We recently caught up with Alex Iwobi of Arsenal who revealed to us that he could’ve been playing his club football in Scotland after being told he wouldn’t make the grade at the north London club
The dream of being a professional footballer was one that Arsenal and Nigeria’s Alex Iwobi had like most young boys growing up. The attacking midfielder is from good sporting stock – his father Chuka played to a decent level in Nigeria, the country of Iwobi’s birth, and his mother has a famous Super Eagle for a brother, none other than Jay-Jay Okocha. You can argue Iwobi was destined to do this for a living.
“Growing up, football was always my number one sport,” Iwobi says. “My school, Campion in Hornchurch, was a rugby school, but I was never really interested in playing rugby. I didn’t play school team football because my mum wasn’t keen, not until we moved to Essex. By that time I was in year five.”
Iwobi was an Arsenal trialist from the age of six and officially signed for the north London club aged nine. “It was nice knowing that I played for Arsenal,” he says. “The facilities were amazing, the training kits you’re given. It was just nice.”
Iwobi, who turned 21 in May, grew up idolising Thierry Henry who was at the club when he was climbing up the youth ranks. “As a kid you’re hearing about Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp, but you’re actually at the same club,” he says excitedly. “It’s mad. It was amazing to go back and tell my friends at school that I play for Arsenal.”
Arguably the face of the new generation of Nigerian football: “I wish,” Iwobi says modestly – we’ll come back to that – the Arsenal midfielder’s rise to the top has not been all plain sailing. At ages 14 and 16, he was almost released by the Gunners in what he describes as a “low point” in his young career. “I almost got released because I wasn’t one of the fastest,” he remembers. “I was still small then so that was a low point for me.
“At 16 I was told I could leave or sign as a scholar. I was close to going to play up in Scotland for Celtic. Crystal Palace was also an option. This was all happening when I was playing for England [Schoolboys]. When you play for England you should automatically get a professional contract, but I was the only one that didn’t get that.” Admirably, the teenaged Iwobi decided to stay on at Arsenal and prove himself and we all know what’s happened since.
After scoring his first senior goal for the club in the Emirates Cup before the start of the 2015/16 season, Iwobi broke into Arsene Wenger’s first-team. During that campaign he featured 21 times, and started at the Nou Camp against Barcelona in the Champions League, an occasion he fondly remembers.
“To start against Barcelona was crazy because I wasn’t expecting to,” he says, the shock still visible on his face as if it was yesterday. “When I was eventually told I was starting I was like ‘Oh wow! I’m actually about to play against the best players in the world!’ It was a great personal moment.”
You can say the 2015/16 campaign was a career-defining one for the youngster, who was rewarded with a new contract, which he admits took him by surprise. “Honestly, I didn’t expect it,” he says. “Nobody has ever played in the first-team without going out on loan. After the Emirates Cup I thought I was going to be loaned out. Instead the boss told me he had faith in me and that I would get my chance, and luckily I was given that chance and I guess I took it otherwise I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Iwobi notched up 38 first-team appearances this past season for Arsenal, and scored four times – three in the league and one in the Champions League. He looked at home playing alongside the likes of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil, but how would he evaluate his busiest season to date? “I’ve played more than 50 games now in my career, but it doesn’t feel like I’ve played that many,” he says. “The thing with me is that I always want more. I always want to improve. I want to play in as many games. I want to start as much as I can. I’m always looking ahead rather than at the past.”
Arsenal finished outside of the top four for the first time in 21 years, but the Gunners did end the season on a high, beating league champions Chelsea in the FA Cup final. “To be fair we started the season very well,” says Iwobi. “We reached the Champions League knockout stages, we had ups and downs. We always feel like we should be challenging for the Premier League crown, so the fact that we weren’t even challenging, and also weren’t able to progress in the Champions League, was disappointing. Felt great to end the season on a high and win the FA Cup.”
Wenger played Iwobi mostly out on the left of an attacking midfield trio, but the forward-thinking player was able to show his versatility when he was deployed in the No. 10 role on the odd occasion. But where does the man himself think he’s best suited? “You know what, it changes every week,” he replies. “One day I might say I like playing on the left, but in training recently I was playing centre mid. It’s a new role for me, but I enjoyed playing it in training. As long as I’m playing though, I’m not too fussed. For me the more positions you can play the better. That means you have more of a chance of coming on anywhere so I really don’t mind.”
Iwobi is widely recognised as one of the game’s most promising young talents. His African Youth Player of the Year crown and nomination for the prestigious Golden Boy award (2016) is testament to that, but the Nigerian is not at all fazed by the personal accolades. “It’s funny because at the start of the season all that was on my mind was playing as many games as I could,” he says. “I never thought I’d be nominated for individual awards.
“When I was told I won African Youth Player of the Year, I was like ‘Wow, that’s nice!’ I need to challenge myself even more now though and push on, and one day win African Player of the Year.”
With eight international caps to his name, including five starts and one goal, since making his debut for the Super Eagles in 2015, Iwobi is without doubt Nigerian football’s hottest property. “Arsenal’s fanbase in Nigeria is crazy, that’s why maybe you could say I’m the face of Nigerian football, because of Arsenal,” he says in response to my earlier comments. “Every time I’m called up to represent the national team, it’s an honour to be honest. Scoring on my first international start was unbelievable. Hearing the fans blow their trumpets, it was amazing, a real dream come true.”
Gernot Rohr recently took over as Super Eagles boss and Iwobi is enjoying working with the German coach. “Our new coach is proper cool,” he says with a beaming grin. “His banter’s a bit different. It’s funny, but it’s different. He’s proper cool especially with the young kids. He’s always talking and trying to help us. Shouting’s not really his style. There’s so much young talent in Nigerian football at the moment, it’s a really exciting time.”
Even though Iwobi grew up in London, Africa, and Nigeria to be precise, is close to his heart. His diverse music taste speaks to that. “I’m actually into all sorts of music,” he says. “It sounds mad but it could go from Wizkid to Drake. From Drake to Taylor Swift – don’t judge me,” he says with a smile. “I love my African music though. There’s one mix I was recently listening to of heavy Fuji music.”
What about the UK scene? “From the UK, Wretch 32 is a wizard. He paints pictures with his lyrics and he doesn’t even write anything down. He’s definitely my favourite UK artist and I consider him a friend too.”
As well as musicians Iwobi’s cool with some pretty gifted footballers. “I’m good friends with Ola Aina at Chelsea. We actually grew up together – lived on the same road, went to the same school. Kelechi Iheanacho at Man City is another good friend. He was actually at the house recently to eat. I’ve got some good friends in football. Even my friends that don’t play, they’re still around me to this day. They haven’t changed on me once.”
After a long a season, Iwobi has just under a month off but he’s already looking forward to the 2017/18 campaign. “I need to add more goals and assists to my game,” he says. “I like to entertain. My uncle [Okocha] always says ‘Express yourself.’ That’s something I will always try and do.”
Arsenal and Nigeria’s young star is just as impressive off the pitch as he is on it, and at 21 years of age, with an abundance of ability to boot, Gunners and Super Eagles fans alike should be very excited about the future of #BIG17.
Words by EugeneOEA