When Nigerian midfielder Emmanuel Ekpo came to the MLS to play professional football in 2008, he did not know much about the league. Similarly, the then-20-year-old was an unknown quantity outside his own country.
In Nigeria, Ekpo had played for two seasons in the top flight with Akwa and Enyimba and had been in the national team's youth set-up before his move to Columbus Crew. By the end of the year, however, the Ekori native's exposure increased mightily as he won a silver medal at the 2008 Olympic Football Tournament in Beijing and was part of the Crew side that lifted their first and only MLS Cup thus far.
Although his impact in the US has only grown since, and he has just received his first call-up to Nigeria's full national team for next week's friendly against Ghana, the attacking midfielder crossed a threshold that year. “It was really big for me,” he said about winning MLS's top prize. “I felt like I was a good luck charm for the team because it was my first year, and it was really great to feel like a champion. Along with winning the silver medal in China, there was a lot of joy that year for me.”
It was not all smooth sailing for the youngster, but he was determined to make his chance abroad work - although he does pick out one stumbling block after his move to the mid-east part of the US. “Probably the biggest challenge was the food,” he said. “But there's no secret to living somewhere else. When I left Nigeria, I made up my mind that I wanted to ply my trade, whatever it takes, whatever I had to do. It was challenging, especially the food, but I think I adjusted quickly and now everything's good.”
A call from his old coach
Having been a part of the 2008 side that Nigerians still fondly refer to as the 'Dream Team', Ekpo was out of sight of the green jersey before and during the 2010 FIFA World Cup™. But when his coach at the Olympics, Samson Siasia, was promoted to lead the full national team, Ekpo was back in the reckoning.
The former international striker called Ekpo in Columbus to give him the good news. “Like anyone with their first call up to the national team, I was very happy and excited and actually surprised, but Siasia said that I had been playing well for the past couple of years, and this season I have been consistent with my team. He said that he knew me as a player and knew what I could do, so he wanted to give me a try,” recalled the new father, who married a Nigerian last year.
Far away from the intense world of Super Eagles football, Ekpo observes that the national team went through a transition period, but that with Siasia in charge things are looking up. “[Siasia] is a cool guy,” he said. “He loves the game and he understands it at a very high level because he was a top player. He's a disciplinarian - I'll put it that way - because he likes his players to play in a disciplined way and he gets good things from players. Nigeria went through a few coaches and had to get past the changes of 2010. But right now with Samson, I think things are going in the right direction, and in two years we will have a very good team.”
When asked about potentially breaking his international duck against west African rivals Ghana, Ekpo is thrilled. “It's a very big game because Ghanaians are known all around the world as a big team, and they were very impressive in the last World Cup. They've always been a good opposition for Nigeria because there's always that rivalry and that tension.”
Discovering MLS and beyond
Ekpo once told media in the US that he did not feel like he could earn a call-up to the Nigeria national team while playing so far away from his homeland. He was not disrespecting the game in MLS, and in fact, he is complimentary about the relatively new league. “I was surprised by the level of play here, the level of competition and the players. It's a very good league, getting better every season,” he said.
There has been a proliferation of Africans entering the league, which Ekpo says could be a starting point for many from around the world. “It's not just Africans that are coming, but South Americans, from even Argentina and Brazil, because MLS is growing and its a good market for young players that want to learn their trade.”
With his contract running out at the end of the season, Ekpo will not be drawn on future moves. “It's always been my dream to go to Europe. I still want to do that. I know it's different, and I want to see how it is. I am really thinking about Europe and want to feel the environment there in one of the big leagues. I am weighing things, and we'll see what comes up.”