’TANA AIYEJINA, in this report, takes a look at the growing list of Europe-born players of Nigerian descent and their contributions to the new-look Super Eagles
Arsenal forward Alex Iwobi scored twice while debutant Brian Idowu grabbed a goal a goal as the Super Eagles hammered star-studded Argentina 4-2 in a friendly in Krasnodar, last Tuesday. Leicester City’s Kelechi Iheanacho grabbed the other goal as the Argentines, who paraded superstars Angel di Maria, Sergio Aguero, Ever Banega, Nicolas Otamendi and others, were put to the sword in Russia. But the performances of Iwobi, raised in England, Russia-born Idowu and several other players of Nigerian descent born abroad caught the eye on the night.
Unlike in the past, when all national team players could sing the national anthem, what you have in this new era of Eagles are probably just five or six players in the starting line-up who can render the Nigerian anthem. Fact is, those who can’t sing the anthem weren’t born here and perhaps never knew it before pledging their international careers to the country of their fathers.
One of the major achievements of the Amaju Pinnick-led Nigerian Football Federation is perhaps the opportunity they have given to these footballers, born or raised abroad, to feature for the Eagles.
And their impact in turning around the Eagles’ fortunes have been amazing.
Iwobi and Chelsea star Victor Moses, also born in Nigeria, raised in England and played for the English at junior levels (like Iwobi), accounted for five of the Eagles’ 12 goals as they sealed qualification for the 2018 World Cup.
Mainz centre-back Leon Balogun and William Troost-Ekong were also solid in the heart of defence, with the Eagles conceding just four goals in six qualifiers, thanks largely to the duo’s efficiency.
All over the world, a new trend has seen players born or raised overseas returning to represent their parents’ countries. For instance, of Morocco’s 11 players for their final World Cup qualifier against Ivory Coast in Abidjan, four players were born in Holland, four born in France, two in Spain, while just one was born in Morocco – and he grew up in Belgium.
Last year, Crystal Palace striker Wilfried Zaha switched allegiance to Ivory Coast after playing for England at senior level.
But is hasn’t been rosy trying to convince some of these players to pledge their futures to Nigeria. Recently, Tammy Abraham and Dominic Solanke, both born in England to Nigerian fathers, dumped the Eagles for the Three Lions.
However, history has shown that apart from Tottenham Hotspurs’ Dele Alli, recently, most players of Nigerian descent, especially those born in England, only managed fringe roles for their adopted countries.
John Fashanu, John Salako, Ugo Ehiogu and Gabby Agbonlahor are few examples of how some of these players were sidelined after just few caps for the Three Lions. The likes of Sidney Sam (Germany), Stefano Okaka (Italy), Patrick Owomoyela (Germany), Dennis Aogo (Germany) also didn’t realise their full potential playing for their European nations.
Facts show that those who chose to represent Nigeria hardly had cause to regret the action, even though financial issues some times caused problems between the players and officials. From Reuben Agboola, the ex-Southampton right-back, who won a 1992 Africa Cup of Nations bronze medal, to Osaze Odemwingie, Victor Anichebe and on to the present crop of players, there has always been something to cheer wearing the colours of Nigeria.
From Moses to the latest kid on the block, Idowu, overseas-born and raised players are gradually dictating the fortunes of the new-era Eagles, thanks largely in part to the team’s coach, Gernot Rohr, who intensified efforts to bring in these players to fortify the squad.
Below is a review of the performances of these players:
“If Victor Moses plays, Super Eagles play,” said a top football analyst.
That’s truly how Moses has risen to become one of Africa’s most outstanding footballers since switching allegiance from England to Nigeria in 2012.
The following year, the Chelsea wing-back was instrumental as the Eagles won a third African title in South Africa. Moses scored twice, was named in the tournament’s CAF XI as well as being crowned the Samsung Fair Player of the Tournament.
The 26-year-old scored thrice during the qualifiers for the Russia 2018 World Cup; two versus Algeria in Uyo and one against African champions Cameroon at the same venue, helping the Eagles to emphatic 3-1 and 4-0 wins respectively.
He represented Nigeria at the 2014 World Cup as the Eagles crashed out in the Round of 16. Despite playing regularly under Rohr and always a thorn in the flesh of the opposition, Moses has often been criticised for choosing games he plays for Nigeria, an allegation the player denied.
Born in Nigeria, Moses moved to England at age 11 after his parents were reportedly killed. He started his pro career at Crystal Palace in 2007, and played for England at U-16, U-17, U-19 and U-21 levels.
England officials still can’t believe how they lost Iwobi to Nigeria after playing for them at youth levels.
“He should be playing for England,” Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said.
However, it seems one of the best footballing decisions taken by the Gunners forward was opting for the green and white jersey ahead of the Three Lions’. But he’s had to pay the price for representing the country where he was born ahead of his adopted nation.
Last year, Arsenal blocked him from going to the Olympics with Nigeria with reports alleging that the Gunners planned dropping the skillful player from the first team if he made the trip to Rio.
But since making his senior debut for the Eagles on October 8, 2015, replacing Ahmed Musa in the 2-0 friendly defeat to DR Congo in Visé, Belgium, Iwobi hasn’t looked back churning out man-of-the-match performances in most games he has appeared for the national team, the latest being the 4-2 defeat of Argentina in Krasnodar, Russia.
Iwobi led the Eagles charge against the star-studded South Americans, grabbing a brace and leading the team to one of their biggest victories in recent years.
More importantly, Iwobi kick-started Nigeria’s qualification for the Mundial grabbing the first goal in the 2-1 win over Zambia in Ndola in their first opening qualifier. He would then come off the bench to nail the Chipolopolo with the solitary strike in the reverse fixture in Uyo to hand the Eagles their sixth World Cup ticket.
Born in Lagos before moving to England at the age of four, the talented 21-year-old forward is gradually developing into one of Nigeria’s best footballers of his generation. The blossoming forward has even gone further in trying to convince players of Nigerian descent to return home and play for the Eagles, after enjoying a memorable reception from football-crazy Nigerians.
“Everyone appreciates you in Nigeria, you’re almost like a king,” he said.
Wenger sums up the quality of Iwobi, who has four goals in 14 caps for his fatherland.
“Today he looks very happy with Nigeria. When I speak to him, he’s had very positive experiences. He brings his quality to Nigeria, he’s absolutely a creative player going forward,” the Frenchman said.
Perhaps, Iwobi, nephew of Nigerian legend, Austin Okocha, would be happy to face England in Russia and cause some problems for his adopted country, on the pitch though.
Wolves goalkeeper Carl Ikeme
When Vincent Enyeama quit international football after a spat with erstwhile coach Sunday Oliseh, Wolverhampton goalkeeper Ikeme easily stepped into the big boots left behind by the 2013 AFCON winner.
The 31-year-old, who was born in England to a Nigerian father, was first invited to the Eagles in 2007 by the then German coach Berti Vogts but Ikeme shunned the call after copping an injury. He made his international debut against Tanzania on September 5, 2015 in a 2017 dead-rubber AFCON qualifier in Dar es Salam. Ikeme was the only reason the Eagles came out of the battle unscathed in the 0-0 draw against the Taifa Stars.
He kept goal against Zambia in the opening World Cup qualifier but missed the 3-1 defeat of Algeria in Uyo due to injury,
But Nigerians were stunned on July 6 when news about the 6ft 3in-tall keeper went viral that he had been diagnosed with acute leukaemia after returning abnormal blood tests during a routine pre-season check-up.
And Rohr’s goalkeeping problems started, thus forcing the Franco-German to push for the return of Enyeama to the squad.
Born in Germany to a Nigerian father and German mother, Balogun would rather forget his Nigeria debut in a hurry.
Called up for a pre-2014 World Cup friendly against Mexico in March 2014, the 29-year-old crashed into a pitch panel just 20 minutes after being introduced by coach Stephen Keshi and was in crutches in the following months as the Eagles flew to Brazil for the Mundial.
It took the Mainz 05 centre-back another 12 months before getting the chance to represent Nigeria again in a 1-0 friendly defeat to Uganda in Uyo. But ever since, he has become a mainstay in the squad, even wearing the captain’s armband in the final World Cup qualifier against Algeria in Constantine two weeks ago.
Balogun’s strong tackling, ball interception and blocking skills have come in handy for the Eagles and his partnership and understanding with William Troost-Ekong, is perhaps one of the best in the heart of defence in recent times.
Born to a Nigerian father and a Dutch mother, Troost-Ekong played for The Netherlands up to the U-20s before a phone call from former Nigeria coach Keshi saw him opting for the Eagles.
Troost-Ekong is the only player to have featured in every minute of Nigeria’s World Cup qualifiers but perhaps he would have bid the team goodbye a long time ago if Oliseh was still in charge.
Having made his senior international debut for Nigeria in June 2015, playing 90 minutes in an AFCON qualifier against Chad in Kaduna, he was frozen out of the squad by Oliseh, who took over from Keshi, after three appearances in 2016.
But he was one of Nigeria’s stars at the Olympics playing in every minute as the U-23 team won bronze in Rio and Rohr stuck with him when he took charge of the senior national team.
The 24-year-old, a rugged hard-as-nails defender, is seen as one of Rohr’s ‘untouchables’ ahead of Russia 2018.
Amkar Perm versatile defender Idowu didn’t take part in the Eagles’ World Cup qualifiers but an unforgettable debut capped with a goal against Argentina last Tuesday has endeared the player, born in Russia to a Nigerian father, to the hearts of the country’s football faithful.
The Eagles’ new boy’s debut is indeed, a ‘story for the gods’.
Born and raised in Russia, Idowu had acted as a translator at Nigeria’s news conference ahead of the fixture in Krasnodar. The defender then proved his worth on the pitch as well, scoring just eight minutes after coming on at half-time as Nigeria completed a sensational comeback to beat their familiar opponents 4-2.
It was a magical moment for the 25-year-old, whose career seemed to be heading for the rocks a few years ago due partly to racism issues at Zenit St. Petersburg.
Some say Idowu’s arrival could mean left-back Elderson Echiejile’s exit from the Eagles. But truth is although Amkar Perm manager Gadzhi Gadzhiev likes to move Idowu around, (he has played at left-back, right-back, centre-back, on the wings and central midfield), he is a natural left-back, who covers a lot of ground because of his strength.
But despite his impressive work rate, he still needs to work on his offensive contribution. According to InStat, he averages just 1.5 crosses per game, and the precision of these leaves much to be desired, while he is also relatively weak in the air.
After his moment of magic, Idowu is eyeing playing at the World Cup on Russian soil for Nigeria. “As for why I’m not playing for Russia, I shouldn’t be asked this question. I want to go to the World Cup with Nigeria, because they believed in me,” he said.
ADO Den Haag right-back Ebuehi made his debut in the 3-0 friendly victory over Togo in June. This was after he had declined an earlier invitation in 2016.
His performance against Argentina seemed to have renewed interest in the player from the Dutch, who are planning a rebuilding process after failing to qualify for the World Cup. Ebuehi was born in The Netherlands to a Nigerian father and Dutch mother, and is thus eligible to play for both countries.
His introduction against the Argentines helped the Eagles regain balance and his forays down the right were instrumental as the Eagles scored three second half goals.
Rohr told reporters of the defender after the game, “We always know what he is capable of doing. He (Ebuehi) has been with us for some time now; we won’t keep him if we have no faith in his abilities.”
In March, Ola Aina, alongside Chuba Akpom (Arsenal) and other England-born players of Nigerian descent, met with NFF boss Pinnick on their international future.
Two months later, Aina pledged his international future to Nigeria and the Chelsea right-back, who is on loan at Hull City, is seen as one of the long-term options in the Eagles.
After his performances against Algeria and Argentina, Aina could be set for greater things with the Eagles.
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