The Rise of Nigerian Striker, Odion Ighalo from Ajegunle Ghetto to the English Premier League

Odion Ighalo

Nigerian striker, Odion Ighalo is currently making waves in the English Premier league with an impressive record of 12 goals with a recent brace against Liverpool football club.

As a boy, Odion Ighalo and his Olodi Warriors team-mates would hit the deck when they heard gun fire during training, according to Dailymail.

The bullets didn’t know the difference between the young footballers and the drug dealers selling their narcotics on a corner of the pitch, who the police were targeting. Growing up in the Ajegunle ghetto, at the heart of Nigerian city Lagos, life can be like that.

Watford’s in-form striker Ighalo, a devout Christian, thanks God at every opportunity. It is understandable when you consider the miracle of his journey. The pitch where he would train and play matches as a child is called the ‘Maracana’ by locals. The field in the Tolu area of the community is one of the most popular places in Ajegunle.

Taribo West, formerly of Inter and AC Milan, and Emmanuel Amunike, who played for Barcelona, graced it in their days. At the nearby Navy Playground, beside Boundary market, Nwankwo Kanu and Finidi George have been spotted playing in the past.

Ajegunle has become known as the place that turns filth into gold. Many of the streets are littered with garbage, piled so high in some areas it reaches rooftops. Some houses are even built on top of great mounds. But out of its depths have emerged footballers who would go on to make waves in Europe. Ighalo is the latest.

His mother, Martina, worked day and night selling water and soft drinks to save up for his first pair of boots. He chose a pair of adidas Copa Mundials, displaying a touch of class, even back then, which he has carried into the Premier League this season.

His father, Paul, wanted him to go to school and study, so his parents would argue. Ighalo, one of six siblings living with intermittent electricity and poor water, just wanted to play football.

He would kick tin cans or plastic bottles barefoot around the Ajegunle streets. They were not hard to find. The Premier League is hugely popular in Nigeria and he loved watching Dwight Yorke back then and is a Manchester United supporter.

Ighalo sends a chunk of his wages back to family in Nigeria and charities who help kids, schools and widows.

He plans to open up an orphanage there next year. His charitable spending must be considerable: in an age when many players are millionaires by their early 20s, at 26 and having played in La Liga and Serie A he confesses not to be one.

In his teens, he played for Prime and Julius Berger — renamed as Bridge FC — in Nigeria where he was picked up by agent Marcelo Houseman who secured him a move to Lyn in Norway.

There, he was astonished to discover snow for the first time. While some of his fellow countrymen could not tolerate the cold and moved back home, Ighalo was intent on succeeding to keep out of the strife he had left behind.

Then, at 19, he got a big move to Udinese — where Alexis Sanchez was a team-mate — and became part of the Pozzo family. Loans to Pozzo-owned Granada, who he helped to promotion to the Spanish top flight, preceded a loan then permanent transfer to Pozzo-owned Watford.

His goals helped Watford to promotion from the Championship last season — 20 in the league, narrowly behind strike partner Troy Deeney on 21. This season, he has taken over. Deeney has been content playing the foil while Ighalo has scored 12 Premier League goals.

The pair share a friendly relationship. Their children attend the same school and Ighalo, with his proficiency in other languages from his travels, sometimes acts as translator when captain Deeney can’t communicate with one of their players.

But goalscoring has been Ighalo’s primary function. His 28 league strikes in 2015 are greater than anyone in English football’s top four divisions. In the top five European leagues, they put him just behind Cristiano Ronaldo (35), Lionel Messi (33), Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang (29) and alongside Luis Suarez in joint-fourth.

Despite this, his Watford future was uncertain in the summer. Hebei China Fortune offered £10million for him and big wages, but he turned them down.

It was unsure if he fitted into Quique Sanchez Flores’s plans, but Ighalo did what has been ingrained in him since he was a child, ducking for cover.

He got his head down, kept on believing better was to come and proved his worth.

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