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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.”

Reverse stepovers and Nutmegs

The fun, positivity and free-spirit in Iwobi’s play comes yet again from family.

Iwobi picked up a few tricks from Okocha, who is regarded as one of Nigeria’s greatest footballers. Okocha was famous for his dainty footwork, catalogue of feints and his signature move, the reverse step-over that left many defenders sprawling.

Iwobi is also gaining notoriety for a particular bit of skill, the nutmeg, where he casually puts the ball between an opponent’s legs to dribble past him. Iwobi has been nicknamed the Nutmeg Prince.

“I don’t intentionally go out to get nutmegs. It just happens. I’d say it’s all instincts. I have been titled that way so I have to try and keep it going,” he says.

Iwobi’s burning desire is to win the AFCON as his uncle Jay Jay.

The feat, if he achieves it, will definitely heighten comparison between him and his uncle. He, however, says he is his own man with the possibility of achieving more success than Okocha.

“I am at my own pace, my own race. If I end up being better than him, that would be great but he is a legend. It is hard shoes to fill but I’d do that on my own,” he says with a smile on his face.

AFCON Hopes

Iwobi played for England where he and his English teammates won the Victory Shield of 2011 but by 2015, Iwobi had made his preferred country choice. In 2015, he made his Super Eagles senior debut in Belgium in 2015. A first time player at Africa’s biggest football competition, Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON), he opines that the opportunities presented are a great joy.

“I’d like to say thank you to England for giving me the chance to play for them but I have no regrets. I feel more at home when I play for Nigeria.”

“To represent my country is also an honour and to play at the biggest competition is a privilege and I can’t wait to go.”

The soft-spoken player remains humble despite being the poster boy for the Super Eagles. To him, it is a form of accountability. Chuckling, he opines that “It’s nice to be recognised and to be held for what you do.

“I’d say that there are a lot of stars in the team and I see it as one big star

As of June 2019, Iwobi’s Wikipedia page is the most viewed of all current Nigerian players slated for the AFCON football competition, closely followed by captain John Obi Mikel.

After Nigeria missed the last two Africa Cup Of Nations, the Super Eagles hope to make a mark on their return, and perhaps win the tournament. Iwobi is certain that the team’s impact will be tremendous. “The togetherness is great. We are bonding well, we are one big family that gets on together.”

The Super Eagles are grouped alongside Guinea and two debutants, Burundi and Madagascar. With a bluff, it seems like a pretty straight-forward qualifying stage for Nigeria but not to Iwobi.

“On paper, yes but on the pitch, it is not going to be easy, it’s going to be a battle. Everyone is going to try and do their best. Hopefully, we are going to do our best.

“People would say we are the favourites but any team, there could be a surprise, you never know. As long as we apply ourselves, I am sure we would do well.”

Iwobi believes the expectation of the fans who look up to them and support them has helped the mentality of the Super Eagles in the AFCON.

“They know how good we are and what we are capable of winning. They expect a lot so we have to go with the mindset that we have to work for it.”

“We are going to try our best to win the AFCON trophy.”

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