For Jude Odion Ighalo, playing for the prestigious Manchester United Club felt like a dream come true. To date, he counts it as one of his most outstanding achievements being the first Nigerian to play for the club he had supported from his younger days playing in open fields in Ajegunle Lagos.
Jude started his football career at Nigerian clubs Prime and Julius Berger where he was discovered by a FIFA Agent who got him his first international contract with the Norwegian club Lyn. In no time, his career picked up, and he got signed on to Italian club Udinese and subsequently the Spanish club Granada.
In 2014, he signed for the championship club Watford and was integral in their promotion to the Premier League in the 2014-15 season.
ln January 2017, he got a big break when he was bought from Watford to Chinese super league club Changchun Yatai for £20million, the biggest transfer in the history of both clubs at the time. From there, Ighalo returned to the Premier League, joining Manchester United on loan. In doing so, he became the first Nigerian player and the seventh African to join the club.
At Jude 32, Jude Ighalo, who is currently with the Saudi Professional League club Al Shabab, has achieved a lot but is still raring to go. ”I want to win more trophies, make more money and become the best in anything I do. I have always aspired to do more than I did before every season, so it’s always a challenge for me to do better,” he says.
In this interview with Konye Chelsea Nwabogor, he reflects on his younger days in Ajegunle, giving back and plans for life after football.
At what age did you realize you had a passion for football, and you wanted to play professionally?
I think I was about ten years old when I started playing football. I was in primary school then, and I played for the school team. At the time, I was so into the game, and it was all I did. After secondary school, I sat for the JAMB entrance examination, but my results were withheld. I then decided to focus more on football, do more training and take it up as a career.
What was your first team?
I was training back then in Nigeria with a team in Ajegunle. At the time, there was a scout who usually came to watch us play. One day I was picked up for a trial, and that was it. I passed. On August 31st 2007, I signed my first professional contract, and that’s how my football career officially started. From Norway to Italy to Udinese in 2008, then Granada in Spain to England from Watford to China back to England and now Saudi Arabia. It’s been a long journey. It hasn’t been easy, but everything is going on well regardless. I have enjoyed every step of the journey because I love what I do – playing football.
Can you remember your first professional game?
Yes, I do and clearly, too. It was in Norway, and we won 3-1. I scored a goal in the game, and I was so happy since it was my first professional goal outside Nigeria. It was a dream come true for me. At the start, I was a little bit nervous because I wanted to perform well. Remember, this was my first time playing outside the country and with foreigners too. I wanted to kickstart my career outside the country with a bang, and I thank God it went well. Since then, there’s been no looking back.
What was it like being the first Nigerian playing for Manchester United?
Manchester United is a team I had supported right from when I was young, and so you can only imagine how I felt having the privilege to play for them—and then being the first Nigerian to do so made it even more special. I had a good time there with loads of beautiful experiences. One that stands out was scoring my first goal. It felt like a dream come true. It is an experience I would never forget.
What would you say has been the high point of your career?
Well, I will say when I signed my deal with China. It was a good contract. And I was pleased with it. I was bought from Watford to Changchun Yatai for £20million and it was a huge transfer and the biggest transfer in the history of both clubs. I went there and played for two years. I did so well with the team. I played about 50 or 52 games with 36 goals. It was one of the best moments in my career life. I would also say the day I got signed to Manchester United. Nothing compares to that feeling.
You are currently with Al-Shabab; how is that going?
It’s going well. I just finished my first six months with them, and I did well (thirteen games with nine goals and four assists). Not a bad one for a start, even though I know, I could have done better.
I am looking forward to starting a new season with them, and hopefully, I can score more goals.
Football is the ultimate unifying sport globally, particularly in Nigeria. How does it feel to be at the centre of it all?
When it comes to football, nothing else matters. On the field, there’s no talk of tribalism, race, culture or religion. Instead, we all come together to celebrate our wins. I am happy to be at the centre of it all. I am using my God-given talent to bring people together from different tribes, religions and countries to support one goal. It’s a beautiful feeling.
When was the last time you played for the National football team?
My last game for the National team was July 17th 2019, in Egypt, when we played our 3rd place in the Africa Nations Cup. I scored the goal that gave us the 3rd place medal, and after that, I announced my retirement from the National team.
Why did you retire?
It was a bit tough. I got injured. I was playing throughout the tournament with pains and an injury. My club in China wasn’t too happy. Also, there was the issue of the distance from China to Nigeria. Besides, I am not getting any younger, so I decided to allow the younger ones to continue from where I stopped. I am still in contact with everyone in the National team, and they are all doing very well.
At just 32, you have achieved a lot in your chosen career. Is there anything you are looking forward to achieving?
I want to win more trophies, make more money and become the best in anything I do. I have always aspired to do more than I did before every season, so it’s always a challenge for me to do better.
Do you sometimes feel overwhelmed?
Not at all. I keep pushing and remain grounded. I don’t want to get carried away with the hype. I want to keep being humble and working without the belief that I have arrived.
How much longer do you see yourself on the field?
Every time I talk to my agent, I say 3-4 years, but he always keeps encouraging me, saying that I still have the energy to play for 5-6years. So, until my body starts giving me signs, I will keep playing. Anyway, let’s see how it goes because I have played for 16 years professionally, ten different clubs, seven different countries. I am so thankful to God for a fantastic career.
When you eventually decide to stop, what’s the next?
I want to still be involved in football. I am working towards building my football academy. I also want to become a football agent, take players abroad, play, and negotiate deals outside Nigeria.
You constantly refer to Agegunle when talking about your humble beginnings. Do you still visit?
I always visit Ajegunle. It would always be home for me. You know, there is a pitch there named after me. I am all about empowerment. I have an association where I grew up, which I do that through.
I even had a meeting with them yesterday. It’s all about creating support and opportunities for whatever they want to do— even the older folks. I want them all to have a better life. Like I earlier mentioned, I am also working towards owning a football academy to get some of these young footballers off the streets. I didn’t have this opportunity when I was young, so that’s why I am using my platform, money, sweat and time to do this so they can, in return, help their families.
Talking about giving back, you also run a foundation? How’s that going?
I own an orphanage home. The Ighalo orphanage home is strictly for orphans, and disabled/molested kids. It’s been three years now, and we are waxing stronger. It’s not easy, though. I have no sponsor. It is 100% financed by me. I am calling on those who can help with orphanages always to do so when they can because the private ones aren’t easy to run. It’s also not so easy getting support from the government for this. The Ighalo orphanage home has an Instagram account with a donation link attached to it. You can support us by donating. You could also visit the kids and take foodstuff to them too.
Let’s talk about your mom. You both share a very special relationship.
For me, after God, is my mother. Everything I have achieved today is all from her sacrifice for me. When I started playing football at a young age, my dad would try to discourage me because he wanted me to focus on my education. But she stood her ground for me without knowing what the future would bring. She just wanted to see me happy. Just last week, we were reminiscing about when I was crying for a pair of football shoes. She took me to every shop possible in search of it. We travelled as far as Aswani market, Badagry even as far as Kantagora to look for these football shoes. She gave me her all. For all her sacrifices, whatever I give her today is just peanuts. She deserves so much more than I can ever afford to give. I pray God keeps her in good health, so she enjoys the fruits of her labour.
Are any of your kids interested in football?
Yes, my first and second sons both play football. They are generally into sports. I keep praying for them. Whatever career they choose, I will give them my full support. I can’t force them to do what I do, but I can see they love football, and I will give them the complete training and support they need.
What is your daily routine when you are working?
I wake up in the morning, say my prayers, play my worship songs, go to the gym and when it’s my club time, I get ready for training after my breakfast, but in Nigeria, I always finish training before I take my breakfast.
What is life in Saudi Arabia like?
Life is good. What I love most about them is that they don’t discriminate. You know, when I score goals, I do the sign of the cross, kneel and raise my hands to God, and nobody has ever questioned me as regards that. Even before the game, I kneel and pray in the dressing room. They respect my religion and culture, and I do the same to theirs. They believe we all serve one God even though it is a Muslim country.
What would you say to young footballers on the streets starting as you did?
They need to keep pushing. Some days are going to be tough. It might look like nothing is coming through, or nobody sees them and they probably won’t make it. But that’s not true. I want to tell them that that’s when the blessings are coming. In a nutshell, they should keep working hard, put God first, be ready to learn, be humble and don’t give up.
If you weren’t playing football, what would you be doing?
Hmmm….maybe I would have furthered my education and become a lawyer. Who knows?