In a poverty-stricken ghetto in Lagos, Nigeria, Odion Ighalo remembers dodging bullets during football training.
Growing up in Ajegunle, gangs were rife and opportunities scarce. Ighalo had to scrape together the money to ride the bus to matches — sometimes, there wasn’t enough.
Now, the 26-year-old striker is one of the Premier League’s top performers after his torrent of goals for Watford last season catapulted the team into England’s top flight.
This season the Nigerian has netted 14 goals in 26 league appearances and his efforts haven’t gone unnoticed by the league’s top clubs — Manchester United hold an interest in the striker, according to reports in the British media.
He’s come a long way from Ajegunle’s muddy football pitches.
Besides his hard work — and ardent faith in God — Ighalo puts his success down to the belief of one woman.
“I have a Mum that supported me right from the beginning,” he told CNN. “It was not easy coming up from there. You’re training on a mud ground and all that, sometimes you train barefoot.
“My mum bought me my first pair of football shoes — I can remember they were Copa Mondials. In Nigeria, you have to pay for water you drink, pay for transport to go training. You have to pay for everything.
“My mum afforded me what [she] could … sometimes it wasn’t enough to travel to play games outside the city. She supported me right from day one.”
If it wasn’t for his mother, the star revealed he may not have continued to play football at all.
“Sometimes my Dad wanted to spank me when I went to play football, when I didn’t do my homework and all that,” he said. “They would argue. My mum said, ‘You have to leave him if he wants to play football.'”
Thanks to his mom’s influence, Ighalo played for local team “The Olodi Warriors” on a pitch they dubbed the “Maracana” after the iconic stadium in Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro. At times, training was besieged by neighborhood crime.
“We had bad gangs going into the ghetto, taking marijuana and all that. I remember when we were training some people who stole would have to cross through the field and police were shooting guns.
“We had to run and bend down because a stray bullet can hit anybody. I was young then — I was so afraid that day.”
Luckily for Ighalo, his divisive hobby proved to be his ticket out of the ghetto.
He was spotted by the manager of top Nigerian team Julius Berger FC, where he made his professional debu and the young Ighalo was sent for trials at Lyn Oslo in Norway.
“I can remember the night before I went, my Mum praying for me,” he said. “She was crying that this was a great opportunity for me, that I had to make every use of it. She didn’t want me to come back here, because she knew how it was.”
To his mother’s relief, Ighalo didn’t return to Ajegunle. He flourished and, just 11 months into his two-and-a-half-year contract, he was bought by Italian Serie A team Udinese.
“The rest is history now,” he smiled.
Ighalo moved to Granada in 2009, where he helped the third tier Spanish team to a double promotion, climbing to La Liga by 2011.
After a move to Watford in 2014, Ighalo is now playing in his dream league — the one he watched as a child in Ajegunle.
“In Nigeria, everybody watches the Premier League. It’s the best league in the world,” he said, reflecting on a deep-seated adulation that has played its part in recent decisions — last summer Ighalo reportedly refused lucrative offers from the Chinese Super League.
“If it was [about the] money, I would be in China by now,” he said categorically. “This is the best moment of my career so far.”
Be the best
Ighalo’s mother is delighted, of course.
“She’s very happy that I’m doing well. My Dad too — he’s the proudest man on earth because his name on my back is Ighalo.
“I will keep on doing what I’m doing and make sure I’m the best I can be.”
But Ajegunle, the ghetto that also produced Nigerian footballers Obafemi Martins, Taribo West and Brown Ideye, is still very much on Ighalo’s mind.
“You see bad guys. You see good ones. So it depends on you — your destiny is in your [own] hands there. If you want to choose the bad side, or if you want to choose the good side.
“Work hard and pray, that is my motto. When you believe in yourself, you keep working hard, the sky will be the limit,” he said.
For now, the diligent striker is pouring his ambition into Watford. He’s got big dreams for the team which sits ninth in England’s top flight.
“Look at Leicester, they are flying. If I told you on the first day of the League that Leicester would be where they are now, I think you would slap me.
“We can’t say now, but I believe one day, we can win the League and why not the Champions League. It’s football. It’s a game. Anything can happen.”
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