Nigeria’s team bus arrived at the Abuja National Stadium for their usual 10.00am morning training at around 9.45am and star striker Odion Ighalo was first to alight. Hundreds of fans had come to watch their beloved Super Eagles train chanting ‘Ighalo’ ‘Ighalo’!
It was three days before the much anticipated encounter between African heavyweights Nigeria and Algeria. The tension among the players and fans was palpable because a ticket to Russia 2018 World Cup was a stake.
Since the late Rashidi Yekini left the international scene in 1999 Nigeria has had several strikers who have come in with the hope of replicating the country’s all-time highest goal scorer with little or no success at all.
Yekini has become sort of a yardstick with which every Nigerian striker will be judged.
The likes of Julius Aghahowa, Victor Agali and Obafemi Martins have all had stints as the Eagles ‘front man’ at different times in the past and now it’s Ighalo’s turn to try and live up to Yekini’s high standards.
‘Well, Yekini has become sort of a yardstick with which every Nigerian striker will be judged considering the massive success he had with the senior national team but personally I feel comparisons are sometimes not right, every individual is different from the other.
‘I always looked up to him (Yekini) growing up and he remains one of my idols.’ The Watford FC star said.
Ighalo was one of the stars of the English Premier League last season where he notched up double figures in terms of goals and a measurable number of assists as his club finished 13th on the English Premier League table for the first time in its history.
He also finished 2015 as the highest goal scorer in the English top four divisions with 21 goals, beating the likes of Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero and Arsenal’s Alexis Sanchez to the crown.
But it has been a different season for the former Udinese player this time around as he has so far failed to impress. Some are attributing to a psychological blow after the loss of a father he holds dearly.
‘Parents are special and losing them is always hard to take but death will always be part of the living world and one has to endure what has happened and move on. It’s inevitable but very painful when you lose someone so close to you.’
The money offered was huge and very tempting but at the same time I feel I have so much more to prove in England and in Europe at this time.
On speculations that he regrets not moving to the Chinese Premier League after his high profile chase by Shanghai Shenhua with the club reportedly agreeing to paying him over £200,000 weekly, Ighalo says there’s not an iota of regret in his heart. He believes he took the right decision, a decision that suits his career at this time.
‘Like I said at the time, the money offered was huge and very tempting but at the same time I feel I have so much more to prove in England and in Europe at this time but who knows maybe in the future, in football you never know what will happen tomorrow, but I feel I made the right decision.’
On his national team manager Gernot Rohr, Ighalo has nothing but praise for the German tactician which he says has brought a lot to the three-times African Cup of Nations winners.
‘He’s a very good and experienced coach as everyone can testify especially considering the fact that he’s played three games and won all. Apart from that the team’s understanding and cohesion has also improved since his arrival and I strongly believe the team will only get better.’
If you look at what Alex is doing at Arsenal, Kelechi at Manchester City, these are players that are bound to improve any team.
The 3-1 win over North African rivals Algeria in Uyo puts Nigeria in good stead for Russia 2018 as it currently has a four-point lead over the rest of the pack but Ighalo believes it will be wrong to get carried away as there’s a lot of work still to be done.
‘Yes, the win (against Algeria) was massive and adds a lot of confidence to the team but it’s also vital to remain grounded and not get carried away. There’s still a lot of work to be done but we believe we can do it for Nigerians by taking the team to Russia 2018.’
He also had lot of praises for the team’s youngsters Kelechi Iheanacho, Alex Iwobi, Musa Mohammed and Simon Moses who he believes have added hunger, desire and flair to the team.
‘If you look at what Alex is doing at Arsenal, Kelechi at Manchester City, these are players that are bound to improve any team and we are lucky to have them with us in the Super Eagles team, which is a big plus.’
Ighalo concluded by advising young African players with dreams of one day playing in some of the biggest leagues in the world not to give up, stay prayerful and also continue to give their best on the field.
‘Just keep faith and keep giving your best and it might just happen for you. We’ve all being there as young players looking up and trying to get up there, so the catch is to continue to give the best that you can.’