Alex Iwobi’s biggest supporter on and off the field is his father Chuka. A lawyer based in the UK, Iwobi senior abandoned his budding football career to pursue law in order to assure a better future for his family.
His son has picked up where he left off, however, and is putting the family name on TV screens across the world with his impressive performances for Arsenal.
Iwobi the younger finally committed his international future to the Super Eagles when they took on Egypt recently, and Goal had the chance to discuss his rapid rise for club and country with Chuka.
GOAL: You finally saw Alex make his competitive debut for Nigeria having jettisoned your own football career as a youth – how does that make you feel?
CHUKA IWOBI: “Alex came on in the 81st minute and it was more like a dream come true, and that answers the question on whether Alex is going to play for England or Nigeria. That put a stop to the question and the rest is for him to work hard and become a regular for the Nigerian side and take it game by game.”
Many parents would feel playing for England is more prestigious. Was it a tough decision to make?
“My philosophy in life is to always follow your heart. For Alex, I did play a role in persuading him to come, but ultimately it was his decision to come and play for Nigeria. It’s been a long journey, not an easy journey, and we want to send a message to footballers of Nigerian origin who are abroad.
“There is a lot of misconception that things are not properly organised in Nigeria. All I can say to [those people] is come, have a look as I have done, and they will see a totally different setup from what they have heard. It is a joy to play for Nigeria, things are properly done in Nigeria, Nigeria is a big footballing nation and I would like to encourage everyone out there who is having any doubt to come and see and taste for themselves.
“I’m talking from personal experience; it’s a wonderful opportunity for anybody to come back and play for their country. Alex was born in Nigeria on May 3, 1996, and he went abroad when he was four months old. For me and for Alex it’s like coming home and home is where the heart is. It is a privilege to play for Nigeria and I am honoured and overjoyed.”
Are you happy with his progress under the wing of Arsene Wenger?
“Without a doubt, Wenger is a coach who encourages young stars. He has a pedigree of bringing through youngsters from a very early age and there have been a lot of African footballers who have played under Wenger and done very well. People like Emmanuel Eboue, Lauren, Alex Song, and Thierry Henry and Nicolas Anelka.
“These are players who have come to Arsenal at a very young age when they were starting their careers – and look where he has taken them. Wenger has a system of moulding young stars – you have to be patient, you have to keep the faith and you have to trust in him.
“At the beginning of the season when Wenger said Alex was not going out on loan, we had no reservations because we believe in his philosophy. Alex has really improved this season, it is more like a breakthrough season for him. He has really progressed from the reserves to the first team and it is through hard work and, above all, humility, respect for senior players, understanding and a desire to learn. And pride always goes before a downfall because when a player starts thinking that he’s better than he actually is, then he is destined for failure.
“I can say, and with a lot of joy, that my son is a very humble person and he is always well loved by his team-mates and coaches. He listens and he respects and he is a team player. He relishes the joy of winning as a team rather than any personal achievements. The priority for him is the team and if he is able to make a contribution, that is a bonus.”
How much effort did you put into his career as a young boy? Has travelling overseas to see him play affected your career?
“I have a personal relationship with Alex. To me, he’s a son, to him, I’m his dad, but the relationship is more like best friends because he is an adult and able to make decisions.
“I’m a lawyer and I work in the UK – fortunately I work for myself, I’m self-employed, so I’m able to organize my diary. When we knew he was coming to Nigeria, I was able to put in a lot of work and I was also able to delegate some of my files to colleagues. So that then has helped me to create some time.
“When I go back, there would definitely still be a lot of work to do. When Alex has training and I’m there or he has a game and I’m there, it gives him a certain kind of confidence because he knows somewhere in the crowd is his dad and that gives him the courage to perform. And when he scores, or if he scores, if I’m there you will see him pointing in my direction which is like, ‘Daddy, thank you for all the support’.
“Alex is not a finished product, he still has a lot to learn, but he has come a long way. When you look at players like [Lionel] Messi, they’re working, they’re shooting, they’re training, they’re doing extra work and that’s what it takes to become successful.
“For Alex there’s a lot to be learnt in aspects of his game and I keep saying to people who think Alex has made it: ‘He hasn’t made it’. He has embarked on a journey and he still has a long way to go. God willing and injury free, I’m hoping he will continue to grow in the game and become a much better player, being level-headed and respecting those above him and also encouraging those coming up.”
Does he still live at home or is he living alone?
“Alex lives alone but I must say he’s got his bed at home. They train Monday to Friday, he lives near the training ground but he comes home every Friday because he loves his mummy’s cooking. I’m talking about Nigerian food.”
Interestingly about food, what did he eat – was it salad or pepper soup [that caused his food poisoning before Nigeria’s game against Egypt]?
“To be honest, I’m not certain. All I can say is that he ate something that did not agree with him and that caused him a problem but thank God he was able to recover very quickly. He’ll kill me for this, but Alex’s favourite food is eba (a staple made with cassava flour) and okra soup made by his mum. He eats all kinds of Nigerian food.”
Does he speak Pidgin and Igbo?
“I think it’s an indictment on my own person. My name is Chuka Iwobi, I speak Igbo, I understand Yoruba. Unfortunately for Alex, he cannot speak Igbo but he understands Igbo and I think it’s a failing on our part because we could have done a bit more to make him understand Igbo.
“The shortcut to everything is that he has picked up the universal language which is Pidgin English and he has made an effort talking to his team-mates. In the [Nigeria] team, you have Igbo people and Yoruba people but the universal language is Pidgin.
“His first encounter with Pidgin was when he was invited to the Under-23s, that’s when he picked up the language. It’s getting better now and it’s coming to a stage where he understands every word of Pidgin but then he’s struggling to put his thoughts into words. So he has a fair understanding of Pidgin and by the time he comes progressively into camp, I’m sure he’s going to get better.”
After his goal against Everton, the famous English journalist Piers Morgan tweeted at him in Igbo, did you see that tweet?
“Piers Morgan is someone I know as a very critical and a die-hard Arsenal fan. He’s very critical of players especially when they’re not doing well. But I can safely say Alex has won Piers Morgan over…
(Sees tweet and laughs) “Like I say, Piers Morgan is a critic and he has sort of fallen in love with Alex like most Arsenal fans. And for Piers Morgan to actually have time to tweet Alex on a personal level and making an effort to tweet it in Igbo, it does speak volumes about Alex’s growing support.
“He did get tweets from Thierry Henry also, he has won a lot of people over. I’ve always said that he still has a lot of work to do to keep on improving and hopefully his following will keep growing. He has got his uncle Jay-Jay [Okocha] to look up to and Alex has said: ‘I love being Jay-Jay’s nephew but I want to establish my own identity, I want people to know me as Alex Iwobi and not Alex Iwobi, Jay-Jay’s nephew’, which obviously shows a lot of ambition.
“I mean, Jay-Jay has been his mentor, he encourages him, he tells him where to go and how to conduct himself. In the scheme of things, he still wants to have his own identity just like any other player, so Alex Iwobi is Alex Iwobi. And I’m glad he’s beginning to assert himself and become Alex Iwobi. With hard work and dedication, he can only get better and that is the prayer of every parent.”