Arsenal attacker, Alex Iwobi’s youth days’ coach, Steve McKenzie has revealed startling secrets of the youngster’s early days, and recounts how he once had to yank the Super Eagles star off the pitch when he kept scoring goals against a hapless team.
McKenzie said he always knew Iwobi would become a world star one day, as he says the former Arsenal under-21 team captain showed great potentials as early as the age of five.
Iwobi was born in Lagos, but moved to London at the age of four and grew up in Newham, east London.
He started playing football for local club Rippleway United alongside fellow-Nigerian-born attacker, Chuba Akpom.
McKenzie coached the pair at Rippleway and says that even at the ages of five or six, their ability was staggering.
He recalled: “They were miles ahead. They were brilliant. They had control, technical ability, passing, shooting, speed. They had everything.
“Sometimes I had to take them off because the scoreline was getting embarrassing. They’d be running up and down the touchline, going, ‘Put me back on!'”
Rippleway were allowed to train at Chadwell Heath, West Ham United’s training ground. Much to the delight of McKenzie, who is a West Ham fan, the club invited Iwobi and Akpom to train with them.
The pair also attracted the attention of Arsenal (McKenzie recalls one of Arsenal’s scouts “hiding behind a tree” while watching a Rippleway match in Walthamstow) and spent time training there as well.
When the time came to make a decision, the players plumped for Arsenal, each signing for the club when he turned nine.
Iwobi represented England at under-16, under-17 and under-18 level, but then the trail went cold. Despite being on the fringes of the Arsenal first team, he was not called up by England again.
Heeding the advice of his father and his uncle, Nigeria great Jay-Jay Okocha, Iwobi accepted an invitation from the Nigeria Football Federation to play for the country of his birth.
He made his Nigeria debut in a 2-0 defeat by the Democratic Republic of Congo in a friendly in Belgium in October 2015. His senior Arsenal debut followed four weeks later.
“It was a sensible decision,” says McKenzie, who remains close to Iwobi and his family. “England didn’t want to know him after the age of 16. Nigeria came knocking, and he didn’t look back.
“As someone who knows him and what he’s gone through, it’s unbelievable. He’s treated like a king over there.”
Iwobi, 22, went to the same secondary school as Ola Aina, a London-born right-back who joined Chelsea at the age of 11.
Aina played for England at every age level from under-16 to under-20 before switching allegiances to Nigeria last year, and was named in Rohr’s provisional World Cup squad but did not make the final cut.
Chelsea wing-back, Victor Moses, 27, was born in Nigeria and moved to London at the age of 11.
Moses was spotted by scouts from Crystal Palace while playing football for amateur club Cosmos 90 FC in a south London youth league.
He, too, wore England’s colours as a youth international, playing for his adopted country from 2005 to 2010, but in 2011, he switched nationalities.
While Iwobi and Moses were born in Nigeria, there are four foreign-born players in the Super Eagles’ World Cup squad: Bryan Idowu (Russia), William Troost-Ekong (Netherlands), Leon Balogun (Germany) and Tyronne Ebuehi (Netherlands).
the president of Team Nigeria UK, an organisation set up to help talented footballers of Nigerian descent gain entry to Nigeria’s national setup, David Doherty believes that in the future, there could be even more.
Doherty, a former footballer, helped to persuade Aina to align himself with Nigeria’s cause in 2017.
Although he is realistic about the chances of poaching the most glittering talents from England’s age-group teams, he is determined to prevent young players who are eligible to play for Nigeria from slipping through the cracks.
“We can’t stop young players of Nigerian descent playing for the likes of England and Germany,” he says. “But we’re trying to ensure that we curb the loss of those talents.”