Odion Ighalo has had to weather adversity at every turn and overcome doubts, both internal and external, to finally live a dream he admits is “surreal”.
The waves of pessimism that met his move to Manchester United, a club he grew up supporting, were nothing new for the 30-year-old Nigerian as his career has been characterised by doubts and his overcoming them to succeed.
His first challenge was making it out of Ajegunle, the densely populated, football-crazy slum suburb of Lagos where, probably, only one in a thousand aspiring young talents makes it every year.
As a concept, “making it” is relative: if Europe, with its riches and worldwide exposure, seemed far-fetched, there was always Julius Berger FC, now defunct but at the time one of the big clubs in Lagos. Their training ground was close enough for Ighalo that it seemed a legitimate aspiration.
It was at the “Bridge Boys” that he first caught the eye of international talent scouts and earned European trials at German side Hertha Berlin and Portuguese giants Sporting CP. He admits that he wrestled with doubt after failing to get a permanent deal, but he consoled himself with the knowledge that it was not for a lack of talent.
“It just wasn’t my time and place,” he says. “I returned home knowing there would be another opportunity.”
He was correct. However, when another try-out came at Lyn 1896 FK in 2007, Ighalo was scarcely prepared for the adverse weather conditions that greeted him in Norway.
“I’ve never felt that cold in my life,” he says. “In Norway, I experienced my first winter. It was like minus-18 or minus-23 sometimes, and I was contemplating whether to return home.
“But whenever I remembered where I was in the slum before coming to Europe… I know thousands of players in Nigeria who could kill for the same opportunity. I said to myself this won’t kill me. I can persevere, beat the cold and make a living here. I knew I had to make it or return home again as a failure.”
Norway a stepping stone
Ighalo did enough to earn a contract with Lyn. His first – and only – season in Norway was impressive enough that it earned him a move to Italian side Udinese. Here, another dark period descended: Ighalo found playing time difficult to come by.
“Arriving in Italy as a young player was a challenge because you had to deal with the language, a different [style of] football and culture,” he says. “I scored a goal for Udinese but only had a few substitute appearances. You just continued to hope for more opportunities on the pitch. I was ready to learn and continue to grow.”
Things would get worse before they got better. On the international stage he was tainted by the failure of the Nigeria Under-20 national team that he captained at the World Cup in 2009 in Egypt. But 10 years later, he would return to Egypt and emerge as the top goal scorer for the senior national team at the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations.
He got some respite in Europe in 2009 when he moved on loan to Granada CF, a sister club of the Pozzo family-owned Udinese. There, he helped the modest Spanish club secure consecutive promotions, rocketing up from the third tier of Spanish football to the top flight in just two years.
“It was strange and weird at first, because this was me playing in the third division from Norway and Italy’s top flight,” he admits. “I got a stick from people who kept asking me what I was doing at the club and at that level. Let’s just say God took me through three levels in Spain to reach England.”
A stinging hornet
After helping Granada tread water for a few seasons in La Liga, Ighalo was off once again. This time it was to another Pozzo club, Watford, first on loan and then on a permanent deal.
The Hornets were in the English Championship when Ighalo arrived, meaning he had another rescue job on his hands. He forged an understanding with club captain Troy Deeney upfront and amassed 20 goals as Watford soared to second place and automatic promotion in his first season.
“We made history by earning promotion to the Premier League,” he says. “It was special for me because I had done it twice with Granada.
“When I got to Watford, I said my ambition was to help the club reach the Premier League. Some people doubted me and my expectations, but I didn’t doubt myself.”
The league finally offered him the stage he had craved for so long. “Playing in the Premier League was a dream come true for me because I used to watch the league back home and now I got to play in it. Watford gave me a chance to fulfil that dream.”
A dream it may have been, but Ighalo was not caught napping. He scored on the opening day of the season against Everton, following a dummy that came to be known as his signature. It was the first of 16 Premier League goals that season, a tally that helped Watford preserve their top-flight status.
His exploits attracted interest from overseas, with the nouveau riche Chinese Super League calling, but he turned down several offers, feeling he had “unfinished business” in England, much to the surprise of his team-mates. “They questioned my sanity,” says Ighalo.
Also impressed with his exploits at Watford was the national team, which was in need of a leading man following the abrupt retirement of Emmanuel Emenike.
For so long maligned and forgotten, it fell to Ighalo to spearhead the Super Eagles’ attack, and he got off on the right foot, scoring twice in his first four international appearances. The following season, however, Watford wobbled and Ighalo’s form suffered as a result. After the first half of the season saw him only score once in 18 appearances, Watford accepted an offer from China.
“When the offer from Changchun Yatai was accepted by Watford, I knew it was time to leave.”
It was a move that, to most, signalled the end of his footballing career and ambitions, with Chinese football being considered a destination for mercenaries and retirees. That, however, did not deter Ighalo. He describes his time in Changchun as “amazing”, which might be an understatement considering he scored 15 goals in his first season with the club.
The following season, he improved on that mark, hitting 21 goals and being made club captain. In the midst of that was some more disappointment: he was part of Nigeria’s squad to the World Cup in Russia. But a less-than-stellar showing at the global showpiece saw him vilified by fans and his family targeted for abuse and death threats on social media. He contemplated retirement, believing his international career was over, and needed to be convinced by national team coach Gernot Rohr to remain in the fold.
Turning down Barcelona
In January 2019, Barcelona came calling, seeking a striker with La Liga experience on loan as a backup for star striker Luis Suarez. It was a surprising move and elicited an even more surprising response: Ighalo turned it down. He was not interested in only being a squad player and moved instead to Shanghai Shenhua.
He credits that move for his rejuvenation on the international stage, which allowed him to finally bow out of the Super Eagles on his own terms. It also paved the way for another unlikely return to the Premier League, this time to Manchester United.
“As a kid in Nigeria, you support this club far away in England. You know everything about them, but playing for them was probably going to happen in video games. Then you find out that, at 30 and playing in China, the club wants you? It’s really the stuff of dreams.”
Despite the fact that he had only been third in the order of preference, and the looming threat of the coronavirus, Ighalo lives his dream, even though he can scarcely believe it sometimes.
“I still pinch myself to understand it’s really happening,” he admits.
It simply continues a trend that has defined his career right from the very beginning: rising above onerous circumstances and naysayers to achieve personal dreams, time and again.
“Not everybody will love or like you. You cannot also please the world,” he said. “You can never focus on the criticism or praises because it will still fade away.
“I know some people had their doubts, made some comments about my arrival at Manchester United. But doubts are there to remind you that life is a challenge. I’ve been through a lot to not bother myself about comments or criticism directed at me. If I had doubted myself, I would not be where I am today.”