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Alex Iwobi: Gunning For Glory

Alex Iwobi. Photo Priye Finine

For Alex Iwobi, clearly family is everything. Woven intricately across his life, dreams and passion, dotted around his peaks and nadirs, the Nigerian footballer basks in the love and support he’s had from his family.

It is reinforced in our interview, as most of his answers to the questions eventually veer off into one of his cherished moments with his family. His tone when he gets to family talk is soft and reverent except when he questions his Dad’s opinion of being a better player than he is. Chuka Iwobi prides himself as a more talented player but Alex smugly dismisses the opinion over a lack of empirical data.

What he doesn’t disregard is his father’s influence on his career both on the field and away from it. His fondest memories of playing football at a tender age is going to the park with his dad.

“I’d be watching him and he’d kick the ball on the side of me. Even though he says he was better than me at football, I’ve got no evidence of that,” he says with a grin.

“I’ve always looked up to him not just on the pitch and he has helped me so much to be where I am today,” Iwobi adds in a more pensive tone.

Photo: Priye Finine

Iwobi’s steady rise through the ranks at Premier League club, Arsenal and his growing status as Nigeria’s superstar and the Super Eagles pre-eminent player rests on a familial support system that has helped encourage him to dream and to stay the course while chasing the dream.

From having kickabouts with his father at parks, the 23-year-old is now playing at Africa’s biggest tournament with Nigeria and was close to winning his first European silverware.

“When I was young, I used to play football for fun. I didn’t know I was going to come this far. To get this far is a big achievement. I never once thought when I was 9, I was going to end up playing for Nigeria or Arsenal. As I grew older, I had that dream that maybe I can achieve it. And that is where I am.”

It could have all crashed with a jerk and a loud bang. Iwobi would have been among the hundreds of former academy footballers with snuffed out dreams and passion, settling into desk jobs, enthusiastic about football but not quite relishing it.

He started training with Arsenal from the age of six but was close to being released when he was 14. He wasn’t big enough, strong enough, athletic enough, imposing enough. The question marks on his ability were loud in his head. He had doubts. Doubts that morphed into fears. The lofty things he dreamed of were falling out of his grasp, fading fast out of his sight.

He had been told he wouldn’t be successful as a player. He would struggle with those words mentally until he was 16.

“When I was 14, I got told that I wasn’t good enough to play for Arsenal. Mentally, that was the hardest thing especially when I had to balance it with my school work.”

Thankfully, his close-knit family helped him in the struggle until he believed in his capabilities again. He had extra sessions with his dad, his mum made him do kick-ups in the living room and his sister even tried to play football.

The jarring words would turn out to be a source of motivation. “I wanted to prove to my doubters that I was good and I [have been] able to achieve that.”

He could have left Arsenal again at 16, when he was told he could leave if he had offers from elsewhere but he stuck to his guns and waited at his dream club.

Iwobi was handed a long-term contract at 19, days before he made his first team debut in the League Cup against Sheffield Wednesday. He won the hearts of many fans as his Premier League debut followed.

For many that doubted, it, perhaps, wasn’t a slight, neither was it disingenuous. Iwobi wasn’t just the footballer that caught the eye at first glance. His profound talent needed more time to blossom and a well-trained eye to appreciate.

“When you first look at him there is nothing special there. He is not the kind of player who impresses you at first,” former Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger said.

“When you look a bit deeper, Alex is always quick connecting with other players, at a very high level and a very high pace. Football is perception, decision-making, and acting.

“The perception he has of the game especially struck me, and the speed of his decision-making. He has something that is very important at the top level: speed and an understanding of the game.”

Iwobi understands how gruelling the sport could be to the body and mind; the pressure to keep producing at a high level and how it could easily become a joyless affair.

When he prepares for a game, he tries to relax and just ease his mind. “I don’t like to feel under pressure. I always see it [football] as fun so when I get on the pitch, I try to enjoy myself as much as I can… I am very positive when I have the ball.

“I would describe myself as free. I like to express myself especially on the pitch with the ball.”

 

Grab a copy of June 24 issue of The Guardian Life Magazine, the entertainment and lifestyle supplement of The Guardian Nigeria to read full cover story.

You can also watch The Guardian Life’s “15 Questions With Alex Iwobi” below:

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