talking points around the league each week and is experiencing similar hype to Garang Kuol and Daniel Arzani during their breakout stints in Australian football's top flight.


Whether pressure has influenced his performance or not, it does not mean he has lost his immense talent, but coping with it is an obstacle he has to overcome. As former Manchester United winger Luis Nani said on his A-Leagues All Access last season, “Pressure is a privilege”, but for some, can it also be considered a curse?

Irankunda joined Adelaide United during the 2021 NPL SA season after impressing youth team head coach Airton Andrioli with his previous club, the Adelaide Croatia Raiders. He initially played for the NPL Reserves before transitioning to the senior side by May 2021 and signing a scholarship contract in September of that same year.


Irankunda was not well known to the average A-League Men follower at this stage until he made his professional debut in January 2022 against rivals Melbourne Victory. However, his name would start gaining real traction when he scored his first league goal through a spectacular free-kick to win the game for Adelaide against the Newcastle Jets in only his third league appearance.


From there, Irankunda would make 35 appearances off the bench between the 2021/22 and 2022/23 seasons, with eight goals and three assists accumulated. His best form came in February and March last year when he scored four goals in five games, even attracting European attention due to his goalscoring exploits.


Therefore, naturally, rumours began surfacing, with speculation of Bayern Munich negotiations leading to more attention on the teenager in Australia and globally. It seemed all eyes were on Irankunda, Adelaide United, and Carl Veart for the 2023/24 season, and he delivered a promising start.


After the first start of his career back in Round 1, Irankunda scored his first goal of the season with a stunning free kick in Adelaide's 6–0 demolition of Melbourne City. But soon, the increasing pressure on him was noticeable through several moments where Irankunda was either frustrated or visibly upset.


It was particularly evident during the following match against Melbourne Victory, where Irankunda faced constant torment by Victory's fans and players. Throughout the game, he showed frustration towards referee Alex King and was eventually sent off for dissent after a foul. Irankunda had previously been noted for incidents like these, but they never caught the same attention as this one.

The newfound expectations of Irankunda's output and professionalism on and off the pitch have tightened Veart's reliance on him despite only being 17. He was bound and expected to do more for his side, especially following the confirmation of his transfer to Bayern. Veart has repeatedly stated that Irankunda is working on his maturity and other mental aspects to ensure he remains influential for his team.


However, such comments could have been kept private behind closed doors; the seemingly frequent mention of Irankunda in every Adelaide United press conference creates unnecessary tension for the winger during matches. Veart’s constant exposure of the youngster to the media also makes him a target.

In his most recent press conference, he stated that Irankunda is not meeting the club's performance expectations.


“If I'm being brutally honest, Nestor hasn't been anywhere near his level this year that we expected from him,” Veart said following the draw against Perth.


“Whether it was the pressure starting to take its toll on him, he just has to start enjoying his football. I just don't see enough happiness.


“It's a difficult position that he is in because everyone expects big things from him so it's very important we are very careful of how much we expect from him.”

 

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It is difficult to understand the mental challenges Irankunda faces during matches. But he has displayed his creativity and improved maturity in his recent outings. He has still accumulated three assists and one goal following that initial Round 2 display against City. It should also be noted that it is his first season as a starter against experienced players, most of whom have built up years of conditioning to be fit enough to play the full 90 minutes each week.


Adelaide and Veart's management of Irankunda from a media standpoint could have been better, and right now, the focus should be on keeping the headlines and any microphones away from him to lift the pressure he is facing. The slow approach in easing Irankunda into the starting line-up was effective. However, increasing expectations of him in the public eye can influence the confidence of the United winger, eventually causing more frequent outbursts of frustration, which we recently have seen less of.

The frequent criticism from the media has not helped build his confidence or maturity. Pundits and reporters seem quick to point out the mistakes and errors of a 17-year-old in the development process of his career. Despite his age, Irankunda is improving time and time again in every match, showing the talent that everyone in Australia knows he possesses.


In the end, it all comes down to experience. Irankunda can learn and has shown he is willing to learn from experienced players, with cameras catching conversations with Hiroshi Ibusuki, Jamie Young, and even rival attacker Bruno Fornaroli, who was seen talking with Irankunda after Adelaide's last meeting with Melbourne Victory. An extra season with Adelaide United would have benefited Irankunda by allowing him to garner further experience and establish himself in the A-League Men.


The criticisms are taking a toll on Irankunda, only adding pressure, which is already mounting. It is undoubtedly in Adelaide United’s interest to protect and nurture one of Australia's most outstanding prospects of recent years before he moves to Germany in July, likely starting within Bayern's youth setup.


Many fans of the beautiful game remain excited to witness his future as a potential star for Australia and the poster boy for a new generation of talented footballers rising from the A-League Men. But with too much scrutiny, pressure, and criticism, that future could be quickly taken away from this young talent.


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