Gift Orban: The story behind a 205-second hat-trick and a superstar unearthed

    Gift Orban

    “One year ago, he was playing for a club that you can’t even find on Google. Now, it’s just going crazy.”

    Those are the words of Samuel Cardenas, head of scouting at Gent, the club benefiting from the blistering rise of Gift Emmanuel Orban.

    The Nigerian striker is just 20 years old and has only 11 top-flight league games under his belt. Yet, having scored the winner at Anderlecht, two at Westerlo and Seraing, three in Istanbul and four in Flanders, it’s a name that is starting to spread.

    And with “40 to 50” scouts gathering to watch Gent’s win over Eupen before the international break, Orban is someone you’ll be hearing a lot more about.

    On Thursday, Orban will face West Ham in the quarter-finals of the Europa Conference League — following his historic hat-trick in the previous round against Istanbul Basaksehir, something he achieved in the space of three and a half minutes.

    It’s a remarkable rise for a forward who was playing for Stabaek in Norway’s second tier last year before joining Gent in January. The Athletic has spoken to those closest to the €3.3million (£2.9m; $3.6m) deal to get an insight into the making of a potential superstar.

    Growing up in Togo and Nigeria, Orban’s talent was first spotted at a tournament in the latter country, coordinated by the agent Emefie Atta Aneke. The tournament is spread across six days, with each player given the opportunity to impress scouts from eight European clubs. Orban was withdrawn after two.

    “There was no point in keeping him there for longer,” says Aneke, who also took players such as Odion Ighalo and David Datro Fofana to Scandinavia to start their professional careers. “He scored three goals in one of the games — but it wasn’t just that he scored, it was how. His confidence, the way he struck the ball; I instantly knew that this was a player that would go far.”

    Like most forward leaps, however, Orban’s involved glorious highs and crushing lows in equal measure. After an initial trial with Stabaek, the youngster impressed but could not fully convince. Returning home to Nigeria, it was only months down the line that Aneke received another call from the club, who were unable to find a suitable striker for the first team. They wanted to see how Orban would develop in their second team.

    “Without those second thoughts,” recalls Aneke, “there’s a huge chance that Orban wouldn’t be in European football today.”

    From there, it’s been an unfaltering commitment that has taken the talented teenager to where he is right now — and there is an insatiable desire to progress further.

    “He really is a top professional, and he’s really focussed,” says Cardenas. “He’s only been in Europe for 12 months but he eats well, he sleeps well, he knows what to do. He has his goals and he’s staying on the ground. I’ve been really impressed by it.

    “We knew that he was really competitive, but now, in person, seeing him there every day, it’s even better than expected. He’s a guy who wants to win everything. He gets pissed (off) when he doesn’t win, which is good.”

    Following three goals in his first two starts in Norway against semi-professional opposition in the cup, Orban was given his chance in the first team just three days later. He registered two assists on his top-flight debut, then scored nine in six to fire him to the top of the goalscoring charts.

    From back-post headers to surging breakaways, a 5ft 8in (173cm) frame allows Orban to barge into spaces and slink through challenges. Finishes from the scrappy to the spectacular helped launch the Stabaek promotion charge.

    In his goal against runaway league leaders Brann which encapsulates both his persistence and an instinctive ability to wriggle around outstretched legs, Orban bundles through Felix Horn Myhre’s attempted tackle, thrown seemingly off balance…

    Before quickly regaining control and using the outside of his boot to punch through the gap between his two markers.

    With both defenders on the floor, Orban then coolly rounds the goalkeeper and rolls the ball into an empty net.

    Surprisingly capable in the air, 25.3 per cent of the 20-year-old’s efforts on goal in Norway were using his head, scoring five times from 16 attempts. His final goal for the club — a promotion-clincher at Sandnes Ulf — provides a glimpse not only of his alert box movement, darting into space behind a ball-watching defensive line…

    But also his clinical edge, generating all the power himself from a lofted cross to loop the ball into the far corner.

    His varied finishing certainly didn’t escape the attention of Gent scout Cardenas, who was drawn towards Orban’s “special” appreciation of space.

    “Outside of the box, tap-ins, left foot, right foot, one-touch, two-touch, headers, goals from a corner, goals after a counter… he can do everything with both feet, he can combine, assist, cross and shoot,” Cardenas told The Athletic.

    “In terms of box movement, he had never been coached in it, and it’s always perfect,” the scout said. “Now, he’s doing everything on feeling, and it’s really good. You need to think: if he had been coached, how good might he have been when he arrived?”

    Not just in the lower leagues, either. Even during his short stint at Gent, there are examples of a flourishing positional awareness.

    Here, in the first leg of the UEFA Conference League tie with Istanbul Basaksehir, Orban takes up the space between the two centre-backs as the ball breaks out wide, keeping defender Leo Duarte looking over his shoulder to track his location.

    As soon as the No 5 looks away, Orban puts on the brakes, and drops deep for the cut-back, receiving the ball before firing a left-footed drive just wide — a clear example of the “very good timing” that Cardenas speaks about so glowingly.

    Orban shone in the first leg but made history in the second. His hat-trick in three minutes and 20 seconds is the fastest-ever hat-trick in UEFA club competition history and it helped Gent rip through Basaksehir to reach their first European quarter-final in 31 years.

    In that incredible burst, he produced four shots — two with his right, and two with his left — and laid off two passes. And, remarkably, excluding time taken with celebrations, there were just 67 seconds between the ball leaving his left boot for the first, and that same foot for the third.

    Despite everything, it was his second goal that stole the show. Following a neat flick to set team-mate Hyunseok Hong away…

    Orban latches on to a loose ball, before driving into the space and unleashing a powerful drive into the top corner.

    It’s Orban’s third strike from outside the box for his new club.

    Gent have a proud history of developing goalscoring talent, including Jonathan David and Roman Yaremchuk before their big-money moves to Lille and Benfica respectively. The club’s comprehensive, global scouting network looks to have paid dividends once again.

    However, Gent have just a handful of scouts — with only Cardenas himself able to dedicate himself to player recruitment at all times. For him, it’s all about finding the balance between personal touches and efficiency.

    “I take it from the start,” he says, “from the data to video to live scouting.

    “We keep a lot of references — this is a very important part of the process for me. The character checks: we don’t get two or three, we get 10. Then we meet the player, speak to him, the coach has a call with him also to get a feeling.

    “I go with the player to the president, to the CEO, the coach. I pick him up from the airport, have dinner with him on his first night, all of these things. It’s satisfying, but it’s also better than having 1,000 channels to go through because, in this market, it’s about being fast.

    “That’s been our strength with recent transfers: that we were first. We took Kamil Piatkowski and Jordan Torunarigha on loan due to this, and with Gift, the fact that we were there so early made all the difference.”

    “Sometimes, less is more. We are a small group, the lines are direct and this is a big advantage.”

    Throughout a professional scouting career spanning eight years, Orban is certainly the magnum opus of Cardenas’ early work, who himself is only 27.

    Appointed the head of Gent’s recruitment strategy in November 2021, he told The Athletic that he was under no illusions and the magnitude of his recommendation.

    “I put my hand in the fire for him,” said Cardenas. It was a huge risk, not just professionally but personally.

    “I pushed for him a lot, for three months. But the only way that you can do deals like this is to be brave and to be trusted.”

    Gent’s CEO Michel Louwagie has also been quick to applaud Cardenas’ conviction.

    “All credit to the scouting,” he said. “Samuel pushed hard for this transfer, and rightly so. Gift had quite a price tag, but those are the amounts you pay for a talented striker these days.”

    It seems as if they’ve found just that.

    Gent are fourth in the Belgian Pro League having won four and drawn one of their last five league games, and face West Ham in the Conference League quarter-finals this evening (Thursday).

    Cardenas is relishing the challenge of helping Gent try to punch above their weight both at home and in Europe.

    “We don’t have the most money,” Cardenas says. “In Belgium, we are a top club and have a good budget, but when we look at young players outside of Belgium, there will always be a richer club knocking at the door.”

    “We have to look in markets where others don’t look — undervalued markets. As long as the other clubs aren’t looking in these kinds of leagues, it’s good for us, and that was the case with Orban.

    “Gent rose to the top of the Belgian scene with a strategy like this, and now we are back on it with a clear vision.”

    But what led Cardenas to the second division of Norway? Video, he says, and lots of it.

    “I watched him on video, and then he popped up in the data soon after. I have a good network in Norway, so I got onto it quite quickly with him. We saw him for the first time in August and we were concrete to sign him in October.”

    By his own admission, the only way that Cardenas, and indeed Gent, were able to unearth a player of such quality was down to the division.

    For now, then, all Orban can do is keep scoring.

    “He has a crazy winning mentality,” says his agent, Aneke. “Every training session, every shot, he needs to win; it means so much to him.”

    “I called him after he scored four (in 30 minutes) against Zulte Waregem, and he told me he’s just getting started.”

    It’s exciting, but it’s early. With that huge game against Premier League opposition to come, the young Nigerian is certainly the player to look out for.

    New clubs, new countries, new competitions — none of it really seems to faze Gift Orban. It will be fascinating to see if he can also take London by storm.

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