A new footballing dawn is breaking in Nigeria. After failing to qualify for the 2015 and 2017 African Cup of Nations, the team was overhauled by new manager Gernot Rohr, with many of the young players who played a key part in winning the bronze medal at the Rio Olympics brought in to energise an ageing side. It has had impressive results. Nigeria were the first African nation to secure a spot at this summer’s World Cup after comfortably topping a qualifying group that also contained Cameroon and Algeria. They will now go to Russia with a squad that has an average age of just under 26 years old old – the youngest at the tournament.
A man who characterises this revival is 24-year-old William Troost-Ekong, who made his debut for the Super Eagles in 2015, but became a permanent fixture in the side following his inclusion in the Olympic squad. He knows more than anyone how vital qualification for the World Cup was. He told me: “With a lot of young players coming in, including myself, it was really important to get a World Cup spot, especially for the Nigerian fans. The way we qualified from a very tough group as well showed that we’re still one of the best teams in Africa.”
Whilst Nigeria can use the youthfulness of their squad to their advantage, Troost-Ekong was keen to stress that it will be the experienced heads that drive the team forward, and that expectation should not be placed on the rising stars of this team such as Alex Iwobi (22) and Kelechi Iheanacho (21).
“Alex and Kelechi are very important for our team,” he said. “But we can’t forget that they’re young. We’ve got other players as well who play in the Premier League regularly like Victor Moses and Wilfried Ndidi, whilst Jon Obi Mikel has played at Chelsea in the past and Odion Ighalo at Watford. All these guys now want to prove themselves on the international stage.”
The area of Nigeria’s team that has probably caused the most debate is in goal, where again it has been questioned whether youth is the right option to take. The Super Eagles are likely to start with Deportivo La Coruña’s Francis Uzoho, the youngest member of the squad at 19 years old. He has been thrust inbetween the sticks following the sad news that Carl Ikeme has been diagnosed with leukaemia. Uzoho appears to have been chosen ahead of Daniel Akpeyi and Ikechukwu Ezenwa, who are 31 and 29 respectively but have never played club football outside of Africa.
“He’s an amazing talent,” Troost-Ekong said of Uzoho. “But obviously going to the World Cup as a 19 year old goalkeeper you lack that bit of experience that you might need in a major tournament. But this is a huge opportunity for him and it will give him that experience for the future. Everyone is doing their best to help him settle into the team. He’s played in our friendlies against England, Poland and Argentina so he’s tasted the big stage. I feel confident in what he can do, as well as the goalkeepers on the bench.”
As for Troost-Ekong himself, the defender has had quite the footballing journey already despite his age. He played youth football at Tottenham alongside Harry Kane, before starting his senior career with Groningen and Dordrecht in the Netherlands. He has since played in Belgium with Gent and in Norway with Haugesund, before moving to Turkey to sign for Bursaspor last summer.
“The move was with the World Cup in mind,” he explains. I had been at Gent, which is a great club, but I wasn’t playing as regular football as I would have liked, simply because we had a massive squad.
“For my own development it seemed a logical step to move to what is probably a bigger club in Bursaspor, a stronger league and with more of an opportunity to be a starting player. Last season was really good for me, I learnt so much and played a lot of football, which gave me the best chance of being in the World Cup squad.”
At international level, Ekong qualifies for the Netherlands through his mother and Nigeria through his father, and played for the Oranje Under-19 and Under-20 sides before switching allegiances. Ahead of the World Cup, he has 21 caps for the West African country, and scored his first international goal two weeks ago against Congo. The defender also captained the side against Poland earlier this year.
“I really enjoyed playing for the Dutch youth teams, but as soon as I got the chance to play for Nigeria it was a no brainer,” he said. “It’s certainly been the best decision of my career so far and it’s really helped me develop. It has been an amazing experience to play international football, especially at the Olympics and now the World Cup coming up as well. These are the moments you play football for.”
With Nigeria, Ekong has developed an excellent partnership at the centre of defence with Leon Balgoun, who is also half-Nigerian and half-European – he has a German mother. As a result, the pair have earned the nickname the Oyibo (a Nigerian term for being light-skinned or of mixed race) Wall and earned plenty of plaudits, with Balogun securing a move to the Premier League with Brighton this summer.
Speaking about Balogun, Ekong said: “Leon is a fantastic player. He’s six years older than me so I see him as a big brother. He has great experience of playing in the Bundesliga and having now signed for Brighton he’s definitely a player that is making great steps and showing himself on an international platform. He was my partner throughout qualification, and it worked really well. It’s great to play alongside someone that gives you confidence – we’re there to cover each other.”
Perhaps what has been catching the attention more than Nigeria’s squad though is their stylish new kit, which received three million orders before it had even gone on sale. Troost-Ekong has been delighted with the reaction: “As a player it’s good to put a kit on that makes you feel confident, and this one is obviously getting great reviews and sold out so quickly. It’s created a real hype about our team, which works in our favour. The only trouble now is that so many friends and family are keen to get our kits after the tournament!”
Confidence will indeed be key at the tournament for Nigeria, especially as they have been drawn in a difficult-looking group alongside Argentina, Iceland and Croatia.
“There are three very different teams in our group,” Troost-Ekong said. “Croatia are filled with stars, they’ve got a very good, technical and strong team so it’ll be a challenge especially seeing as it’s our first game – everyone wants to start the tournament off well.
“Iceland on the other hand are a great collective, and showed what they can do as a group at the last Euros, especially against England.”
As for Argentina?
“Beating them in a friendly last year has given us hope for the World Cup as they are the strongest team in our group.Everyone knows Lionel Messi is unplayable when he’s at his best, so it’ll be a big test for us.
“We’ll have to hope that he has an off day and that we’re at our strongest. I see it as a fun challenge, as a footballer you dream about playing against the very best so we’ll see how it goes.
“We have pressure from our fans simply because Nigeria is such a footballing nation. Everyone wants us to do well, enlighten the country and make people proud so we do feel that pressure but that is only a good thing. It feels like a responsibility for us, and I think that’s when we thrive.
“I think if we can get out of the group that would be a big victory, and then once you get to the knockout stage it’s anyone’s game as I learnt at the Olympics. For many of us it’s our first major international tournament, so it’ll be a new experience, but seeing how qualification has gone I feel confident.”