It is not difficult to identify Odion Ighalo’s inspiration for his long and unlikely route to the top of football’s summit.
He thanks God in just about every answer he gives in his thoughtful and polite way, and his regular attendance at church and unabashed Christianity marks him out as somewhat different to the stereotype of a modern-day Premier League footballer.
The 26-year-old Nigerian striker has a lot to be thankful for, and not just in terms of the top-of-the-range cars he now drives or the designer clothes that come with a Premier League pay packet, earned after helping Watford gain promotion to the big time last summer.
He has scored more goals in 2015 than any other player in the English leagues.
Rather, Ighalo feels that he has been blessed by having good fortune and the love of friends and family, who have always felt close to him even when he was a long way from home, a young man encountering snow for the first time in the fjords of Norway having been plucked from the heat and dryness of Africa.
Ighalo was a teenager growing up in Lagos when his talent for putting a ball past a goalkeeper was spotted by a talent scout who recommended him to Norwegian club Lyn Oslo.
That was the beginning of a long and winding road that has taken him to his present position, where he has scored more goals in 2015 than any other player in the English leagues – indeed he was the top scorer in Europe this year until recently.
‘Going to a country where you don’t know anyone, where it can be minus twenty five degrees, with ten metres of snow and all, it’s not easy.’
But it has not all been plain sailing, as he says himself: ‘I’m happy to be where I am today because the journey was difficult, but I thank God for what he has done in my life. I’m living my dream, I’m happy playing in the Premier League and doing well, I’m really happy. It was not easy in the beginning but the work and suffering I’ve gone through has paid off, so I’m grateful to God.’
It all began in Lagos in 2007, ‘Scouts always came to Nigeria to watch players and one invited me for trials in Norway. I did well so the coach wanted me. But it was difficult. I was 18 and had been living with my parents, brothers and sisters. My friends and I grew up together playing street football in bare feet, so leaving them all behind and going to a country where you don’t know anyone, where it can be minus twenty five degrees, with ten metres of snow and all, it’s not easy.
‘We had the likes of Di Natale, Fabio Quagliarella and Alexis Sanchez, all competing for the same striking role, so you know it was difficult for me to play many games.’
‘But I learned a lot there. They say that if you don’t go through difficulties in life, you don’t appreciate life, so that’s why I appreciate everything I have today and appreciate God for guiding me through all that.’
Within a year he had moved on from Norway Udinese in Italy, where the weather was warmer but the challenge even greater. ‘Again it was not easy for me because leaving Norway for Italy meant moving to another country, another culture, another language.
‘Back then, Serie A was one of the toughest and strongest leagues and there was so much competition in the team; we had the likes of Di Natale, Fabio Quagliarella and Alexis Sanchez, all competing for the same striking role, so you know it was difficult for me to play many games.
‘I played some games but not much there so when I had the opportunity to go to Spain on loan I went there for one season then came back to another team, Cesena, in the Italian league and played half a season, then went back to Spain again. I played almost three and half maybe four years there so three seasons in La Liga and one half seasons in the second division before I joined Watford last season.’
Ighalo’s goals helped Watford back into the Premier League, and he says: ‘I’m happy I came here and helped the team win promotion. We’re in the Premier League now and we’re still fighting, I know it’s not going to be easy but we’re working hard, pushing hard, so we’re ready to give any team a challenge.’
He had offers to move on this summer, including a lucrative one in China, but says there is more to his life than a big contract. ‘I had four or five offers, but the China one was crazy, you know, offering that kind of money is something that is very tempting.
‘For three days I could not sleep because I was thinking about it, so many things coming into my head, so many people saying things about it.
‘But I just keep calm and pray and then make my own decision, because I know that anything that happens, I know I took the decision. It’s my dream to play in England. I’ve played in the Italian league, the Spanish league; I want to be in the Premier League because it’s one of the best. I was watching it when I was back in Nigeria and I wanted to be a part of it, so I don’t want to jump away because of money then leave my dream.
‘My family are number one for me. Every month I send money back home to them, and I also send donations to the less privileged because I come from poverty.’
‘Sometimes money is not everything. At my age, going to China would not be good for my career because I want to progress as a player, I’m building my career, I’m working out every day, so it’s step by step.
‘I want to keep enjoying myself here, my family’s watching me back in Nigeria every weekend, it’s an honour for me, so I want to help this team to actually work for what we’re working out for, and by God’s grace, look what the future holds for me.’
And he gives plenty back to his family and others in Africa too. ‘My family are number one for me. Every month I send money back home to them, and I also send donations to the less privileged because I come from poverty.
‘I send money to kids, to schools, and I’m taking care of around 45 widows, women who have no husbands, and I’m trying to start a charity organisation to give something back. I know what it is like to have nothing.
‘When you play for your national team you want to play in the World Cup. It is my dream.’
‘The last time I went back my family were so happy, my parents, my mum, who I adore because after God, in my life, comes my mother. He has suffered for me; he makes sure he did everything possible so I could be who I am today. I’m happy, I thank God they are all happy, they’re happy every week when I’m doing work because my name is always on the newspaper in Nigeria so they always call me and tell me about that. They pray for me to keep on doing well so I’m very happy because this is a good thing for me and my family.’
He has started to play for the full Nigeria side, having played in the youth ranks, and his next ambition is to play in the World Cup. ‘Yes, of course, when you play for your national team you want to play in the World Cup. It is my dream. I have played the under 21 World Cup with the junior team but I want to play the senior World Cup, so I know that with hard work and dedication it’s going to come to pass. I’m learning every day, working hard every day, trying to correct every mistake I’ve done, and we’ll see what God has for me in the future.’