Alex Iwobi and Jay-Jay Okocha’s legacy for Nigeria

Iwobi scores again… Just don’t know how to express how I feel now. Well done Alex.

On April 2, at 19.43 Augustine Azuka “Jay-Jay” Okocha tweeted his pride, seeing the growth of his nephew Alex Iwobi in the English Premier League.

140 characters are not enough to tell a story that began in Nigeria 20 years ago.

On 3 May 1996, the day when Alex Iwobi was born, Okocha faced the disappointing relegation of his team, Eintracht Frankfurt, the side that he would have left shortly after. In Jay-Jay’s fate there was a trip to the United States where, in the following month of July, Okocha would have played at Olympics in Atlanta. In that summer Jay-Jay and his wonderful team, the Nigerian Super Eagles led by Jo Bonfrère, danced against Rivaldo, Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos‘ Brazil and defeated an Argentina side coached by Daniel Passarella. In the meantime the Iwobi family decided to leave Nigeria, looking for a better future in England. Alex’s father, Chuka, left his football dreams and studied law, becoming a laywer.
Moving to England in 1996, when Alex was four months old, gave Chuka the chance to start his own law firm, securing a future for his family.

iwobi-familyAlso Jay-Jay followed their path to Great Britain in 2002. Sir Alex Ferguson signed him as free agent for Manchester United (Okocha was sidelined after a stint with PSG) but the Scottish legennd immediately sold him to Bolton, managed by “Big” Sam Allardyce. It took Jay-Jay a really small amount of time to become an idol for “Reebook Stadium” fans. In a couple of seasons Okocha brought Bolton from the relegation zone to a League Final, lost against Middlesbrough. In 2004, the year of that unlucky final, Iwobi joined Arsenal‘s renowned youth academy. While he was moving his first steps in Gunners’ world studying the legendary “Arsenal Invincibles”, Alex supported Bolton.

The first shirt I ever owned was a Bolton shirt with my uncle’s name on the back. I’ve always looked at him as a role model, and he always told me to express myself.

Iwobi says in a recent interview published on FourFourTwo magazine. Alex’s journey to the first team is gradual with up and downs as the human and sporting growth of a young player needs. In 2011 Iwobi was called-up by England for the first time (U16). Two years later, Alex would have continued that path by joining the Three Lions‘ U18 team.

In the meantime Arsène Wenger, first of all a wonderful football teacher who well knows how to recognize a talented player, noticed him.

In September 2013, the Alsatian manager called him up as reserve for a League Cup match against West Bromwich Albion. Football observers in both Nigeria and England wondered in which National Team Alex was going to play. Iwobi’s final decision was easier than expected. In spite of living just a few months in Lagos, Nigeria never left Alex. In fact Nigeria was still around him, everywhere. In the meals that his mother prepared for him (Iwobi’s favourite dishes are eba and okra soup) and especially in his uncle Jay-Jay, one of most beloved idols of the Nigerian Super Eagles’ history.

iwobi-nigeria

My philosophy in life is to always follow your heart. For Alex, I did play a role in persuading him to come, but ultimately it was his decision to come and play for Nigeria. It’s been a long journey, not an easy journey, and we want to send a message to footballers of Nigerian origin who are abroad.

For me and for Alex it’s like coming home and home is where the heart is,

Iwobi’s father said in an interview two years ago. Since then, Iwobi’s progress never stopped. After his official debut with Nigeria, Alex appeared for the first time with Arsenal in League Cup, in Premier League and also in Champions League (his European debut took place as a starter on 26 March 2016 at “Camp Nou” against Barcelona), scoring two goals against Everton and Watford. He is not the kind of player who impresses you at first. But when you look a bit deeper he is quick at connecting with other players. Football is perception, decision-making and acting. The perception especially struck me. The perception he has of the game and the speed of his decision-making struck me. He has still a lot of work to do but he has something that is very important at the top level. Speed and insight into the game.” Words from Arsène Wenger, a football teacher with an incredible intuition. He saw his potential and he was right. Because, at the end, in Nigeria’s last qualifying matches Alex Iwobi’s contribution was simply decisive: the Super Eagles are the first African team to join the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

And their new star will have very big shoes to fill, the ones directly inherited by his uncle Jay-Jay.