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Onyinye Wilfred Ndidi: The Quest For Excellence

Watching Onyinye Wilfred Ndidi boss the midfield, whether for the Super Eagles of Nigeria or Leicester City Football Club, one would notice the ferocious tenacity with which he tackles—and easily recovers the ball—mixed with such effortless elegance as he glides across the pitch like a ballet dancer.

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For someone who started his career as a central defender, it is truly remarkable how much Ndidi has revolutionised his game while excelling in this new position. Of a truth though, it was not even intended to be like this had the wishes of his father, Sunday Ndidi come true.

Born on December 16, 1996, Ndidi knew he always had a love for the game. But football was not something he considered to dedicate his professional aspirations to.

Not helped by the stereotypical assumptions by some African parents that true professionalism lied in education instead of recreational sports, Sunday Ndidi objected to his son taking up football long term.

“My parents saw me playing football but didn’t really think I would take it seriously. But when it got serious, my dad stopped me at some point and told me not to go,” Ndidi recalls. “But I have always enjoyed football. So, I tried to sneak out. My mom would always cover up for me.”

Ndidi Wilfred. Photo: Idris Dawodu for Guardian Life

Ndidi’s quest for excellence would eventually set him on his path to earning a spot on the 25-man roster for Nathaniel Boys Academy—a mid-level football academy in Lagos.

In 2014, there was an open trial in Lagos while playing for “Nath Boys” as he warmly calls the football academy. With thousands of both local and foreign talents hoping to impress enough to be selected to ply their trades in Europe, their chances were slim to none.

Ndidi’s elegance on the ball, incredible ability to regain possession, and keen awareness to track opponents immediately set him apart. He was the only player selected.

“It was not easy. It was tough,” Ndidi says about his time playing in the Lagos junior league and competing in the open trial. “During the open trials, we had close to 5000 players, and I was the only one that was picked in that open trial. And that actually led me to where I am today.”

On his 18th birthday, Ndidi signed for Belgian side, Koninklijk Racing Club Genk. While he took a minute to adapt to the new league—and a new position in the heart of midfield—even being substituted within 30 minutes during his first appearance as a defensive midfielder against derby rivals, K.A.A. Gent, Ndidi’s deeper resolution to excel nudged him on.

“I started my career as a central defender during my days in Nath Boys. Even in the U-17, U-20, national team…I was a defender,” Ndidi says.

“Until I got to Genk. I was actually signed as a central defender by Genk until a new coach, Peter Maes came in and asked me if I ever played as a Number 6 in the midfield. I said, ‘No. I have never played there’ and he replied, ‘I’ll like to try you there.’”

Ndidi persevered and eventually excelled. He made 83 appearances for KRC Genk, managing 7 goals. One of those goals was a classic goal-of-the-season against Club Brugge in 2016.

He had become a global sensation. It was only a matter of time before the rest of the world swooped in on this budding superstar.

It was expected, considering his unique combination of the agility of a combative, hard tackler and an admirable footballing elegance, quite reminiscent of compatriot John Mikel Obi—a player he has repeatedly hailed as his football idol.

“Growing up, I played as a central defender. But I have always admired Mikel Obi. You know, growing up, he was big. I always looked up to him. I even wore the number 12 shirt, just like his jersey number at Chelsea. My teammates started keeping the number 12 shirt for me. That’s how much I admired him and his style of play.”

Following the departure of N’Golo Kanté to Chelsea in the summer of 2016 post-Leicester City’s miraculous premier league triumph in the 2015/2016 season, it was imperative for the club to rebuild.

On January 3, 2017, Ndidi signed a 6-year $10.01 million contract with Leicester City as Kanté’s direct replacement for a £17 million transfer fee.

Ndidi adapted quickly to the physical, fast-paced English premier league. Such was his imperious form for his new team that just four months after arriving at Leicester City, he was awarded the club’s Young Player of the Year.
He had become a fan favourite.

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In his first full season, he made 138 tackles—the most in England. Barely eighteen months after he landed at Leicester City, he was signed to a lucrative 6-year contract tying him down at the King Power Stadium until June 2024. He also retained the club’s Young Player of the Year award.

In the 2018/2019 season, Ndidi repeated the feat with 143 tackles. The Nigerian midfield maestro would make it a famous “three peat” in the 2019/2020 with 128 tackles. With 409 tackles in those three seasons, the 24-years-old ranked as the best marksman across Europe’s top 5 leagues.

He also became the first player to top the English Premier League tackle charts for three consecutive seasons.

To date, in just 146 premier league appearances for Leicester City per premierleague.com, Ndidi has already made a whopping 573 tackles with a 62 percent tackle success; had 310 interceptions; made 343 clearances; recovered the ball 1,235 times, and won 1,235 duels.

Ndidi Wilfred. Photo: Idris Dawodu for Guardian Life

Despite making 36 appearances in all competitions in the just concluded season due to niggling injuries, he won the English FA Cup—his club’s first-ever in 52 years and after 137 years of existence.

It was only the destiny of excellence calling that Leicester City defeated soon-to-be-crowned European champions, Chelsea and N’Golo Kanté—the man Ndidi was signed to replace.

“I have always loved playing football. Now, it is a job, you have to actually do your job. And [with] the team just trying to get the points,” Ndidi observes when asked how he manages to play consistently at such a world-class level. “I get motivated by my family, my friends, my wife, you know everybody around me giving me the encouragement and trying to make me believe in myself. I get motivated by people around me.”

Having represented Nigeria at both U-17 and U-20 levels, Ndidi made his international debut at the age of just 18 years, 9 months and 22 days against DR Congo in 2015 when he replaced his idol, John Obi Mikel. Since then, he has earned 40 caps for the Super Eagles of Nigeria.

He has also gone on to represent Nigeria at the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia and won the bronze medal at the 2019 CAF African Cup of Nations in Egypt while cementing his spot in the first team.

But something else was missing.

In May 2019, Ndidi got married to Chidinma Udeala in the metropolitan city of Abuja. It was a union that had been marked from the beginning by the unique happenstance of life and fortune.

“I met her through a friend. She was actually walking with a friend, and I was going for a training,” Ndidi chronicles how he met his beautiful, soft-spoken wife, Dinma. “And everything connected at once.”

Ndidi’s marriage was another step toward the essential responsibility for fatherhood; one which would ultimately shape his already keen dedication to professionalism. He claims the institution of marriage and the added blessing of his 1-year-old daughter, Jaina has been crucial as he strives to become even better as a father and a footballer.

“Having a family has made me want to work even harder on and off the pitch” Ndidi says. “I’ve learnt how important sleep is and I don’t joke with my rest time anymore.”

Ndidi Wilfred. Photo: Idris Dawodu for Guardian Life

Conscious of the transient nature of a footballing career as well as the need to professionally gain financial literacy, Ndidi enrolled at De Montfort University in 2019 to study Business Management and Tourism.

It was a calculated move to probe the worlds of finance, tourism, and business management, as well as his intellectual curiosity to personally develop an entirely different professional pedigree.

Another exhibition of his definitive passion to attain excellence.
Extensive reports have shown how professional athletes quickly end up in financial ruins once they retire. For instance, a 2009 report by Sports Illustrated found that 60 percent of NBA players go broke within five years of retirement while a massive 78 percent of NFL players “have gone bankrupt or are under financial stress” just within two years post-retirement.

“We as footballers, I’d say we have a timeframe of how long you can play at the top. If you are lucky, you can play for 15 years. So, what happens after the career?” Ndidi rhetorically asks. “It’s better to educate myself for the future.”

“The whole idea came from my wife. She actually pushed me to. She kept pushing me to enrol in school. My dad was also calling for me to go to school,” Ndidi says. “But I got the pressure more from my wife.”

His wife, Chidinma—a master’s degree holder in Tourism, International Crime and Global Security from Coventry University—also lends ample time to aiding Ndidi navigate through the rigours of school, even as they also combine his football career with raising Jaina.

Ndidi Wilfed. Photo: Idris Dawodu for Guardian Life

Top European clubs like Manchester United, Barcelona, Manchester City, Real Madrid, and Paris St. Germaine continue to be reportedly linked with the tough-tackling Nigerian midfield juggernaut, even though he feels completely at home in Leicester.

His coach, Brendan Rodgers called him “irreplaceable” in February this year. With Ndidi’s current contract set to expire in June 2024 and his estimated transfer value of €60 million widely considered a bargain, it is only a matter of time before he is flying Nigeria’s green-white flag even higher.

Despite the blessings of a beautiful, young family; an enviable footballing career with realistic projections of grand personal and collective rewards; and a prospective degree qualification, the superstar who loves PlayStation, listening to audiobooks and relaxing at home says he is not planning to slow down either.

“For me, I want to work harder and win more trophies with my club and national team,” Ndidi explains his hopes for the future. “The personal recognitions come when the team is doing well.

So, for me, I just want to win with the team and the individual accolades will come. I am a team player, and I just want to win.”

Ndidi has the roadmap of his quest for excellence already figured out.

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Styling: Gnationofficial

Location: Johnwood Hotel, Abuja

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