It happened almost a year ago. On September 1, 2017, Nigeria's national team was trying to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. The Super Eagles, as the team is known, was facing Cameroon, recently crowned champion of Africa. Nigeria's 4-0 victory was set in motion in the 29th minute by Odion Ighalo with a spectacular goal. With a great kick, Ighalo found a way around the Cameroonian. This game-saving kick earned him instant fame in his native Nigeria. Some media saw him as a worthy successor to the country's other football legends such as Rashidi Yekini, Nwankwo Kanu, and even Daniel Amokachi.
Ighalo celebrates after scoring in a match against Guangzhou R&F in July 2017 (LIN HONG)
But in Russia, he failed to live up to expectations and spent only 130 minutes on the field. Ighalo started against Croatia on June 16, but was overwhelmed by an intractable Croatian defense. He was eventually replaced in the 75th minute by Kelechi Iheanacho, who then started the second match against Iceland on June 22. As a stalwart of his team, Iheanacho was instrumental in the way the team went about ensuring victory. When Ighalo came off the bench in the 85th minute, the match was already won.
In the game against Argentina, Ighalo came on at halftime. He performed at his best with a succession of forward moves, passes and shots, but no goals. With less than 10 minutes on the clock he had a chance to take his team to the next stage, but missed his shot. Nigeria was finally defeated (1-2) by Argentina and left the World Cup in the first round.
A new momentum
Ighalo left Russia to resume training in China with a "thirst for revenge to finish the season in a better position in my club and in the Chinese Super League (CSL)." Down in 13th position with 11 points, his Chinese club Changchun Yatai, based in northeast China's Jilin Province, was head-to-head with Henan Jianye and Chongqing Lifan in the CSL ranking as of July 15. In such close positioning, Ighalo can count on his fan base, whose average attendance in the 25,000-seat Changchun Economic and Technological Development Zone Stadium is 16,475 fans per game, to cheer them on to greater heights.
Last season, Changchun Yatai went through a rough patch before picking up momentum halfway, thanks to its providential goal-scorer Ighalo. A series of 10 victories, five draws and three defeats allowed Changchun Yatai to move from the bottom of the ranking to an honorable seventh place at the end of the season. The Nigerian forward was the architect of this success. In 15 matches, he scored 13 goals, including four doubles.
Ighalo in full flight for Nigerian National Football Team in Russia in June (LU XIAOWEI)
Looking for success in China
Before the CSL took a two-month break in the season for fans in China to enjoy the World Cup, Ighalo had already scored seven goals (half of his team's total) in 11 games. The Nigerian forward was the third top African scorer in the CSL (as of July 15), next to Cédric Bakambu (eight goals) and Frank Acheampong (nine goals).
Decisive on the field, Ighalo is as fast as shooting for goal as he is at changing clubs. Throughout his career, he played for a total of 22 teams and scored four goals as part of his national selection. In 2010, after a bad season in Cesana in Italy, where he played only three games without scoring a single goal, he signed with Granada CF. This proved to be a good decision, and he went on to score 16 goals in 25 games in eight months in Spain.
He then returned to Italy, this time to Udine, but again had a disappointing season, with only one goal scored in five games played. Crossing the channel Ighalo joined Watford in the English Premier League, where he had two superb seasons, scoring 20 goals in 35 games in the first (2014-15) and 15 goals in 37 games in his second season.
Due to a disagreement with his coach Walter Mazzarri, he lost his pace and scored just two goals in 18 games in his third season. That's when China reached out to him. He was quick to get back on his feet in the CSL, scoring 15 goals in 27 games in his first season. That was all it took for rumors to start swirling, predicting his next move to some big English clubs (Arsenal or Manchester City), Italy (Milan and Naples) or Spain (Villaréal).
As it turned out, this was nothing but "fake news," according to Ighalo and the management team of Changchun Yatai, who are more than satisfied with the performances of the 29-year-old Nigerian player. He is well worth the $27.9 million paid for his transfer and his annual salary estimated at nearly $10 million a year, not including his multiple bonuses. When it took place in 2017, his transfer was among the biggest transactions in the world of football.
Today, Ighalo is seen as an experienced player. His career began in 2006 as a semi-professional in Julius Berger FC of Lagos (Nigeria). This allowed him to join Oslo's FK Lyn in Norway, as a professional on August 1, 2008. His contract with Changchun Yatai, signed in January 2017, will run until 2020. It's been a long road.
According to his latest statements, Ighalo is happy in China where he intends to remain and win as much silverware as possible. For now, he will have to fight to help his team to improve its ranking, with the aim of having Changchun Yatai repeat its feat of 11 years ago, when the club won the CSL championship. The best is yet to come.
(Reporting from Nigeria)
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