Ghetto-blaster Odion Ighalo used to train with bullets flying over his head as police chased gangs across the pitch. He used to kic...
Ghetto-blaster Odion Ighalo used to train with bullets flying over his head as
police chased gangs across the pitch.
He used to kick tin cans in his bare feet around the mean streets of Ajegunle, a sprawling district of Lagos where his mother worked 17 hours a day selling bottled water and soft drinks to pay for Ighalo’s first pair of football boots.
And when he trod that well-worn path from tropical Nigeria to icy Norway, the first time he ever saw snow he ate it.
Ighalo, 26, is now enjoying the riches of English football, and his journey from inner-city hardship in Africa to Watford’s tilt at Premier League survival, is now the yardstick for kids who dream of turning from austerity to prosperity.
Today, Ighalo will be on the Hornets front line against high-flying Swansea having just signed a new five-year contract at Vicarage Road. Watford have yet to score at home under head coach Quique Sanchez Flores, but the Nigerian international striker has endured worse privation.
“I come from the ghetto where there was no 24-hour electricity, no good water, bad roads and the neighbourhood is tough,” he said. “We used to kick old cans, plastic bottles, sometimes even an orange, around the streets in bare feet.
“Whatever I go on to achieve in football, I will always give thanks to God for this opportunity to live my dream – but I will also never forget where I came from.
“Ajegunle is where my journey began and I’m proud of that. My first team, Olodi Warriors, used to play on a grass pitch known locally as the ‘Maracana’ but it was really a big, wide-open field.
“On one corner there were boys selling marijuana and they were always being chased by the police when they cut across the pitch. We would hit the floor when we heard the ‘pop, pop, pop’ of gunfire and then continue training.
“It’s part of life, but bullets don’t always know who are the footballers and who are the bad guys.”
Ighalo was scouted by Norway’s Lyn Oslo as a 17-year-old, and the youngest of seven children left Nigeria to seek his fortune in a country where temperatures were often 70 degrees colder.
“There were three players from Nigeria who went to Norway – but one of them had to go home because he could not cope with the cold,” he said. “I could easily have followed him, but when I thought of the hardship I left behind, I was not going to cut and run.
“I had never seen snow before in Nigeria. The first time it snowed in Oslo I was like a child. I was eating it, rubbing it on my head, throwing it in the air like confetti... it was a new toy.”
“I’ve been lucky enough to score some important goals, but my work is not done,” he said.
“One day, when I’ve made good money in football, I would like to go back to Ajegunle and provide better pitches, help the kids at grassroots levels.
“My mum had to work so hard, selling bottled water and soft drinks, to pay for my first pair of adidas Copa Mundial boots, and everything I am today I owe to her and to God.”
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