know what you’re thinking.
So before I tell you my story, let’s just get that bit out of the way first. It’s been more than a decade and I still get asked this one thing about my time in England.
“Hey, what happened to you signing for Manchester United? How come you swapped for Chelsea at the last minute? ”
Well, my Dad wasn’t too pleased about what happened either. He wanted me to go to Manchester United because he loved Alex Ferguson. Back home in Nigeria, a lot of people were saying I should go to United because of how well they work with young players, whereas Chelsea just bought superstars.
And it’s true, I was only 18 years old and Chelsea had players like Lampard, Ballack and Makélélé in midfield. A lot of people in Nigeria doubted that I could even make the Chelsea team if I went there.
So … why did I turn down the biggest club in the world?
I’ll tell you what happened. I had all these people on both sides fighting over me. Agents, managers, strangers, guys handing me papers. I had Sir Alex Ferguson calling me on the phone on one side. And I had Roman Abramovich on the other side, putting me up in London, hiding me somewhere where only a few people knew where I was. It was really confusing, and I was a kid, you know?
After a while, someone from FIFA gave me a phone call. They said, “Listen, we know you’re young and you have these two clubs fighting over you. We can’t decide for you. You can only go where you want. You have to tell us.”
I thought about it for a long time. It was the biggest decision of my life.
You know what made my mind up? Chelsea had signed three other players from Nigeria along with me. They were staying with me at the house in London to keep me company. These guys … their lives depended on the decision I was making. If I went to United, they were gone. If I went to Chelsea, they were going to have a career. No matter how long it lasted, that was important to me. Just to give them a chance, you know?
I chose Chelsea, and four lives changed that day.
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No one thought that I’d end up lasting there for 11 years. No one thought I would play in so many games or win as many trophies as I did. That’s one thing a lot of people in Nigeria respect me for — I don’t chicken out. You can say whatever you want about me, but all these managers came and went at Chelsea and they looked at all the superstars ahead of me, and I didn’t chicken out. I survived. That mentality goes all the way back to my childhood in Jos, Nigeria.
When I was a kid, I didn’t have shoes, let alone football boots. But I would always be out in the street every morning, playing barefoot with hardly any clothes on. That’s how badly I wanted to be Kanu.
When I was a kid, Kanu was the man. Nwankwo Kanu and Jay-Jay Okocha, they were the footballing kings of Nigeria. I wanted to be them. There’s this image I have in my mind of me and my friends running around trying to find a TV so we could watch Kanu play for Arsenal. Back then, sometimes the electricity would go off for like a week, and you’d have to go around town searching for a coffee shop or a beer parlour or some place that had a generator. Every Saturday at 3 p.m., they always showed the Premier League, and Nigerians love Arsenal, so it was usually Arsenal on TV.
We’d watch Kanu do his thing on the pitch and then we’d go out into the streets after the game and try to imitate whatever move or trick he did.
Sam Robles/The Players' Tribune
But the dream is the dream. What I mean by that is … Well, being Kanu takes so much more than daydreaming. It takes work and sacrifice. And sometimes it takes people who are willing to help you. I remember when I was little, there were tournaments where you had to play in boots. That was the rule. But I didn’t have boots. My family had money to send me to school, but not enough for the football stuff. So this guy in our town, Mabao, he had a little bit of money, and he used to buy me and some other kids boots and clothes so we could play in the tournaments.
Without him, and without my parents, I wouldn’t be where I am.
Somehow something clicked for me when I was 12, when I was playing for the Pepsi Football Academy. We were playing against a side called Plateau United. You see, in Jos, Plateau United was the team. They were the government team — the big boys with money. If you wanted to be the next Kanu, you had to play for Plateau United. So you know what I do in the under-13 state tournament against Jos? I work my butt off and end up changing someone’s mind. After the match, Plateau came to my house and told my mother that they wanted sign me. And my mum was like, “What? He’s still in school! You know how old he is? Why do you want to sign him? He’s going to play with grandpas?!”
My mum always called the bigger, richer kids grandpas.
She said, “You guys want to break his leg? Look how tiny he is!”
She was right. I was tiny at the time.
But my mum worked out a deal with the club so that they would pay me a salary and I would train with them in the afternoon, but I would still go to secondary school in the morning. So you can imagine how funny this must have been to the other kids. I actually had three massive guys who were my friends, and they were like my body guards who’d help me out at school. Everybody knew I had a little bit of money in my pocket, so at the break I’d go and buy lunch for everybody.
I had all the best girls in secondary school around me, man! I was untouchable. Mini Kanu! Hahahaha!
But there’s always a bigger grandpa out there. I wasn’t really anybody yet.
The Nigerian national team came to play against us at Plateau United. It was a nice enough friendly and I did well enough that I got the attention of the coaches. The only problem was, in Nigeria at the time you couldn’t play for a professional club and get called up for the national team as a teenager. That was the rule. There was an age limit. But I guess I must have changed their minds. Because one night — it must’ve have been like 2 a.m. — and I’m at home sleeping when someone comes banging on our door.
We were actually all really scared. Like, who is this? It’s 2 a.m.!
My dad opens the door, and it’s the coach of the U-20s. He goes, “Pack your shit, we’re leaving tomorrow morning. You’re coming with the team.”
I was like, “What about the rule?”
He said, “We had a meeting after the game. We changed it.”
That’s how I made the team. Fourteen years of age, leaving my family and my home to go play for the Nigeria Under-20s.
You have to understand what it means to go play for Nigeria. You go to a camp all the way in Yoruba. I was away from home six months at a time. I’d come home to see my family for one week, then back to camp for another six months.
It was like that for three years.
There were times when I was so homesick. Everybody was. There were kids who would take their bag and leave because they couldn’t bare what we were going through every day. You’d wake up the next morning and they were just gone.
Ermindo Armino/AP Images
But that experience made me a lot stronger, mentally. I knew football was all I had. I had nothing else. I had to get my family out of that poverty. Going back home was not an option.
The moment that changed everything was the 2005 FIFA World Youth Championships. We made it all the way to the final and then we lost 2-1 to Argentina. I got the Silver Ball for second best player.
The only player better than me?
(I’m still so annoyed he scored two penalties in that final and beat us.)
When I got called up to the senior national team the next year … Man, I came there like I was a ball boy. I was very respectful and I didn’t want to tackle any grandpas. These guys were big, big, massive players. The moment I will never forget is when I met Kanu. The first time I saw him at training, I was just watching him play, and I was speechless. I couldn’t run, I couldn’t do anything. I was frozen. Eventually we got to talking and he gave me a piece of advice that I always carry with me: don’t play the politics.
Don’t play the politics as a player. Be truthful. Be who you are. Because in this game, football is like politics.
I’ve been to all sorts of football camps, played for all sorts of teams and encountered all sorts of politics. It’s how some players survive, how others get a starting spot. Me? I never got involved in the politics. I kept myself to myself. Sometimes that meant people thought I was arrogant because I was playing for Chelsea, but I just listened to the man Kanu — I don’t want to talk about other players. I’m here to do a job.
It’s funny actually, I was so young and so quiet when I first came to Chelsea that I didn’t know what was going on. Every day after we finished training and showered, I would see all these big guys — Ballack, Lampard, Terry, Essien — walking down this hallway in the facility. I didn’t know where they were going. No one told me anything. I didn’t want to go anywhere I wasn’t supposed to be, you know?
Every single day, they get dressed and then walk to this room.
I would just go to my car and go home.
So after about a week, I asked Essien, “Where are you guys going all the time?”
He said, “What? Right now?”
I said, “Yeah, where do you go every day?”
“The cantine. Where are you going?”
“I go home.”
“There’s food there. It’s free!”
“Of course it’s free! Come on, man.”
I can’t believe that was 12 years ago. I look around at these kids now, and I remember that I’m the grandpa. I’m the old man now.
I know that this could be my last World Cup. The group is very tough, but you know a bit about me now. You know that I am not going to chicken out.
If we don’t go on to the the knockout stage, I will take responsibility because that’s my job as a captain. I learnt what it took to be a leader from John Terry. Listen, this is a true story — sometimes we would come into the changing room after a bad first half and me and John would be doing everything but throwing punches. He used to literally grab you by the neck if he thought you weren’t taking the game seriously. Sometimes the manager wouldn’t even speak to us before the match. He would let John speak. And John would use every bad word in the dictionary in his team talk, and when you left the changing room and went onto the pitch, he had you ready to give everything for the team. Everything.
John was Mr. Chelsea because he knew how to get the most out of you. A lot of footballers will not admit it, but I am telling you the truth — when they are sitting in the changing room before a big match, they all feel the fear. I am a very calm person in my normal life, but after 15 years of doing this, I still have this fear. You need leaders who can look into the eyes of every single player in the room and make the fear go away. It is very simple. If you want to win at this level, when you leave the changing room, you must leave with the energy of a child going to play football in the street.
Oleg Nikishin/Getty Images
If you are scared, you have already lost.
That’s what John did at Chelsea. That’s why we won all those trophies. Not because we had the best players. But because nobody was more together than Chelsea during that time. That’s what I want to bring to Nigeria going into this final match against Argentina. That confidence, that drive, that spirit. Our aim is not to beat Argentina. Our aim is to win the World Cup. You may think that sounds silly, but if we are not ambitious, then why are we even in Russia?
Listen, in my opinion, Messi is the greatest player of all-time. He is a genius. There will never be another Messi. But back in 2005, he took the something from me at the Youth World Cup. It has been a long time since then. We are not kids anymore. We are grandpas now. But I’ve thought about that game more than you would believe. I still think about it.
I would like to pay him back for that. I would like to send him home.
Nigeria is not here to wear a nice kit. Nigeria is not here to have fun. Nigeria is here to win.