There is a calm contemplation behind every one of Kenneth Omeruo’s words. The young Nigeria defender speaks like he plays, with composure and focus, making sure to phrase his responses carefully during an exclusive chat with FIFA.com. Often breaking into a disarming smile throughout, it is easy to see how the Chelsea man has established himself as a fan favourite during his time on loan at Middlesbrough, during the second half of the 2013/14 season.
“I’ve really enjoyed my time at Middlesbrough,” Omeruo said. “I knew that if I had the chance to play I would keep the position. I would like to thank the club, the manager especially for believing in me and playing me. I’m happy that I didn’t disappoint him. I knew I had to play games to be fit for the World Cup and also to make the squad. It’s been a really good season for me.”
The manager he speaks of is Aitor Karanka, who graced the Santiago Bernabeu during his playing days, winning three UEFA Champions Leagues during his time as a Real Madrid defender.
“It’s easy to play under a manager that has played in the centre of defence,” Omeruo explained. “I’m lucky to have the same in the national team [with Stephen Keshi]. You get advice from them on how you should play.”
I’m hoping we’ll get to the Final. But I think at least the semi-finals.
Omeruo received some Dutch advice after signing for Chelsea in January 2012, spending the best part of 18 months in the Netherlands with ADO Den Haag, an experience he believes was vital in his growth into an international player.
“I think a lot of my development was from Dutch football,” Omeruo said. “I was under a good manager there, who liked me and the way I play. He played me in a position that I didn’t know how to play before [fullback], it was a really good experience. That’s what got me into the national team.”
Those performances in the Dutch Eredivisie, as well as his impressive role in helping his country to the FIFA U-17 World Cup final in 2009 and FIFA U-20 World Cup quarter-finals two years later, gave Stephen Keshi food for thought heading into the CAF Africa Cup of Nations 2013. Omeruo grabbed his opportunity with both hands.
“It was unbelievable,” Omeruo said, smiling. “It was my first appearance for the national team [at the start of the tournament], and then we were lifting the trophy. I felt good and it was a day I will never forget.”
Nullifying Messi, Keshi pep talks
That continental win means Nigeria will head into a World Cup as champions of Africa, just as they did 20 years ago. As at USA 1994, and 2002 and 2010, they were drawn in a group with South American heavyweights Argentina, along with Iran and debutants Bosnia-Herzegovina.
“I remember watching the World Cup in South Africa,” Omeruo said. “It was disappointing that we didn’t come out of the group in 2010. We’ll have to play for the Nigerian fans because it was a massive welcome when we won the African Cup of Nations. They showed us how much they love football and how much they are behind us, so we have to play for them.
“I’m really looking forward to the game against Argentina. We will try as much as possible to keep a clean sheet. It will be difficult but we have to do that. They are the best players in the world and we have to show our quality by standing up to them. We will first of all have to make sure we get maximum points from the first two games.”
Asked how he would keep Lionel Messi at bay, Omeruo responded that he had been conducting some research on his Group F opponent.
“I watch him a lot on TV. It’s going to be a team effort to try and stop him. Everyone will have to be positive and 100 per cent focused on the game.”
With Messi, Gonzalo Higuain and Sergio Aguero all potentially lining up for La Albiceleste, the Nigerian backline will have to be particularly attentive. Omeruo’s relationship with his central defensive partner, and his coach who played in the same position during his career, should make that task easier.
“I do have a good friendship with Godfrey Oboabona off the pitch, we talk on Skype sometimes," he said. "Before the national team I used to play with him in the Nigerian league with Sunshine Stars.
"Most times before games Stephen Keshi gives us both separate advice. He tries to psyche us up as much as possible. As well as that, he is a father who advises us. He’s a really good man to play under.”
With the World Cup on the immediate horizon, what does the future hold for the youngster after Brazil?
“We’ll have to wait and see," Omeruo said. "It would be nice to go back to Middlesbrough, it’s a good environment with good people around. I like the manager.
"Obviously we’ll have to see how the World Cup goes and my first priority is to stay with Chelsea. From playing in training with John Terry, Gary Cahill and David Luiz I just want to put myself in there, try to learn from them and correct anything I’m not doing right.”
Omeruo’s focus and dedication to learning from others are admirable traits, and if his enthusiasm and ambition rub off onto his Nigeria team-mates, then the Super Eagles could be the first African side to reach the final four of world football’s showpiece event.
“I’m hoping we’ll get to the Final,” Omeruo responded when asked how far his side would go in Brazil. “But I think at least the semi-finals.”