If you’ve ever sat there merrily thinking of a future that sounds too good to be true then join the club. Pretty much everyone has. Everyone should too. Dreams can come true. Odion Ighalo is living proof of that. This is the story of how his dream went from an unrealistic longing, on to a near impossibility and then, finally, became a reality.
A tough childhood, a tougher dream
Ighalo was born to Martina and Paul in 1989. He lived in a loving home, but his folks were far from flush with his childhood spent in the slums of Ajegunle, Lagos. Even back as a small child his dream was to play football. It wasn’t about escaping crime; it wasn’t even about leaving poverty behind. Oh no, this dream was about his love of the beautiful game.
There were days when his mother and father would struggle to put food on the table. Times when wetting his beak was a big ask. Football boots would always arrive though. His parents – particularly his mum – knew how important that was to their son. His days were spent split between education, which was the route his dad tried to push, and football.
It’s easy to sit back and say that all kids dream of being footballers. It’s not far off the mark. The difference is, there are somewhat fewer who will train on the pitch with gunshots being fired around them. That’s the hunger that has burned deep inside Ighalo from a young age. The team close to his heart was Manchester United. He even wore their shirt to train in. He couldn’t afford to have a name printed on the rear though but donning the badge was dreaming enough.
A professional breakthrough
After years of dreaming, Prime FC offered him a route to the professional game with Ighalo then joining Julius Berger. He only played there for a single year. An opportunity arose for a trial spell in Europe and Ighalo took it. Okay, so it was hardly the peak of European football but a move to Norwegian club FK Lyn was a steppingstone to where he wanted to be.
It was also a chance to start sending some money – no matter how little – to his family to repay the care and devotion of his mum. After making the net bulge nine times in 20 matches, he appeared on the radar of bigger clubs. A move to Serie A outfit Udinese, who had just qualified for the UEFA cup, propelled Ighalo into a major league for the first time.
During the 2008/09 campaign, Ighalo struggled for game time in the senior side with just five appearances and 119 minutes to his name. He did bag himself a goal though during a five-minute cameo in the final day thrashing of Cagliari, which ended 6-2.
It’s important to remember that Ighalo was still only 18 at this point in time and he’d featured a lot more regularly for the youth side. He had done his reputation no harm either with 14 goals in 16 games.
Establishing himself amongst the Udinese first team never really happened with Ighalo instead joining Spanish side Granada – then of the third tier – on loan. Granada were promoted as Champions. Another loan spell followed for Ighalo but this time in Italy for Cesena. Unfortunately, he made little impression in his few months there and, once again, it was Granada offering him the chance to shine.
Becoming a legend in Spain
Of course, now Granada were in La Liga 2. Ighalo made 25 appearances scoring five goals as he helped his loan team to back to back promotions. Granada had made it to La Liga. Ighalo played a key role too. Now it was time to show he could cut it amongst the elite and, unlike in Italy, he would have time on the pitch to prove his ability.
Granada found themselves firmly in a relegation battle. Ighalo made 29 appearances netting six goals, five of them crucial in securing victories. They proved important too as Granada kept hold of their topflight status by just a solitary point. Another two years followed in La Liga with Ighalo taking his total Granada tally to 21 goals and six assists in 103 appearances. Was he prolific? Not really but he notched reasonably consistently and, more importantly, hit the net in some key moments. For that reason, he is rightly regarded as a legend by Granada fans.
A first taste of English football
Despite hardly kicking a ball for the club, Ighalo was still very much a Udinese player. The Italians have a relationship with English side Watford and the Nigerian was sent to the Hornets with £7m eventually exchanging hands. It was a move from La Liga to the English Championship, but it would soon turn to more.
Watford finished runners up to earn promotion to the Premier League, a league Ighalo had watched growing up. Ighalo and strike partner Troy Deeney scored a combined 44 goals making Watford the second highest scorers in the league. It was this form that earned a 26-year-old Ighalo his first international call up.
The big question mark hanging over Watford ahead of their return to the big time was how their strike pair would step up. Both hit double figures. Deeney with 13 whilst Ighalo went three better, as he scored 16 goals to prove his ability in the best league in the world. The next season didn’t yield as many goals for Ighalo but it seems his head had been turned. Come winter, he was off in a money spinning deal to China.
A dream rescued from nowhere
After heading to China to join Changchun Yatai, Ighalo faced all sorts of criticism for being a money grabber, not having a genuine passion for the game and giving up his career at his peak. None of these accusations could have been further from the truth. Ighalo just did what Ighalo does though. Score goals.
Lots of them; 36 in 55 games to be precise. Then came a move to Shanghai Shenhua. Again, Ighalo was finding the net with consummate ease but then, seemingly from nowhere, the offer to fulfil that childhood dream arose.
Given he was by now 30 and plying his trade in China, you could argue the idea of a move to Manchester United – one of the biggest clubs in the world – was less likely than when he was a boy on the streets of Lagos. Besides, at that age an injury is a career ending, like some NFL career ending injuries, so United taking a gamble on such a player was risky.
That’s what most people thought. The prospect of a loan move to United was sniggered at by rival fans; those sniggers grew to hysterical laughter when the deal was signed.
Fast forward a few months though and it is Ighalo who is having a laugh. He has five goals and an assist in 11 appearances and it’s still feasible that he’ll fire the team he supported as a child – from 4,600 miles away – to League Cup and Europa League glory. United is the favourite in the betting odds for the latter competition. If that happens then it truly will be the crowing moment of, not only his career, but arguably of his entire life.
Also, Ighalo’s form will likely see him called up for Super Eagles, alongside all the young Nigerian talents in football right now, like Victor Osimhen. Both strikers seem to be the ones with the highest chances of lining up for Nigeria, as Iheanacho and Ahmed Musa are having mediocre seasons.
See, dreams do come true. All you need is to believe, and these footballers are inspirations to young aspiring stars who dream of a better life: whether in sports or not, what is necessary is to work hard and never give up.