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THE EAGLES HAVE LANDED

  • Date:9th April 2018
  • Words:Ben Brown

What does it mean to belong? For some, it’s a question of identity: this is who I am, and this is where I should be. For others, it’s a feeling. A feeling of being at home; of being comfortable in your surroundings.

For a footballer, however, it’s less about you, and more about everyone else – particularly when it comes to representing a national team. Whether or not you’re accepted into the squad, and by the fans, can be a contentious issue.

Take Scott McTominay, for example: only a few days after the United youngster’s decision to play for Scotland, Charlie Nicholas was on Soccer Saturday questioning his motives. And that’s despite the fact that McTominay, though born in England, has a rock-solid claim to representation through his Scottish father.

In Nigeria, things are different. Once you commit to the Super Eagles, that’s it. The players, the fans, all of Nigeria – if you’re representing their country, you are one of them. In good times and bad, so long as you give everything for the shirt, you will be loved. You will belong.

When you wear the Super Eagles’ shirt, you are a Super Eagle.

If you’re an expatriate Premier League player, that love becomes adoration. “Everyone appreciates you. You’re almost like a king!” Lagos-born Arsenal star Alex Iwobi told The Guardian after his first cap. “We played in a stadium that holds 30,000 and there was 60,000 – I don’t understand how. People were standing on the floodlights, on the scoreboard. I was thinking, ‘What? This isn’t even safe!’ But people there will do anything to watch the match.”

It’s a similar story for London rival Victor Moses. Also born in Lagos, Moses came to England as an 11-year-old asylum seeker. He could have played for England, having worn the Three Lions at four different youth levels, but he chose not to. He chose to play for Nigeria. And the fans love him for it. Like Iwobi, he is another Eagle reclaimed – another player brought back to his people.

Leicester pair Kelechi Iheanacho and Wilfred Ndidi will get similar heroes’ welcomes when they touch down on Nigerian soil at the end of the domestic season, such is the power of the Premier League. English football is watched “everywhere in Africa,” according to Moses, and playing in its top division is the ultimate measure of success. Any player plying his trade there is worth celebrating, whether they grew up in Ibadan or Islington.

That’s the point: it doesn’t matter what your personal story is; when you wear the Super Eagles’ shirt, you are a Super Eagle.

Everyone appreciates you. You’re almost like a king!

And what a shirt it is. Combining the vibrant patterns of traditional Nigerian dress with a modern, functional performance shape, the home strip in particular is a future #ShirtsofArt contender, and the away’s not far off. If Nigeria perform to their potential, the opportunity’s there for Nike’s 2018 creations to become the Nigeria kits of the 2000s, on par with the classics of the 90s for sheer recognisability. Remember Iwobi’s uncle, Jay-Jay Okocha, slaloming through defences? Of course you do – great players, in great kits, make for the iconic moments so crucial to a nation’s football history. And it’s these moments, these memories, that bring the country’s people together.

Can Iwobi and co emulate his uncle and light up the pitches of Russia in the summer? We’ll soon find out – rest assured, however they get on at the tournament, they’ll be flying as one.

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