It’s been cheery news for Nigerian football in recent days after several English-born/raised footballers of Nigerian descent, some of whom have played for England at various youth levels, decided to pledge their international future to the Super Eagles.
The development may not be unconnected with the state they found their predecessors, who were left in a dilemma, after pledging their futures to England only to be discarded after a few caps for the Three Lions.
From John Fashanu to John Salako and on to Ugo Ehiogu, Gabriel Agbonlahor and Carlton Cole, playing for England was a dream come true but perhaps ended in a nightmare, as their international football careers all but came to an end before it had even started.
Ex-Wimbledon forward Fashanu earned just two caps for England – against Chile and Scotland — at the 1989 Rous Cup, preferring to snub calls from Nigeria, his father’s country, to represent them at senior level.
Ex-Crystal Palace midfielder Salako managed five games for the Three Lions while Ugo Ehiogu had four caps. Agbonlahor and Cole earned three and seven caps respectively and found themselves in international football wilderness.
They ended up at best playing fringe roles for England, with no major international tournament to their name. But the likes of then unknown Reuben Agboola, perhaps having seen the handwriting on the wall, chose Nigeria over England.
He made his debut in an Africa Cup of Nations qualifier against Ghana on April 13, 1991, thus becoming one of the first non-Nigerian-born players to represent his native country. The left-back would go on to play at the 1992 AFCON in Senegal, with a bronze medal to show for representing Nigeria.
In 2001, ex-England U-21 manager Howard Wilkinson feared former Newcastle United striker Shola Ameobi would be “kidnapped” by Nigerians.
While inside a hotel just outside Leeds, Wilkinson looked anxious: his plans to give Ameobi his international debut against Finland at Barnsley seemed in jeopardy with news from Lagos suggesting a possible snag.
“I’m worried the Nigerians are going to kidnap Shola,” said Wilkinson. “They want him to play for them.” In the end, England’s team bus was not waylaid, and the businessman the English described as having “West African appearance” spotted checking into the team’s hotel had nothing to do with football and no international calls from Nigeria (the country of Ameobi’s birth) were put through to his room.
However, 13 years later, after he was eventually ‘kidnapped’ by Nigeria courtesy of a plan hatched by the late Stephen Keshi, Ameobi was playing at the World Cup in Brazil at the grand old age of 32, not in England’s colours but for the Super Eagles.
“Possibly playing in a World Cup final is not something I thought was going to happen to me. I always thought I’d be sat in a bar watching the next one but I might play in Brazil now. At my age, it’s refreshing to have that chance, so I’ll be doing everything I can to get there,” Ameobi said with a huge sigh of relief after being part Nigeria’s qualification for the 2014 World Cup.
Over time, players of African descent have often been used by the English, only to be dropped for major tournaments. Recently, Wilfried Zaha, who moved to England with his family aged four, switched allegiance to his country of his parents Ivory Coast, after managing just two caps in four years for the Three Lions.
Interestingly, England manager Gareth Southgate tried to dissuade the 24-year-old from switching allegiance to the former African champions but it was too little too late, as Ivory Coast named him in their squad for the 2017 AFCON.
However, the new trend emerging, has several English-born or English-raised players now willing to commit their international futures to the green and white colours of the Eagles, despite having played for England at junior levels.
The recent successes recorded by the Nigeria Football Federation in convincing European-born players of Nigerian descent like Victor Moses, Steve Ukoh, Williams Troost-Ekong, Leon Balogun, Joel Bazee, Tyronne Ebuehi and Arsenal’s Alex Iwobi, who was born in Lagos but raised in England, to commit their futures to the country of their parents, is perhaps a major factor in others wanting to join the team.
But more importantly, Iwobi, Balogun and Troost-Ekong have sealed their first team places in the team, which has largely encouraged several England-based players to also want to consider a change of mind having represented England at junior levels.
The Eagles were based in Barnet during the international break, drawing 1-1 with Senegal before their next friendly against Burkina Faso was cancelled when the Burkinabe could not secure visas.
The NFF capitalised on the disappointment of the cancelled game by inviting English-based players to train with the Eagles, and also introduce them to the squad and the staff, as they hope to strengthen their squad ahead of the 2019 AFCON and 2018 World Cup qualifiers.
OLA AINA (CHELSEA)
Ola Aina trained with the Eagles in Barnet and has now decided that his international future lies with them. He is expected to be in the Nigeria squad for their next competitive game, a 2019 Africa Cup of Nations qualifier, at home to South Africa on June 9.
Amongst the players that trained with the Eagles, Aina is the most famous name, the 20-year-old right-back having made five senior appearances for Chelsea this season. Aina, who was born in south London, has represented England at U-16, U-17, U-18, U-19 and U-20 levels.
Aina signed for Chelsea as an U-11 and made his youth team debut as a schoolboy in the 2012/13 season and went on to start in both legs of the semi-final and final of the FA Youth Cup.
On October 15, 2016, Aina made his Premier League debut in a 3–0 victory over champions Leicester City, replacing Victor Moses, who also dumped England for Nigeria, in the 82nd minute.
He’s won two UEFA Youth Leagues, Barclays U21 Premier League (2013/14) and the FA Youth Cup (2013/14, 2014/15).
EBERECHI EZE (QPR)
The Queens Park Rangers 18-year-old, who signed his first professional deal in January and made his debut this season, also trained with the Nigeria squad. He is expected to make a final decision soon and he is thought to be strongly leaning towards choosing Nigeria.
CHUBA AKPOM (BRIGHTON)
The Arsenal striker, who is on loan at Brighton & Hove Albion, was with the Nigeria squad as well, and featured for the Eagles in a friendly played behind closed doors last Tuesday and thereafter posed for a photograph with Amaju Pinnick, NFF boss, at the Hive Stadium.
Getting Akpom may be relatively easy for the NFF, having grabbed Iwobi, his best friend and former Arsenal youth teammate, to play for them too, two years ago.
The striker has had loans at Brentford, Coventry City, Nottingham Forest (loan) and Hull City (loan) and has represented England at all youth levels.
Akpom, whose parents are Nigerians, will likely be in the Eagles squad for their AFCON qualifier against South Africa in June. He is set to quit Brighton in the summer.
FRED ONYEDINMA (MILLWALL)
Watford target Onyedinma was not part of the Nigeria training camp having been on duty for Millwall in their 1-0 defeat to Swindon Town during the period. But the 20-year-old winger, who was born in Lagos and moved to east London when he was three, is thought to be close to committing his future to Nigeria too.
Onyedinma has been one of Millwall’s best attacking players this season and has already made almost 100 Football League appearances. Aside Watford, QPR, whose boss Ian Holloway gave Onyedinma his Millwall debut, and Hull are also keen on the exciting prospect.
DOMINIC IORFA (WOLVERHAMPTON)
Wolverhampton Wanderers manager, Paul Lambert has reportedly refused to pick talented defender, Dominic Iorfa, for recent fixtures because the boy met with Gernot Rohr, the Nigeria manager, recently.
The lad’s father, Dominic Iorfa (Snr), an ex-international, was recently quoted on the social media saying his 21-year-old son was being made to pay the price for holding discussions with Rohr.
“You know Rohr came to Wolves recently and met with my son and Carl Ikeme. Since he learnt that my boy wants to play for Nigeria, he has been benching him. He believes there is no need developing him for Nigeria,” Iorfa said.
Iorfa has featured for England at junior levels but his father insists his international future belongs to Nigeria once the 6ft defender clocks 23.
JOSH MAJA (SUNDERLAND)
NFF officials are confident they have secured the future of Maja, the 18-year-old Sunderland forward, after he trained with the Eagles on Monday.
The attacking midfielder, who made his debut at QPR in the League Cup, was born in Lewisham but revealed in February he was eligible to play for Nigeria.
“I am originally from London but my family is from Nigeria,” he revealed. “I grew up with my three brothers and my mom and sister.”
The teenager joined Sunderland’s academy in 2015, having already had spells with Fulham, Crystal Palace and Manchester City. He impressed in pre-season, when he was taken under the wing of Jermain Defoe, his favourite Black Cats player.
NATHANIEL OSENI (MANCHESTER CITY)
A confident and powerful centre-back, Oseni has represented Nigeria at youth level but is also eligible to play for England.
A strong, tall and confident defender with good technique, the Londoner started life as a midfielder, which may explain his strength and composure on the ball. The youngster is adept at stepping out of defence to start a move or cut out the opposition pass, as well as excelling in one on one situations.
Since signing on as a first year scholar for City in July 2013, Oseni has been a reliable presence in the centre of defence alongside a number of different partners.
Last year, he joined Swedish side Prespa Birlik on a season-long loan alongside another England-born player of Nigerian descent midfielder Jermaine Udumaga from Brentford.
The highly-rated 20-year-old Charlton Athletic midfielder signed from Staines Town in 2015 and has been making waves at the club, to the point he has been ironically compared with Tottenham sensation Dele Alli, who has a Nigerian father but pledged allegiance to England.
Aribo has also been described by Addicks boss Karl Robinson, as “a young Patrick Vieira with his leggy range.”
Born in Camberwell, London, to Nigerian parents, Aribo has always insisted that he is open to a Nigeria call up and now that he has met with the national team, the youngster would probably be flying in Nigerian colours soonest.