Bridging the Gap: The Alex Iwobi Story

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Born in Lagos, raised in London, @alexiwobi is bridging the gap between two worlds. @MayowaIdowu tells his story.

I have a theory that goes like this: there’s never been a time where it’s been more fashionable to be Nigerian. The last couple of years has seen some sort of Nigerian Cultural Renaissance. Some could trace it back to when Migos came to Lagos and found out that the music resonated in parts of the world they’d never thought of. The footage of the Bad and Bougie performance hit the webs and nothing was the same. In the weeks to come, the song would rise to #1 of Billboard’s Hot 100. Wizkid buoyed by the success of his collaborations with Drake was able to sell out London’s Royal Albert Hall. French President, Emmanuel Macron was recently in Lagos and made it a point of duty to visit Fela’s shrine. And that’s not even the peak culture moment of 2018. That’ll be Nike’s Super Eagles World Cup campaign. The kit designed by Matthew Wolff to pay homage to the 1994 iteration was an instant hit. It sold out in hours and we saw pictures of the queues outside London’s Niketown. The Nigerian football jersey became a hype beast item. The campaign was designed to merge the best of Nigerian football with the best of Nigerian Popular Culture. Alex Iwobi meets Wizkid. Kelechi Iheanacho meets Grace Ladoja. Mikel Obi meets Not3s. 

That brings us to Mr. Iwobi who’s currently sharing a table with me at Lagos’ Intercontinental Hotel. As his summer break winds down, he’s in Lagos familiarizing himself with the country he’s trying to put on the map and fulfilling some sponsorship commitments. In a couple of days, he will report to Arsenal’s London Colney training ground for Pre Season. He’ll meet up with his new Manager, Unai Emery and  get a taste of what the Post Wenger era at Arsenal holds. He’s quietly confident and excited. I tell him that the British journalist, Henry Winter wrote when Emery was appointed that the Spaniard and his lieutenants were studying Iwobi closely after developing an admiration for him after watching his Champions League debut against a Messi-Suarez-Neymar Barcelona triumvirate at the Nou Camp and his eyes light up. Could Emery be the one to iron out the inconsistencies and light a fire in him? 

This summer has been a bit of a bittersweet affair. Arsene Wenger, the manager who gave him his debut and under whose tutelage he became an Arsenal first teamer left the club after 22 years. Whilst it’s not a topic we really delve into, it’s clear that there is some affection there. The World Cup is the pinnacle of every footballer’s career and Alex Iwobi is no different. As far as he’s concerned, his mere presence in Russia was a “dream come true”. The moment made more special by the fact that he scored the goal that sealed Nigeria’s qualification for the World Cup. Speaking of it, he says “For me, it was more than a goal. To score the goal that qualified Nigeria for the World Cup was such an honor, such an  amazing feeling. The reason why it touched me was ‘cos I had my parents in the stands. My Mum hasn’t been able to watch me in Nigeria. The fact that I could see my Mum when I scored almost made me cry.” Asked to assess his World Cup, he thinks he scored a 6 over 10. His answer focuses more on the team, less on the individual. He speaks creditably of the NFF’’s preparations and of the fact that Nigeria were 4 minutes away from making it out of the group stage. The intention was good, but ultimately rooted in failure. These are those high standards inculcated from an education at one of Europe’s top football institutions coming to bear.

Alex Iwobi

Born in Lagos, he left the country as a 4 month old for London via Turkey where his uncle, Augustine Jay Jay “So good they named him twice” Okocha spent sometime at Fenerbahce. While his Uncle is the football icon of the family, it’s worthy of note that another Uncle, Emmanuel and the actual owner of the “Jay Jay” sobriquet played for Nigeria and the Enugu Rangers. Father, Chuka who comes in to sit in on this interview played for Enugu’s defunct Vasco Da Gama. He also played with future Eagles, Peter “Dodo Mayana” Rufai and Mutiu “ Headmaster” Adepoju. In that sense, football is a family matter. This helps in keeping him grounded and also acts as motivation. He describes his family as his biggest motivation and also references his Uncle’s constant advice to “enjoy his football and play with a smile on his face”. I find it interesting that he still lives at home with his parents. He quips “I’m ready to leave but they don’t want me out” which elicits robust laughter from his father. It captures the warmth of their relationship on which he’d go on to say “Some people like to be young and get away but I love my family. Coming home from training everyday to see my family- there’s no better feeling. They’re still there helping my journey”. The influence of his paternal figures also reflects in his post football plan. He hopes to “relax” buoyed by the investments he’s made that should serve as assurance, word to Davido.  

In No Hunger in Paradise, British writer Mike Calvin covered the underbelly of football’s pyramid- that period where an aspiring footballer takes the step up from the academy to the first team. The road to the big time is paved with skeletons and cobwebs. There are those whose journeys were curtailed by injury and those preyed upon by compromised agents and guardians. In his case, he speaks of knuckling down when he was offered a scholarship by Arsenal realizing that the moment he’d waited all his life beckoned. “At that time, you’d have to basically leave school and focus on football Monday to Sundays. Just straight football. And you’re basically going from training maybe three times a week with coaches to the men’s world. U18’s, U21’s and then the first team.” 

Alex Iwobi

At the essence of sports is competition. There will be a winner and a loser. No middle ground. As a fan, weekends where my team lose usually foreshadow a week of doom. Arsene Wenger famously said “every defeat is a scar on my heart” encapsulating the nature of the beast that is professional sports. Alex Iwobi uses the aftermath of the Argentina game to illustrate how defeat is dealt with. “It was a very big game on a big stage. We put a lot of effort in and to lose such a game like that, we were all depressed and disappointed. The main thing for me and how I keep going is to look at the positives. To get this far, you have to keep going again. You can’t dwell on the past. You’re only as good as your last performance so you have to prepare, train right and get ready for the next challenge”. 

The story of Nigeria’s World Cup will not be complete without focus being placed on the ordeal of team Captain, Mikel Obi. As his career reaches its twilight, Obi has acquitted himself well as a leader. Two years ago, when the Olympics team got stranded in Atlanta due to the NFF and Ministry of Sport’s inadequacies, it was Mikel who took it upon himself to put up some of the money that went towards alleviating the team’s ordeal. In the fall out of the World Cup campaign, it became public knowledge that his father was kidnapped in the hours leading to the Argentina game and he was told “that they would shoot my dad instantly if I reported to the authorities or told anybody.” These are just some of the endearingly heroic things he’s done. Iwobi can’t speak highly of him enough. He says “When I first started playing for the national team, he was one of the major influences. He would help me and talk to me ‘cos I was still familiarizing myself with my Nigerian teammates. As a leader, we all look up to him.” In the context of his father’s kidnap and the Argentina game, he says “it just shows how mentally strong as a character he is that he doesn’t allow such things to get to him.” He regards Mikel as the best player he’s played with for Nigeria. For Arsenal? That diminutive magician, Santi Cazorla. “I had the opportunity of training with him everyday. What I’ve seen him do with the ball is magical. Not only because he’s gifted with both feet.. Everyone always has a weaker foot. With him, there’s no weaker foot. I’ve seen him take corners with his right foot and left foot. As small as he is, he’s not the quickest, he’s just a magician and definitely the best player I’ve played with.”

Globally, immigration and identity are the twin issues on which the current political climate is anchored on. In the build up and aftermath of the World Cup, we have seen these issues brought to the fore by Premier League stars, Romelu Lukaku and Mesut Ozil who opted to play for the countries they grew up in and not the home of their ancestors. Iwobi opted to play for Nigeria even though he played at age grade level for England. It’s a decision he does not regret and this comes through when he speaks of his happiness at heeding the call of Samson Siasia at U 23 level. Effectively, that call set all this in motion. One of the Nigerian Football Federation’s key anchors of late has been to effectively take advantage of the Iwobi model by mopping up the academies of England’s top clubs in a bid to entice them with the option of playing for the countries of their forbears. In Germany, the Turkish FA have set up an office in a bid to keep track on those eligible to play for it. This is something Alex Iwobi aligns himself with. He says “There’s a lot of Nigerian talent out there in England that I’ve played with and played against. Hopefully, they have the opportunity to come back and represent their country.

Alex Iwobi

In the time since the interview was conducted, it’s been announced that a new contract is imminent. He could be a Gunner for the next 5 years. It makes sense. As a player with his best years ahead of him, he’s still malleable. It’s still unclear whether it’ll be in his preferred No 10 position or out on the flanks but it’s become increasingly obvious that Emery’s a fan. For Nigeria, it’s likely a more prominent role beckons. For a team still young and ahead of its cycle, Alex Iwobi will represent a creative fulcrum. He’s already one of the faces of the team as captured by the onslaught of commercial partnerships that have come his way in the last couple of months: Multichoice, Pepsi, LG and Nike amongst others. Back to the note on which this essay started- As Nigeria’s period of cool sets in motion, Iwobi’s significance as a bridge between the Nigerian diaspora and the Homefront cannot be understated. We see it on one of our favorite reality shows- the footage that comes from his Snapchat during international duty. We collectively take in the nuances that inform Nigerianness through the shenanigans of the London bred Alex Iwobi and the Owerri bred Kelechi Iheanacho and realize though the routes vary, they are rooted in the same things. It bears remembering as political season and the  inevitable identity politics beckons. As for Mr. Iwobi, may his road be rough. 

Photo Direction: Ojuolape Agbaje