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Leon Don’t Preach

Apr 10 2020
Photo by
Julie Glassberg forThe Players' Tribune
Photo by
Julie Glassberg forThe Players' Tribune
Apr 10 2020

This whole story began when my dad told my sister the other day that he was going out for a little walk. Dad is 76 years old. He is at high risk for the coronavirus, you know?

So, really, he should not be going out at all.

He and my mum live in Berlin, my hometown. Luckily my sister, Miriam, is staying with them — even though she has her own place nearby — because she wants to make sure they don’t act without due consideration. So when Dad said he was going out, my sister was like, “Dad, come on. There is no need to go anywhere.”

But Dad said, “I’ll be careful, I’ll be careful.”

And then he went out! He wore no mask, no nothing. My sister waited anxiously at home, thinking he was only going to be out for half an hour.

But then an hour passed….

Two hours passed….

Three hours passed….

There was no sign of Dad.

Dad is not one of those people who believe the coronavirus is a hoax. Nor is he one of those reckless people who think this is a paid holiday where you can go out and have fun. I have been following the news in Germany from my apartment in Manchester, where I live since I am on loan at Wigan Athletic. And while my home country is not completely under lockdown, the situation is very serious. Everyone is supposed to practice social distancing, which means going out as little as possible. And, as we all know, this is especially important for people of a certain age.

Courtesy of Leon Balogun

But Dad grew up in Nigeria, which is an amazing country, but also a very troubled country. They have day-to-day struggles and other problems that are bigger than what, to some, might have appeared to be just another virus. So when COVID-19 was breaking out, Nigerians were not taking it as seriously as people in Europe. Even though I was born in Germany, I play for the Nigerian national team, and recently they asked me and some other players if we could post some videos online just to spread awareness among Nigerians about how dangerous the virus is. Someone has told me that, in one area of Nigeria, they have been saying, “Ah, this virus is for rich people, it has nothing to do with us.” It’s at that level.

Dad is not quite like that, but he has his routines and he does not like to break them. For instance, although he has lived in Germany for decades, he loves African food, and so he has this Afro shop that he always goes to. Of course, he could take the car — and my sister has asked him to do so now that the virus is spreading — but he prefers to take the underground when he goes. He wants to be sustainable. Why waste money on petrol when you have such an amazing transport network?

Another of his routines is his beloved walk. Usually he’ll just take a quick stroll around the neighbourhood. But this time, as my sister kept waiting, something had clearly happened.

What was taking him all this time?

After about three hours, Dad finally came through the front door. He was all calm and relaxed. My sister asked him, “Dad, where have you been?”

Dad was like, “Oh, I was just walking around and figured I’d go to MediaMarkt.”

MediaMarkt is a huge electronics store — you need to walk 20 minutes from my parents’ place just to get there. Dad is a techie, and can spend hours repairing broken laptops that he has bought on eBay. But my sister was still astonished that he had gone there. Then she noticed he had something in his hand.

It was a plastic bag from the Afro shop.

My sister was like, “Dad, did … did you go to the Afro shop?”

Dad was like, “Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah! I needed to get my plantain, some fish, some other stuff.”

My sister was like, “Dad, you really don’t get it, do you?”

Dad was like, “Ahh, relax. I didn’t touch anything. I washed my hands before I went out.”

My sister was like, “Seriously?!”

My sister looks after Mum, too. She has told my parents that she has gradually stored enough food at her place to last for three weeks, so they do not have to go out and buy stuff. But although Mum tends to stay at home more than Dad does, she also has her routines. And just a few days after Dad’s trip to the Afro shop, on a normal morning, my sister suddenly heard the front door slam shut. Mum was nowhere to be seen.

Courtesy of Leon Balogun

My sister ran to Dad. “Dad, where did Mum go?!”

Dad said, “Ah, yes, she just went out to get some bread and some meat.”

My sister was like, “But Dad, why?! I told you we already have everything we need!”

It turned out that Mum had decided the day before that she was going to get some bread, and so she just had to do it. “But I was careful,” Mum told my sister afterwards. “I put my scarf over my face and everything.”

Poor Miriam, haha! Sometimes when I speak to her, she laughs about these incidents. At one point she told me, “Oh Leon, I love Mum and Dad, but, you know, sometimes I just don’t know what to do. They can drive me crazy!”

We have both tried to talk to our parents, especially to Dad. After the Afro shop incident, my sister told him, “Dad, look. I know we’re your kids and we’re not supposed to give you lectures. But this situation is very serious. So in this period, just listen, O.K.?”

And then I told him, “Dad, really, you cannot do that kind of stuff. It’s not worth it. Think about it!”

You could tell that he did not really want to accept it. Maybe he was thinking, Oh, stop preaching, Leon. But he is a very wise man, and deep down he knew we were right. So he just said, “O.K. … O.K. I got it, I got it.”

So, yeah, all that matters is that they are safe and now definitely aware of the whole situation.

For me, checking in on my family has never felt more important. Beyond FaceTime calls we have a family chat on WhatsApp where we send each other funny memes. Even in a serious situation like this, it’s essential to laugh a bit, you know? I’ll ask them how they’re doing and they’ll ask me how I’m doing. And I’ll tell them that I’m still spending most of my time in my apartment, where I’m staying with my girlfriend. So far we’ve been living day to day, doing what most people do: checking the news, hanging on social media, working out, playing table games, reading books, binging TV series — Ozark, Hannibal, How I Met Your Mother, and so on. Things are very stable.

Checking in on my family has never felt more important.

A few weeks ago, I had a bit of drama, though.

On the last day of February, I was playing for Wigan away to West Bromwich Albion when I got subbed off with 20 minutes left. I wasn’t feeling well. Nothing I took was helping, so I just said, “O.K., maybe I’m just a bit off.” When I had arrived at Wigan earlier that month, I had not played regularly for my club, Brighton, in a while — and then after I came to Wigan I played four games in 15 days. Maybe I was just feeling fatigue?

I recovered and played our next game, at home to Luton, on 7 March. By then the virus had spread from China to Europe. When I first heard about the virus I was like, “Oh no, it’s another outbreak in China” — because they had already had SARS. When it spread to Italy, Spain and Germany, I began to get really worried. Still, I didn’t really think it was going to affect me, too. I have a friend who lost people close to him during the terrorist attack in Paris, and he once told me, “Bro, everything seems so far away until it hits you or someone close to you. That’s when you realise that, actually, it’s just around the corner.”

He was right. What made me really wake up to the virus was that it began to affect football. Games in Italy were being called off and played behind closed doors. Then one day I walked into the training ground at Wigan and saw that there were way more hand sanitisers around than usual. That’s when I knew that, sooner or later, this was going to affect us all.

Dan Istitene/Getty Images

The week after we played Luton, the virus was forcing games in the Champions League and the Europa League to be called off. We were preparing to play away to Huddersfield 14 March. On the Wednesday before the game I began to feel unwell. I was thinking, This is odd. Did I not just go through this? I shouldn’t be feeling like this again.

Could I have caught the virus? I had recently taken the train from London to Manchester. Had something happened on the train?

On the Thursday I felt O.K., but still not 100%. When I woke up on Friday morning, the lymph nodes under my arms were swollen. I felt off. I went into training without shaking anyone’s hand, just in case I had the virus. The night before, Mikel Arteta, the Arsenal coach, had tested positive. When the medical staff saw me they said, “Mate, just go home. The games are gonna get called off anyway.”

Could I have caught the virus?

I went home and tried to relax. I called my teammates. None of them knew what was going on. A few hours later there was a statement from the Premier League and the Championship: All games that weekend were off.

Over the next few days I felt ill. I had a slight fever, I was coughing. But it was nothing crazy. So yeah … in the end I was not too worried.

But I was never tested. Did I have it or not?

I still don’t know.

Luckily I am feeling fine now. I do miss the football though. All humans enjoy freedom, whether that means grabbing lunch, meeting a friend for coffee, or whatever. A big part of my life is seeing the lads in training every day and playing football. To not do that feels weird. It’s a shame, because we were on a great run in the Championship. I had also been called up to play for Nigeria, which I was looking forward to. Now nobody knows when the season will continue. Some say we might be able to play in summer, others say there’s no chance we’ll play again this season — maybe not even this year. And like many other players, I have a contract that expires on the last day of June. Will the season be over by then? Will I be a free agent? Honestly, I have no clue.

Obviously my contract situation is not ideal, but when I think about it, I realise that I have been in far worse situations before. For instance, in 2014 I broke my metatarsal in a game for Nigeria, and then my club at the time, Fortuna Düsseldorf, decided not to renew my contract — meaning I had to spend several months unemployed. Besides, right now there are things that are far more important than football. So to suspend the leagues is only right.

Julie Glassberg for The Players' Tribune

We all just have to get by right now. I am one of the lucky ones, because I don’t have to worry about losing my job or my business. All I have to do is make the time pass. So I think now is a good time to catch up on stuff you have postponed, or to just think about life. Personally I am trying to educate myself. The other day I was like, “You know what, Leon? Now is the time to sit down and study. Now is the time to read up on some other aspects of life.” Like finance. So I got this book called Business Adventures, written by John Brooks, which gives you an insight into how the stock market works. I’m about to finish The Celestine Prophecy, a novel by James Redfield, which is kind of like a collection of spiritual concepts. Really interesting. And recently I read a book called The History of Bees, by Maja Lunde, a novel that shows, among many things, the positive impact bees have on nature and their importance to the world. It was amazing. I recommend it.

I am also in the process of learning a new skill. About three years ago I promised myself that one day I would learn to cut my own hair. It grows so fast that I normally have to get it cut once a week — so I could save a lot of money by doing it on my own. And, well, now that we all have to stay inside, the time has come. So I have gotten myself a pair of clippers, and my barber in London has also made a tutorial for how to do it properly. So, yep, I’m gonna give myself a haircut. The result should be interesting!

Finally, I want to add that we all have to be sensible in these coming weeks and months. We’re all in this together, and the sooner we all pull in one direction, the sooner this will hopefully be over. If we stay at home, the hospitals won’t be as overwhelmed as the reports say they will be. Of course, it is important to treat everyone who struggles with the virus. But there are also a lot of people with other serious illnesses and injuries — infections, heart problems, broken bones — who need care, too. We cannot forget about these people either. The hospitals must be able to help everyone.

So, yeah, let’s all try to do our part to help our amazing medical workers. Follow the authorities’ advice. Cough into your elbows, practice social distancing. And, above all, stay at home.

And yes, dear Mum and Dad, that applies to you too. 🙂