Alex Iwobi could be one of the best to come from the continent. Photo: Andrew Couldridge/Reuters
Alex Iwobi’s decision to represent the Nigerian national team instead of England must have been one of the most difficult choices he’s had to make in his football career.

And since that gamble paid off, he deserves credit for his bravery and turning a blind eye to the perks that came with being an English international.

You see, Arsenal, one of the biggest brands in English football, moulded the 22-year-old Iwobi to the astute footballer that he is today. Iwobi entered the gates of Arsenal’s academy at Hale End in London as a seven-year-old kid who had hopes of having a succesful football career - and follow in the footsteps of some of renowned African greats, which included his uncle Jay-Jay Okocha.

His youth days at the Gunners were nothing short of a hardship despite being having his fair share of captaincy in the club’s youth teams. As a 16-year-old, he considered packing all his belongings and exiting the gates of the club to seek greener pastures elsewhere.

But thanks to Arsene Wenger, who threw him in the deep end, today he is the club’s best graduate.

His meteoric rise at the Hale End is still celebrated.

As you walk into their academy house, on your right there’s a flight of stairs to the last floor of the nicely decorated and branded academy that hosts the under-eights to U16s.

On that floor, as you approach the gym and canteen, you are welcomed by an A1 isolated framed collage, which has Iwobi’s memorable days, from signing his first contract as a seven-year-old in 2004 and mementos of how he blossomed to the player than he is slowly turning out to be.

Iwobi has represented England’s Under-16s, but there was nothing that could come close to making him happier than representing his country of birth. And, today that Nigeria is already among the teams that have booked their spot in this year’s Africa Cup of Nations which will be hosted by Egypt in June.

The Super Eagles finished top of Group E, winning four matches, while losing once to the South Africans in the first leg and playing to a 1-1 draw in the second. And with the Super Eagles coming short in terms of qualifying for the last two continental soccer showpieces, this year was a deal breaker for them.

They’ll head to north Africa with a bagful of hope that they can reap the fruit that they’ve sowed for the last two seasons. On the other hand, do you think nowadays there’s a South African player who’d gladly ditch European citizenship to come and play for Bafana Bafana? No Way!

The South African national team players are currently enduring a torrid time of getting work permits to play in England - as they need to have played 75 percent of their recent national matches, while the team should be in the top 50 in the world ranking.

Percy Tau, is the latest victim of this ordeal. Tau is on loan at Belgian side Royale Union Saint-Gilloise from Brighton &Hove Albion, whom he joined last season from Mamelodi Sundowns.

But the chances of him returning to the club even next season are minimal as Bafana languish in the 74th spot in the world rankings.

Arsenal legend’s Ian Wright has also pitied Tau’s unenviable situation - the former hugely convinced that Tau would fit in the EPL. But Tau and company have their fate in their hands though - get a draw today against Libya, qualify for the Afcon and set themselves a right path into climbing up the rankings.

@MihlaliBaleka 


Sunday Independent 

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