In a time in which many African youngsters are thrown into the deep end of international football at an early age, Odion Ighalo is an exception. The Nigerian striker was nearly 26 when he was called up to the Super Eagles for the first time early last year after a run of stellar form for Watford. One of the biggest sensations in the English Premier League this season, the Lagos-native shares his inspirational story with FIFA.com.
Like many other African players Ighalo was still a teenager when he undertook his first steps in professional football in Europe. He joined Norwegian club Lyn from Julius Berger in 2007 before being signed by Udinese. After struggling to get playing time in Serie A, Ighalo was loaned out to Spanish team Granada, whom he helped gain promotion to La Liga. Although he was playing regularly and scoring in Spain, he did not grab many international headlines. However, a move to ambitious English Championship side Watford, who were busy putting together a promotion push, changed that, and the striker played his part as the Hornets won their way into the top flight at the end of last season.
For Ighalo it was the culmination of a long-standing ambition. “Since I was young, I dreamed of playing in the Premier league. As a child in Nigeria I watched the Premier League on television. It has not been easy because I have gone through many countries. But maybe God said it is my time now to have this breakthrough in England. So I am happy and enjoying every moment of it. But I also want to keep working at it and am learning every day.”
An exciting side to watch, Watford are ensconced solidly in the Premier League's mid-table pack on 29 points in 12th place, but just two points from eighth. Ighalo is not only his team's top-scorer on 13 goals, but that's good enough for third-best in the league. He does not seem shocked by the success. “Maybe the Premier League suits my style more than the other leagues I have played in, and so I have scored more goals. It is very physical and very tough, and I know I am a physical player. I also have good technique and pace, so if you add those things together as a striker you're going to do well here.”
Though they have cooled considerably since a 3-0 win over Liverpool and a draw at Chelsea over Christmas, Watford's surprise form in the first third of the season was overshadowed by the achievements of Leicester City, who are scrapping for the title against all odds. For Ighalo, there is a similar dynamic with Foxes' striker Jamie Vardy, who leads the league with 15 goals, and the Nigerian thinks it has been a blessing in disguise. “It is good for us when people start talking about Leicester. We have been working hard but people have not been noticing us. I have been scoring goals, and [strike partner] Troy Deeney has also been doing very well, but we have been playing under not as much pressure.”
Like the rest of his team-mates, the striker is focused on consolidating for the future. “We are fighting to get the 40 points we need to play Premier League next season and then everything that comes after that we will thank God for. But we are not thinking of anything else now.”
Humble beginnings, admirable outlook
One thing that Ighalo is very passionate about is trying to help those who are less fortunate than he is. “I come from a simple background. My mother worked hard for me to be where I am today. It even caused some problems between my parents at the time as my father wanted me to go to school and further my studies, but my mother allowed me to play football. Now my father is a proud man and my parents are very happy for what I have achieved.”
The striker shares much of his wealth with those in need back in his native Nigeria. His generosity has touched in-need widows and helped fund an orphanage. But speaking about his charitable work is not something he is anxious to do. “I don't really want to talk too much about it. It is more important to do something rather than talk about it. I hope the orphanage will be up and running this year.
“Since I started playing professionally, I've been helping those back home. It is not because I have too much money or millions, but because I know what it is like to have nothing. That is why I do that. Hopefully I can inspire more people to do something for those who are less fortunate. I love playing every day, and I just want others to be as happy as I am.”