You can tell how happy and fulfilled Kevin Akpoguma has been in New Zealand over the past few days by the sparkle in his eyes. Germany’s captain is enjoying the FIFA U-20 World Cup 2015 to the full and looking forward to the next challenge as the eagerly awaited knockout stage looms. Of all the teams, Nigeria are the side the Hoffenheim defender and his team-mates have been pitted against in the last 16.
Needless to say, Akpoguma is currently very much in demand in Christchurch. “I’m half-Nigerian as my father is Nigerian, and I’m glad to be able to say that,” the youngster told FIFA.com, a smile playing about his lips. “This match is already a special one for me; my parents are here and Thursday will be even more memorable for my Dad. Although he’ll have both his Germany and Nigeria flags at the ready for when the national anthems are played, in the end he’ll just be happy if his son gets to the next round.”
Memories and gratitudeThe 20-year-old model athlete is an engaging interviewee, a trait befitting a player who refuses to shy away from any situation on or off the pitch. Although Akpoguma has been soaking up the unique atmosphere ahead of his side’s meeting with the Flying Eagles, he seems able to remain consistently down-to-earth and realistic.
Even when he was a very small child, his father took him to the football pitch every day and helped him learn to have fun with a ball at his feet. “I’m very grateful to him,” he said, “but I also know that I’ll go into this match like I do every other. I was born and grew up in Germany so I consider myself to be German.”
Nevertheless, this powerful defender – capable of playing both as a centre-back and on the right side of a four-man defence – remains well-placed to identify with his team’s upcoming opponents. He has visited Nigeria twice and his grandparents live in Benin City, where Akpoguma fondly remembers everyone going to church on Sundays and then playing football together – something he was understandably pleased to be part of.
It is clear that the Hoffenheim youngster is proud of these experiences and has been shaped by them. “As a person I always want to get on well with everyone,” he said. “I can’t hate or envy anyone. I enjoy meeting everybody and I think that kind of mentality is typical for Nigeria.
"I always have fun and enjoy what I’m doing and the way I feel,” Akpoguma went on, pausing for a moment before grinning and adding: “As a footballer I also would say that I have my African roots to thank for my athleticism because I’m still fast despite being tall.”
The moment of truthAs Frank Wormuth’s team swept through the group stages with supreme confidence and a perfect record, Akpoguma was deployed as an attacking right-back, a role that will be key in Germany’s encounter with the technically adept yet hard-tackling Nigerians. “They rely on their attacking play and their one-on-one skills,” the 20-year-old explained. “They’re quick and have a insatiable urge to press forward. We’ve really got to watch our step as they’ve already shown that they score by putting two goals past Brazil.”
Nevertheless, Germany’s promising young defender – who counts the Flying Eagles alongside Brazil, Portugal, Serbia and his own team as title contenders – believes there is every reason to remain optimistic. “We don’t have to change much,” he told FIFA.com.
“If we can consistently remember our lines and stick to our plan, we’ll get good results. We’re getting into the business end of the tournament and we’re extremely fired up about what’s ahead. Nigeria are a great side, so now we can show what we’re really made of. We want to be in the last four and go all the way to Auckland. Having come here as European champions, that’s got to be our target.”
This ambition reveals the other side of the Germany skipper’s character – a fascinating blend of a formidable winning mentality, undoubted self-confidence and sheer willpower to leave the pitch victorious. As Akpoguma himself explained: “Although we’re a laidback group, we can flip the switch when it matters. I think that’s our greatest characteristic: we’re ready whenever we need to be,” he said.
“That’s also why there’s always such a good atmosphere within the squad, which is vital. When you’re having fun with your football, you can play with greater ease and freedom. When the referee blows his whistle, we’re there!”
Before embarking on a two-year loan at Fortuna Dusseldorf from Hoffenheim to gain more match experience in Germany’s second tier, this young man will be challenged in more than one respect against Nigeria at this World Cup – a fixture that will give Akpoguma a chance to grow both as a sportsman and as a person. Whatever the outcome, one thing is certain: dad Kelvin will be watching proudly from the stands.